傳 LEGEND

by treave

The land is in turmoil. Petty bureaucrats hold sway over the cities, while banditry is rife outside of it. The pugilistic sects of the country have become the only institutions that establish a semblance of order where the reach of the Imperial Court is weak. The golden age of chivalry - the code of the pugilists - is dawning, but it may just as soon end. There has been conflict between the sects, as old rivalries and hatreds boil to the forefront now that they have gained in influence and desire even more.

What can one person accomplish in this cauldron of chaos?

Overthrow and replace the Son of Heaven, who has lost his mandate to rule?

Unite the bickering pugilistic sects under one banner, to usher in a new world?

Or to live out life quietly on the sidelines, away from the troubles of the era?

It is from such stories that legends arise...

Prologue: Winds of the Steppe
一 · A Meeting with the Ashina
二 · Horseplay
三 · Art of the Wolf
四 · Shadow Wolf
五 · A Parting with the Ashina
Chapter One: Wanderings of Adolescence
一 · Punishment and Exile
二 · The Killer Physician
三 · A Call for Help
四 · Songfeng Sword School
五 · Turmoil in Songfeng
六 · The Physician's Price
七 · Falling Pine
八 · Obtaining an Invite
九 · The Tournament at Quewu Square
十 · Try Again
十一 · Visiting Madam Jiang
十二 · Arrival at Luoying Manor
十三 · The Winter Solstice Conference Begins
十四 · Midnight in Luoying
十五 · The Southern Maniac
十六 · To the South
Chapter Two: The Eight Sects' Challenge
一 · Maniac Training
二 · A Taunting Invite
三 · Rumours of Qingcheng
四 · Shadow in the Green City
五 · Cao'er and Miecao
六 · To the Tournament
七 · Luoyang City
八 · Registration
九 · Man Tiger Pig
十 · Heroes of Taishan
十一 · The Sword Saint's Disciple
十二 · Tournament Preparations
十三 · Match One: Yiling
十四 · Tournament Interlude
十五 · Match Two: Nie Mudan
十六 · Second Night of the Tournament
十七 · Day of the Tournament Semifinals
十八 · Meeting with the Masters
十九 · Tournament Quarterfinals: Guo Fu
二十 · Tournament Semifinals: Yifang
二十一 · A Challenger Arrives
二十二 · Before the Finals
二十三 · Tournament Finals: Nameless
二十四 · Amesha Spenta
二十五 · Leaving Luoyang
二十六 · Yuhua in Yangzhou
二十七 · The Drunken Scholar
二十八 · Yangzhou Tales
二十九 · Anti-Pirate Alliance
三十 · A Maiden's Request
三十一 · The Pirate in Black
三十二 · The Pirate Leader
三十三 · Cove Confrontation
三十四 · Hundred Man Battle
三十五 · Meeting at a Shrine
三十六 · Night at the Mansion
三十七 · The Maiden in the Mansion
三十八 · Man in Black in the Library
三十九 · Lady Mi
四十 · Road to Xiangyang, Again
四十一 · Enter the Black Dragon
四十二 · The Two Masters of the Fort
四十三 · The Hospitality of the Hei Brothers
四十四 · The Imperial Agent
四十五 · Icy Heart
四十六 · Encounter on the Road
四十七 · Return to Emei
四十八 · March on Guizhou
四十九 · The Wudu Cult
五十 · Royal Reunion
五十一 · Another Path
五十二 · Disappearance of the Golden Emperor
五十三 · Fall Into the Darkness
五十四 · Underground Exploration
五十五 · The Writing on the Wall
五十六 · Chains in the Deep
五十七 · Cave Life
五十八 · Light After Darkness
五十九 · Black Tiger Valley
六十 · Return of the Taishan Heroes
六十一 · Stand and Retreat
六十二 · Scattered Wine
六十三 · Xsaora Vairya
六十四 · Battle's End
六十五 · Parting and Reunion
Chapter Three: Jianghu
一 · Maniac Training Part Two
二 · The Fruit of Two Years
三 · Betrothal Competition
四 · Tournament Delay
五 · Fight or Flight for Love
六 · An Unexpected Challenger
七 · First Blood
八 · Tibetan Trouble
九 · Price of Freedom
十 · Escape from Dukezong
十一 · Beyond Tufan
十二 · Gates of the Fire Temple
十三 · Divine Flame Apotheosis
十四 · Impermanent Way of the Chaotic World
十五 · Return to the Central Plains
十六 · Qingcheng Succession
十七 · Servitude
十八 · To Steal A Bride
十九 · Encounter in the Forest
二十 · Four Lions Formation
二十一 · Journey to Chang'an
二十二 · The Beggar's Tales
二十三 · The Imperial Constabulary
二十四 · Xinchun Restaurant, Youxia City
二十五 · A Changing City
二十六 · Youxia City Investigations
二十七 · Duck Testimony
二十八 · Follow Up
二十九 · Day of the Trial
三十 · A New Suspect
三十一 · Bloody Truth
三十二 · Night on Mount Hua
三十三 · Black and White
三十四 · Black and White II
三十五 · Black and White III
三十六 · White End
三十七 · Two Road-Side Meetings
三十八 · Dreaming Butterfly
三十九 · Templefront
四十 · Masters of Shaolin
四十一 · Masters of Shaolin II
四十二 · The Shaolin Gauntlet
四十三 · The Shaolin Gauntlet II
四十四 · The Shaolin Gauntlet III
四十五 · The Shaolin Gauntlet IV
四十六 · The Shaolin Gauntlet V
四十七 · Gauntlet's End
四十八 · Libraries and Dumplings
四十九 · Earthly Determination, Heavenly Will
五十 · Roadside Swordfight
五十一 · Interference
五十二 · Moonlit Manor
五十三 · The Demonic Swordsman
五十四 · The Morning After
五十五 · Tea Meeting
五十六 · The Scarlet Scorpion and the Fiery Swordswoman
五十七 · Yangzhou or Taoying
五十八 · The Ten Swords Conference
五十九 · The Ten Swords Conference II
六十 · The Ten Swords Conference III
六十一 · The Ten Swords Conference IV
六十二 · The Ten Swords Conference V
六十三 · The Ten Swords Conference VI
六十四 · Immortal Banishment
六十五 · Conference Aftermath
六十六 · Riverside Rest
六十七 · Riverine Fugitive
六十八 · Cutting Branch
六十九 · Duel on the Water
七十 · Banhe Town
七十一 · Meeting in Old Banhe
七十二 · Old Street Retreat
七十三 · Cold Morning
七十四 · Proxy Duel
七十五 · Forward to Xiangyang
七十六 · Ghosts of the Butterfly
七十七 · Black Dragon Pyre
七十八 · Black Dragon Pyre II
七十九 · Black Dragon Pyre III
八十 · Black Dragon Pyre IV
八十一 · Battle at Black Dragon Gate
八十二 · Duel at Black Dragon Gate
八十三 · Showdown at Black Dragon Gate
Epilogue: Legend
一 · The First and Last Lie
二 · 天
三 · 地
四 · 人
五 · Beyond the Three Realms
Another Epilogue
Somewhere in the world...
Extras
Zhang Jue Gaiden
Zhang Jue Gaiden II
The Sword Saint, Bai Juitan and Vahista hanging out
The tale of Chi You and Nuva
Alternative / Dead Ends
Tiger's End
Xu Jing in Bai Juitan's pretty head, part 1
Xu Jing in Bai Juitan's pretty head, part 2
Black End
Good Ending
The War God’s Tale
Random things / Drafts
The Chief Metalworker of Shaolin
Girl's Talk
Shun's Last Words
DENSETSU THE ANIME
Cao'er growing Jing's clones

Prologue: Winds of the Steppe

一 · A Meeting with the Ashina

A Meeting with the Ashina

The dry grass crunches under your feet as you pull the woolen cloak tighter around your body. Out here on the steppes, the winds are merciless. A group of five soldiers ride past you, jeering at each other as they race onwards, towards your common destination. Your legs are aching from the long walk, but the journey is almost over.

“I did offer to let you ride in the carriage, Jing,” says the young Crown Prince lazily as he brings his steed to a slow trot besides you. You stare at him, and then glance over at said carriage, a rather ornate affair that bears both the flags of the great Tang dynasty and that of the Duke of Xiliang. The duke himself is ensconced comfortably inside the carriage; you can see his bearded, imperious profile. He notices you and gives you a foul glare in return. “He’d as soon kill me then let me anywhere near his carriage, after what I did to his horses,” you laugh. The prince chuckles. Over the period of two weeks, one horse had fallen awkwardly over a well-hidden stone, another had been spooked by a rat and fled into the wilderness, and the last had simply laid down and died. After that, the Duke insisted that he had no more spare horses for you to use. “Perhaps you should be steering your horse away from me, Shun.”

Crown Prince Li Shun, future Emperor of the Tang, gives you a rude, juvenile gesture, smiling elegantly as he does so. “You’re just bad with horses, nothing more. Cats like you well enough. Besides, you spent all summer riding with me without even hurting a single horse.”

“It was the other way around back then,” you mutter. You had been thrown from the saddle so many times that sometimes you are still surprised that you survived. “Anyway, are you ready for the meeting?”

Shun sighs as he shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “It’s a pain in my arse, that’s what it is. Still, we have no choice. Do you know of the Ashina?” You nod – they are one of the most influential nomadic tribes in the northwest. “The Ashina tribe have a strong voice amongst the Tujue people,” you say, “so if we manage to nurture a proper alliance, we can secure the border more easily in the years to come.”

“That’s right. The Ashina are regarded as a sacred tribe. The Great Khagan of the Tujue has been stockpiling resources in the past few months – we were sent out here because the Emperor hopes that my presence will be enough to flatter them. The Duke of Xiliang will be in charge of the negotiations, so we are just along for display.” He peers closely at you, leaning down from his horse.

“Speaking of that, my friend, you will need to clean up before we can display you anywhere.”

You snort. “Don’t bother. I don’t want to steal the eyes of all the girls away from your royal face.”

***

You find yourself nursing your aching legs in the main yurt later that night, having cleaned up and changed into a fresh set of robes. The yurt can be described in one word: grandiose. The ground was covered with a lush carpet and strips of silken cloth were draped over the poles. Beautiful tapestries lined the walls of the yurt. The leader of the Ashina, Bulun Khan, sat cross-legged at a table painted in gold, presiding over the festivities – he is a well-built, powerful man who has found that middle age is treating him well. A beautiful young girl who looks to be about the same age with the prince and you – she can’t be more than thirteen or fourteen years old – knelt demurely by his side. Judging from her elaborately embroidered dress and the decorative beads, she is probably the khan’s daughter. A pretty servant girl stands by her side, a wide yawn showing that she's not pretending to hide her boredom.

“Have you tried the fermented mare’s milk? It’s rather wonderful,” says Shun as he holds up a dirty-looking gourd. You obligingly hold out your dish as he fills it up, the both of you looking at the duke and the Ashina khan conversing raucously.

“It seems like it is going well, isn’t it?” you say quietly.

“No, not at all. Observe the khan closely,” whispers Shun. You do so, and after a while, understand what he means. Although the khan seemed friendly enough, from his body language and the tone of his accented Han, you know that this is the type of friendliness you offer a guest you dislike, but are too polite to turn down.

“I doubt he is truly listening to Xiliang,” you mutter. “It looks like the Ashina don’t care about you at all, Your Highness. Do you feel hurt?” Shun nods in agreement at first, and then punches your shoulder for the latter remark.

“-so, perhaps we could even take your esteemed daughter in as an honoured concubine,” states Xiliang casually. Bulun leans back, his features carefully impassive. “A concubine to who?”

The duke laughs. “Not His Majesty, of course, but his son. The Crown Prince is young but mature,” – you hold back a laugh at that, with tremendous effort – “and is a remarkable, good-looking boy who will lead the Tang to greater glory. In the future, even his concubines will enjoy power and status beyond that of the empresses of old.”

Before Bulun can respond, a dagger sprouts on the khan’s golden table with a loud thud. “I will not sit here and listen to talk about trading me away like a common goat,” the Ashina princess says calmly as she rises to her feet. “Yunzi, sit down,” warns the khan half-heartedly, but the girl continues. “Dear father, these Han talk too easily of marriage. I would like to show them what a woman of the Ashina is capable of. A worthy man should be able to best me in combat.” The Duke of Xiliang looks at the Crown Prince – Xiliang doesn’t seem too worried, though his brow is slightly furrowed in concern, feigned or otherwise.

“Oh boy, are you in for it, brother,” you whisper mockingly to Shun. The Crown Prince is rather good at the rudimentary martial arts that the both of you have been taught for self defense, though not as good as you are. You don’t doubt that he can beat the slender waif in a fight.

“If I were to pick,” proclaims Yunzi, “I wouldn’t even challenge the prince. He would not be a match for me. You there. The arrogant servant whispering in his master’s ear.” Her angry gaze falls upon you – her eyes are as blue as the clear steppe sky. “I challenge you to show what you are capable of.”

“Oh?” The corners of your lips twitch upwards. “You want to fight me?”

“Xu Jing!” Xiliang shouts at you. “Do not act rashly!”

He knows, however, that he does not have the authority to order you around. The Duke of Xiliang may be the cousin of the Chancellor, and command a hundred thousand men, and you might just be a fourteen year old cocky kid who happens to be the Crown Prince’s confidante, but you are not his servant. You glance sideways at Shun’s hand. Two fingers are extended, circling twice in a clockwise manner. That’s the gesture for ‘Do as you please’, which also means, in your experience gained from the decade you have spent as his companion, ‘I’m going to sit back and enjoy the show’.

Your leash is off.

***

A. You accept the challenge. Both Shun and you suspect that negotiations are not going to go well – Bulun Khan will just send the Duke off without committing to anything. When the situation is stagnant, act to change the flow in your favour. You aren’t standing up just because you can’t back down from a challenge. Obviously.

B. You keep quiet, back down, and yield the floor to Xiliang and Bulun so that they can continue their negotiations. You don’t want to cross the Duke of Xiliang if you can help it; he already disilkes you enough, and even if he cannot order you around, he can certainly pull some strings to make your life harder.
 

二 · Horseplay

It appears to be a very comfortable lead indeed, 12 votes to 5.

Here is the update. The character sheet will be updated with the reputation tracker.

***

Horseplay

“I accept,” you reply confidently. There is a triumphant smirk on the girl’s face as she turns to face Bulun Khan. “You heard him, father.” The khan’s laughter bellows throughout the yurt as he slaps his thigh. “Excellent! I can’t say you don’t have balls, kid! Even our people would ask for the nature of the challenge before accepting it, but you agreed without hesitation! Very well, I shall arrange for the match. You will meet my dear daughter in the field tomorrow morning… I am looking forward to it.”

Shun gives you a look of sympathy, trying not to smile. The Duke of Xiliang, on the other hand, glares at you venomously. He gets up and apologizes to the khan, excusing himself from the banquet. As he passes by your seat, he bends down and hisses, “For your own sake, do not mess this up, boy. But do not think for one second that I will overlook the rudeness you have displayed today.” Giving a deep bow to the Crown Prince, he stomps out of the yurt angrily.

“You are in deep trouble, Jing,” muses your good friend, the one who had tacitly egged you on.

“I’ll survive,” you say dismissively, though deep down you think that it would be better if you found a way to assuage the duke’s displeasure. Even now, he would be composing a strongly worded letter to his dear cousin the Chancellor in his head.

Fortunately - or unfortunately - you had other, more immediate problems to think about for now, and you wouldn’t have to deal with the troublesome matters of the court until the retinue returns to Tianshui.

***

The morning air is invigorating and you find yourself in good condition. The aches from your long walk have almost cleared up from a good night’s sleep, though some niggling pain still remains in your lower calves. As you head to the location of the match, you find that it is already surrounded by what seems to be every single inhabitant of the camp, right down to the elderly and the children. The mood is festive; you have this sudden feeling that everyone is here to watch the upstart Han get beaten by their princess. Making your way through the laughing crowd, you find yourself in the middle of a circle, with the onlookers acting as a living fence.

In the middle of the field two bare-backed horses stand placidly side-by-side, one black, one white. Princess Yunzi is already there, having swapped her elaborate dress of yesternight for a more practical and plain commoner’s garment. Her hair is tied up into a tight bun, and there is a short whip rolled up and hanging from her waist-sash. As she catches sight of you, she turns away without a word.

You spot the Duke of Xiliang and the Crown Prince standing next to Bulun, at the front of the onlookers. Shun waves at you, shouting out “Good luck!”. You wish that were so. The khan climbs up onto a wooden box set at one end of the arena and begins detailing, in a singsong voice, the events that had led to this challenge, in the dialect of his people. You don’t understand enough Tujue to make out what he is saying except for frequent mentions of both your name and his daughter’s, but by the frequent cheers of the crowd, you assume they are hearing something that they like. At the end of his speech, he switches back to Han, for your benefit.

“The rules of the trial are simple. You are to stand atop the horses and attempt to knock each other off. The first person to touch the ground with any part of their body loses. Anyone who strikes a horse will be disqualified. You may use any weapon you wish except for blades - no blood should spill on the sacred trial grounds. The trial will begin when both parties signal that they are ready.”

You look around the arena, and then at the girl. While she has a whip, there doesn’t seem to be anything you can use unless you start begging for weapons from the audience. You do have a sword in your tent, but the khan has just disallowed the use of blades. Yunzi catches you looking at her whip and smiles nastily. “Don’t worry. I won’t need to use it to beat you. Feel free to ask for something to help you out. Perhaps someone will throw you their dog’s stick.”

You remark casually, “I’m not worried about that little whip, I’ve eaten worse for punishment.” That is the truth - in fact, you are more worried about the horse, given your past history with equines. Then again, standing atop a horse is difficult, even for a nomad. You are confident that your agility can match hers; this match may end up being more equal than she thinks. Yunzi ignores you, gently patting the white horse. Then, she vaults atop the animal with a single leap, landing lightly on its back. Looking down at you from her perch, the girl gives you a smirk that grates on your nerves. “I am ready,” she declares.

You approach the black horse and place your hand on it. The horse’s big, watery eye blinks at you suspiciously. A threatening snort flares from his nostrils. With some trepidation, you grab the horse’s mane and haul yourself onto its back. It hooves the ground in protest, but it does not start bucking in an attempt to throw you off. You take that to be a good sign. Drawing your legs up and placing your feet on the horse’s back, you slowly stand up, wobbling to keep your balance as the horse shifts restlessly. You find yourself face to face with Yunzi, who is standing easily with a graceful poise. Her horse seems as still as a statue, with only the swishing of its tail to show that it is indeed a living animal. How on earth is she doing that?

“I’ll beat you within ten moves,” she says, raising one hand in front of her in a Tujue stance.

“We’ll see. I’m ready,” you call out, as you concentrate on your footing and balance.

Bulun Khan shouts, giving us the signal to begin. The crowd roars in approval, singing their princess’s name. There will be no support for you here.

Yunzi strikes without hesitation - she takes the first move and drives her fist towards your face. She is fast… perhaps faster than you are. You instinctively flinch, raising your arm to redirect her punch, but it is just a feint. Her left leg lashes out a split-second afterwards. With a grunt, you raise your knee just in time to avoid getting your shin kicked. As you are forced to shift your weight onto one foot, your horse begins to protest by shaking its flanks.

Your balance is thrown off, just for a while, and Yunzi pounces on the opportunity eagerly.

She throws both palms outwards in a shove, attempting to simply push you off the horse. Gritting your teeth, you fling your entire body forwards, throwing yourself into her attack. As her palms slam into your shoulders, you groan - she can hit rather hard for such a slender girl. However, your judgement is accurate, as her attack stops you from falling over. As she blinks in surprise, you bring your arms upwards, pushing her hands away. You follow up with a quick jab to her abdomen. A confident glint in her eyes, Yunzi opts to evade it instead of blocking. Her feet dance deftly across the horse’s back as your punch goes wide.

She attempts to drive her knee into your left arm while it is still extended, but you twist your body to the left, retracting it in time. using your motion to launch a sweeping attack with your right arm. Caught by your move, she is cornered and unable to dodge. She blocks desperately - your sweep hits home, and the Ashina princess staggers slightly under the force of your blow, letting out a sharp gasp. Her eyes water - it probably hurts a lot. In the heat of battle, you had forgotten to hold back.

Yunzi quickly regains her composure and glares at you. Her visage blurs. Your instincts warn you to move back, and you do so just in time - her feet skim the tip of your nose as the girl does a backflip. She lands on the horse’s back just as easily as she would on solid ground. That damned white horse is still standing calmly despite the action that had just taken place above it. Your horse, on the other hand, is getting more and more jumpy by the second. “If you’re thinking of holding back, don’t. I’m going to kill you.” She gives you a warning and a threat at the same time. Breathing in deeply, Yunzi adopts an unfamiliar stance and immediately begins a furious flurry of moves.

She unleashes a continuous stream of attacks with both fist and foot, attempting to find a way past your guard. It takes all you have to defend yourself - her speed is such that you cannot find the space to attack. Suddenly, she breaks her rhythm and draws back. Your arm still raised halfway to a block, Yunzi takes advantage of the lull in combat to close the distance and places one foot on your horse. The girl swings her right fist up in an uppercut, yelling as she does so.

You curse your carelessness and attempt to grab her fist, but your fingers close around empty air as she turns at the last minute and uses your horse as a stepping stone, smoothly pivoting into an overhead kick aimed at the back of your neck. You are forced to move your feet again, shifting your foothold so that her kick misses. This causes your horse to buck once in response, as you step on some spot you probably shouldn’t have.

You drop your center of gravity, crouching down low to restore your balance as you watch Yunzi gracefully step back to her own horse, which is still standing there patiently as if it is the most natural thing in the world. She clucks her tongue with a look of distaste on her face, as if she can’t believe you managed to survive her assault. “Lucky idiot,” grumbles the princess. “Hey,” you call out to her, “did you feed your horse something to keep it docile?”

“That’s rude of you to say so,” she snorts. “You are just lousy at understanding a horse’s spirit. As expected of a Han.”

“Oh, whatever. We are just kids having a clumsy slapfight on top of the horses anyway,” you laugh, your fingers surreptitiously fiddling with the laces of your left shoe. The princess flushes and resumes the attack, displeased that you don’t seem to be taking this as seriously as she is. “If you have time to talk, stand up and lose properly!”

The two of you exchange three more moves - with the last exchange narrowly sweeping your feet off the horse - before she attempts another of her misdirecting techniques. Just what you have been waiting for. You take the chance and swing your foot out, just as she thinks you have fallen for her feint. Surprised, she jerks backwards, but she has not accounted for your dirty shoe flying off and hitting her right in the face. There is a loud smack. The roaring crowd falls into silence almost immediately. Then, they burst into riotous laughter. Regaining your posture quickly, you snake your right arm around her left before the stunned girl can react and lock it into position, pulling her close to you by her shoulder. The crowd is audibly impressed.

You get a whiff of sweat mixed with her fragrance as Yunzi looks at you in anger and humiliation - you are decidedly stronger and she won’t be able to break your hold easily. The advantage is now yours. “You know, I believe that it has been more than ten moves,” you say quietly, triumphantly. “Shut up and unhand me,” snarls the princess. Her fair face has turned rather red. When you refuse with a taunting shake of your head, she goes limp and lets herself fall backwards without warning. Her weight pulls at you. You are forced to let go before you are brought down together with her, though you manage to find the presence of mind to give Yunzi a little shove to help her along the way.

Then, a sudden gust of strong wind throws you off balance; not that you had ever been really balanced on the horse anyway. As you stumble, you see the girl turning her fall into a nimble roll under her horse’s belly. She emerges on the near flank of the horse, her whip already in her left hand. Yunzi cracks her whip, the lash coming close to your steed’s eye but not hitting it. The black horse gets spooked and rears up with a loud whinny, putting you in a very precarious position. Despite all that, you can’t help but grudgingly admire her pig-headed nature - she is willing to skirt the rules of the match just to beat you.

If you do nothing, you will fall in the next second. Already she is standing back on top of her horse, her arm raised for a second crack of her whip.

***

A. You have already done enough. You allow yourself to fall, even if you could regain your balance. Best to lose honourably - a man should know when he is beaten. Besides, you have just realized - a bit too late - that if you really do win, you might actually be forced to marry this shrew.

B. You attempt to regain your balance, but attempt to surrender the moment you do, in order to save some face. You are not sure how the Ashina might interpret this, but losing outright by touching the ground is rather embarrassing, after all the confidence you displayed going into the match.

C. You will not give up; if she hates to lose, so do you. You jump onto her horse. You will continue the fight there - there is nothing in the rules saying that you can’t share the horse, and she did step on yours during the fight. Let’s see that stupid white horse take two people fighting on top of it.

D. You regain your balance and focus intently on her whip. When she next lashes out, you will attempt to grab the whip and then pull her off her horse. You should be strong enough to do that. If she lets go to avoid falling, you will have the whip, and then the tables will be turned!
 

三 · Art of the Wolf

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Art of the Wolf

You land on the other horse’s back successfully if clumsily, having abandoned your rearing steed. It was an easy hop that took Yunzi by surprise, bringing the two of you face to face. She was more shocked than angered. The moment you arrive, however, she drives her foot towards you, hoping to knock you off before you have recovered from your landing. You barely manage to avoid it, twisting to the side. Your hasty dodge puts you in a poor position, your right heel touching thin air. Yunzi steps towards you aggressively, pressing her advantage with speed - she could knock you off with another blow. You brace yourself.

Then, her horse begins to move. Neighing loudly, it breaks into a trot. You can hear the crowd shouting; from the corner of your eyes, you see men beginning to run towards the horse. Even after having crouched down to steady yourself, you feel like you may be thrown off at any second. The princess, however, is caught by surprise, letting out a little yelp as she loses her balance and latches on to you for just a brief while, falling into your arms.

You see her eyes widen as she registers her mistake. Too late. You grab her left arm with both hands and pull, using the motion to balance yourself in the process - she attempts to resist, but cannot fight your strength. The princess falls. You’ve won.

Yunzi’s leg kicks out, unexpectedly sweeping you off your feet. You realize that her hand has been gripping the collar of your robes tightly, and you are pulled down along with her.

She should still hit the ground first, you expect. Her desperate attempt won’t rob you of your win.

Her thin fingers dig into your collar-bone as she twists.

She swings herself above you in mid-air, using her grip on you as leverage.

You have got to be kidding me, you think, as you slam into the ground. Her knees follow, sinking into your abdomen and compounding the pain. The reversal has happened so fast that you barely had time to register it, but at the very last second, the princess has somehow snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

Yunzi gets off you unsteadily, her legs trembling. Panting from the exertions of the fight, she gives you a weak, contemptuous kick in the ribs before staggering towards the horse with a concerned look on her face. You’re still winded from that last blow and can’t offer her any reply. Wheezing on the ground, you can see that the horse is bucking and whinnying, a rather alarming amount of foam coming from its mouth.

Hopefully it’ll be okay.

A shadow falls over you.

“Good job, Jing,” says Shun cheerfully as he bends over your fallen body. He reaches out a hand. You clasp it, allowing him to help you to your feet. You see that the princess and several other tribespeople are dragging the struggling white horse away. When she turns to glare daggers at you, her eyes are wet, upset at the ailment that has stricken the horse. You get the feeling that she is blaming it on you.

Meanwhile, the Ashina are cheering loudly, some of them having started blowing on horns and flutes in an impromptu performance. Others are dancing to the music. It almost looks like a celebration. Several burly men and rough-looking women come up to you and pat you on the back, speaking excitedly and unintelligibly in their language. You cannot do anything but give them a confused smile, still groggy from hitting the ground. As they lead you away from the waving, grinning Crown Prince, a little girl with a cheeky smile runs up on her stubby legs and puts a garland over your neck. You wonder what it’s for.

***

“You’ve spent the last half hour expressing your irritation with the princess, Jing,” groans Shun, pinching your gloomy face. “I know you hate losing in a match, but she did beat you fair and square.” The both of you are resting in a tent, waiting for news from the Duke of Xiliang.

“I’ll admit that,” you say grudgingly, “though you think she could be a bit more gracious about it, being a princess and all. Anyway, if we were fighting on solid ground, I would have won.” You rub your aching stomach, sore at your loss. “So, what did the duke say?”

The prince’s face turns serious. “Stay out of his way for a while. Your horse-jumping stunt made him really angry. It was too reckless.”

“You think it was too reckless?”

“Well, it was fun to watch, but I wouldn’t have tried it. For multiple reasons. I’m sure it will work out fine in the end, however.”

You are about to ask him what reasons, when Bulun Khan comes sweeping into the tent. You remember your manners and drop to one knee, though Shun, being Shun, merely greets the khan with a smile and a lazy wave. A tall Ashina with a powerful build follows Bulun into the tent, his face seemingly carved from stone. His hair hangs in multiple braids.

“There’s no need to be so formal,” laughs the khan as he drops to the ground and sits down without a care. He beckons at you to do the same. You bow and proceed to sit cross-legged, facing him.

“Have you come to terms with Xiliang?” asks Shun directly. The khan places both hands on his thighs, leans forward, and replies, “Yes, Prince Shun. The Ashina will be a voice of moderation in the upcoming kurultai. We will tell them that the Tang are full of young tigers,” -he gestures at both you and the prince when he says that, “-and will not be easy prey. However, the current Khagan is a man who takes advantage where he sees it. Despite what we may say, he knows that your borders are weak, and porous to his raids. Our words will only buy you time. The Pugu and Bayegu tribes are pressing for full invasion, and their influence grows by the day.”

Shun nods, bowing his head respectfully. “That will be sufficient, Bulun Khan. The Tang thanks you for your understanding. It is better for us to grow stronger together. There is enough in the world for both the Tujue and the Tang.”

“Indeed. I have always been convinced of the importance of cooperation, but we needed to show the representatives of the other tribes what we already knew. They have witnessed a great performance from the Han today and will return impressed,” says the khan. “I apologize for not being straightforward, but it was necessary to see what you would do. More importantly, what should we do with the young lad that just declared his love so publicly?”

“What?” You sputter.

“Right, I guess you didn’t know,” explains Shun calmly, though there is an amused glint in his eyes. “For a man to give up his own steed and cross over to a woman’s horse is a confident declaration of undying love amongst the Ashina.”

“I didn’t… well, forget about that,” you groan. You understand that rituals are rituals, and symbolism overrides intent. At least you will be returning to the capital soon, where you can forget about all that has happened here. Who cares if you mistakenly professed love to that girl? Something else concerned you more. “Was our match just a show, then, wise khan?”

“Oh, let me guess,” says the khan with a grin. “You dislike the idea of having competed falsely, in a rigged match? Even if you lost, you wanted to lose in a meaningful competition?”

You nod.

“Do not worry about that, kid,” says Bulun. “My wayward daughter reacted entirely out of her own impetuousness. I had other plans for this visit, but she acted rashly and jumped to conclusions about her marriage prospects, devising a ploy to challenge you and show how much better she is. It was unexpected to me too, but I decided to work with that instead.” The khan’s sly smile tells you that he is rather more cunning than you gave him credit for… or perhaps that is just the slyness of adults.

He continues cheerfully, “Even though you lost today, the Ashina will be very happy to see you challenge Yunzi again. Already my people say that they haven’t seen such a show since my own trial against my dearly departed wife. They think it is only a matter of time before you marry Yunzi, and have already started celebrating in earnest at the prospect of adding a promising young man to the tribe. Then again, they need very little reason to bring out the music and alcohol, so do not be too alarmed.”

“Challenge her again? I am sorry, noble khan, but we will definitely kill each other if we have a second match,” you mutter bitterly but politely.

That just seems to feed the khan’s amusement, and he roars in laughter. “That’s exactly what she said! You two really are alike, kid. Xu Jing, was it? Well, Xu Jing, there is no hurry. You may return to challenge her anytime before the age of maturity, before both of you turn twenty. I highly doubt there is any other man that would be able to take her.”

“I must decline, great khan. With all due respect, I do not get along with your daughter in the slightest. It would be an unhappy marriage. If I had won, I would have to honour my word, but it seems that I have lost. I have accepted my defeat.” Of course, you haven’t really gotten over it, but you feel the need to make your intentions clear to the khan, and swallowing your loss appears to be the quickest way to do so.

The khan’s eyes only twinkles in a manner that suggests he understands something that you don’t. His good humour does not seem to fade at your rejection. “If you say so, Xu Jing. That is fine, young people have their own minds and will do as they desire. Now, in recognition of your bravery and entertaining display, I would like to present you with a gift that honours your skill.” He beckons the tall man behind him to come forward.

“My name is Huluzi,” bows the man. “Brother to Bulun.” His voice is coarse and guttural.

“Huluzi is the strongest warrior in the tribe,” boasts the khan. “Xu Jing, he will impart to you a technique of the Ashina.”

Shun’s eyes brighten up at the sound of that. “Marvellous. Jing, do it,” he dictates, pointing a finger at me. It looks like you have no choice but to accept.

***

You find yourself back in the open field with Huluzi. He stretches himself and gives your body a look over. “You have a natural gift for martial arts, Xu Jing,” says Huluzi. “The clan of the wolf has many techniques, but here are the three that I think will suit your level of skill and physical capability the most. I will instruct you in one technique, as per the khan’s request.”

A. Langya Fist. (狼牙拳 Wolf’s Fang Fist). A wolf pack harries and coordinates their movements to bring down their prey. This unarmed technique focuses on continuous, rapid moves to wear down an opponent’s guard.

B. Yinglang Step. (影狼步 Shadow Wolf Step). A wolf is silent and stealthy in its hunt. This qinggong technique teaches the user to move swiftly, gently and quietly in the wilderness to avoid attracting attention.

C. Tujue Shuzan Bow (突厥速寁弓 Tujue Swift Bow) A Tujue nomad is known for his mastery of the bow. This flexible bow technique allows its user to fire an arrow quickly while on the move.
 

四 · Shadow Wolf

Shadow Wolf

“A wise choice. The deadliest fist is the one that is unseen.” Huluzi reaches into his garment and pulls out a roll of goatskin. He holds it out, offering it to you. “The moves of the Yinglang Step are recorded within. To understand them, you must first master the first step.”

You are slightly nervous, but take the parchment without hesitation and unroll it. It is full of badly drawn stick-men in various poses. You look up at Huluzi quizzically. He shrugs. “The scroll-maker was not good at art, nor was he literate.”

You nod slowly. From your limited understanding, many martial arts manuals were usually well-illustrated and written poetically - you needed to comprehend the meaning of the couplets to fully unlock the potential in the moves of the technique. Of course, there were as many different ways to impart martial arts as there were stars in the sky, and today you have taken that lesson to heart.

Huluzi breathes in deeply, his posture changing in subtle ways. His breathing slows gradually until it is almost imperceptible to you. Then, he speaks, “The first step is to learn how to put your foot down without making a sound. However, I can see that you are not familiar with the principles of qinggong. We will have to start from scratch.”

It takes you three hours to learn how to carry your body with the ease required, and then to begin learning the first move of the technique - how to step silently. That takes only two hours to accomplish, impressing Huluzi.

“You have a talent for imitating physical movement,” he says, as you massage your aching muscles. The posture required to pull off the move still feels unnatural to you, though Huluzi assures you that will change with practice. “After this, you just need to remember the mindset you achieved while carrying out the posture. You will find that the secrets of the scroll will unlock themselves gradually as you develop your understanding of the wolf’s spirit.”

You bow to him, thanking him for his tutelage. The sun is beginning to set - your last dinner here will be held soon. Tomorrow you return to the Central Plains. “By the way,” you can’t help but ask before the both of you part ways, “your Han is almost pitch perfect. Have you spent time in our cities?”

Huluzi shakes his head. “My departed mother was a half-Han concubine of Bulun’s father; my grandmother was a minor Tang princess. They taught me the language,” Your jaw falls open in surprise, but his own expression just grows grimmer. “Since I have mentioned this, let me warn you to be careful, Xu Jing. The Imperial Court plays deadly games that wrap up innocents without a care, no matter how far they run. You should stay away from their politics.”

The Ashina warrior walks away, leaving you to your thoughts.

***

When you reach the large yurt, you find a scowling duke and a grinning prince, and that the only open space left at the tables is next to a sulking princess. Your feet falter for just a moment. Am I a man or a mouse? You berate yourself for the sudden reluctance that halts your steps. There is no need to be afraid of this stupid, pig-headed girl. Striding into the yurt with a big grin on your face as the tribesmen cheer your arrival with upraised gourds and dishes, you greet them enthusiastically and take your place on the ground.

Your grin doesn’t last long. Sitting besides such a sullen girl, your affected cheer is drained away in seconds.

“What do you have to be unhappy about? You won,” you grumble in a low voice.

“I was happy until you sat down besides me,” Yunzi seethes quietly. “Leave me alone. Go run about the plains and howl at the moon.”

“I’m not going without dinner just because some spoiled girl wants to stretch her legs under the table.”

“That’s okay. I’ll have your food thrown to you outside the tent.”

“What am I, a dog?”

“Aren’t you your prince’s dog? Go and bark at him, wag your tail, whatever it is you subservient Han do.”

You take a deep breath and calm your tone, if not your temper. “Aah, you are right. I am my prince’s dog. I’ll hunt for him and lick his feet and frolic with his gentle maids. That is still better than being with a flat-chested shrew like you. It’s no wonder no one wants to marry-”

Before you finish your sentence, her left fist lashes out. It almost hits you, but you are fast enough to catch it and return a punch of your own. Yunzi pushes herself backwards and narrowly evades your attack. Finding herself unable to free her left hand from your grasp, she extends the fingers on her right hand and goes for your eyes. You trap her fingers between your own and clasp her hand tightly, leaving the both of you without any free arms to fight with.

Bulun Khan’s shout interrupts your slapfight with Yunzi. The entire yurt falls into silence. With a sudden realization of where the two of you are, you freeze. The Duke of Xiliang is aghast, while Shun looks absolutely tickled. Huluzi, on the other hand, nods approvingly. You get the feeling he is admiring your moves rather than any display of chivalry - or lack of it - on your part.

The khan slams his palm down on the table. “Now, dear daughter, you know you need my approval for this... It is okay. The both of you have my permission to use the special yurt, just this once. Don’t make a habit of it though, and bear some consideration for those who have to clean up after you!” He winks dramatically, and his booming laugh resounds throughout the yurt, joined by the cheers of the other tribesmen. The festive atmosphere of the dinner resumes. You release the girl’s vicious hands and lean away from her in disgust. She does the same, her desire to cave your face in dissipated by her father’s mockery.

“I am so glad to see the both of you getting along so lovingly,” smiles Shun, radiating an aura of warmth and kindness. “Are you blind?” I snap. I regret the words the moment they spill out - Shun just laughs and mimes the loss of his eyesight, but the Duke of Xiliang glowers at me, displeased at the rude manner at which I just addressed the Crown Prince.

The Ashina, on the other hand, are entertained at the entire spectacle. “This is how it should be. Kids should be noisy and joyful, speaking as they wish. It is all part of growing up,” says Huluzi, an out-of-place smile on his face. Bulun agrees eagerly by quaffing down more fermented milk. You let out a loud sigh and stand up.

“Where are you going?” asks Yunzi irritably.

“I think you’re right. Running around the plains with the horses would be better than sitting here with you.”

She scowls at you, and for an instant you remember the white horse that was stricken with some ailment. You feel the full awkward weight of your fourteen years in this world trying to get you to say something.

“Right, horses. How’s the horse?” you ask casually.

“Oh.” She understands which horse you mean instantly, but seems at a loss for words. Still, she musters enough composure to reply, “She’ll pull through. She’s a strong one. Thank you.”

You nod your head in what you think is an apologetic manner, pleasantly surprised at her saying thanks. Perhaps she isn’t so bad after all… no.

As you see her have a servant take your food away with an evil smile, as she glances back up at you innocently and asks, “I thought you were going for a run? Why haven’t you left yet?”, you realize that you do hate her after all.

You decide to go for that run and practice your newly acquired skill.

***

When you returned, the princess had retired to her own yurt - to your undisguised delight - and you were able to enjoy the leftover food and wine in peace. Perhaps you enjoyed it a little too much, as later that night you sit up attempting to stem an urgent signal from your bladder.

“You are awake?” asks Shun - he is reading by candle-light. “Yeah. What are you doing up?” you ask.

“Reading. You do it every night too. What’s so surprising?”

“I do it because I have to keep up with my studies. You know how harsh Old Zhao can get if you miss even a single stroke in the answers you write. You, on the other hand, are smarter than I am.”

The prince laughs. “Yet you get much the same scores as I do. I was just reading in about the traditions of the Ashina. Very interesting people. Do you remember the meaning of stepping onto her horse?”

“Do you have to remind me about that?” you grumble, your bladder pounding. But he was still your prince and best friend, and you would sit here and listen to him finish even if it meant pissing blood. “It was just some way to say ‘I love you’ in Tujue style, right?”

“It’s like declaring a personal pledge to stay together for eternity, Jing. It’s promising the stars and the moon for their love. The nomads may have many quirks, but hyperbole in their romantic life is not one of them. That is why it is very, very rarely attempted, and only when a person is truly serious.”

“I wouldn’t have done it if I knew,” you mutter bitterly.

The prince raises his eyebrows. “Would you, now?”

“Of course! Do you actually think I’d be interested in her? Give me an older lady of experience any time,” you snort.

Shun stares at you, a teasing smile on his lips. “Does that mean you will not mind if I marry her, then?”

“Go ahead, help yourself,” you grin. “But don’t come running to me for help when you find her too much to handle.”

“Hm,” Shun rubs his eyes. “I see. That’s disappointing. Well, don’t let me keep you from relieving yourself. It must be getting unbearable. What, why are you shocked? The only time you wake up of your own will in the middle of the night is when you have to take a leak.”

You give him a rude gesture and run out of the tent. He is right, your bladder is about to burst.

***

You scramble to your feet, your fingers gingerly feeling the bleeding wound on your head. Realizing that your pants are still untied, you knot them back up, making sure to adjust the short sword’s scabbard, and turn back to look at the camp. It is on fire. Someone or something had knocked you out halfway through your urination. Your chest hurts - the front of your robes seems to have been torn away - and there is a distinct, dark red imprint of a palm on your skin.

Your heart pounding, you run back into the Ashina camp despite your injuries. There is fighting and shouting all over the place, and no one notices a fourteen year old boy slipping between the fires. It seems that the Ashina are fighting other Tujue. You recognize a Tang soldier in armour running past you. Grabbing him by the arm, you ask him what is going on. “It’s an enemy raid! The Duke of Xiliang and the Crown Prince are retreating from the eastern entrance right now! If you don’t hurry, you’ll be left behind!” shouts the soldier as he barely slows down to explain things to you. He runs off, his feet pounding the ground as fast as they can take him.

You begin to follow after him, but a scream stops you in your tracks. You would know that irritating voice anywhere - it’s that stupid princess. Then, you hear Huluzi roar. Your impetuous curiosity getting the better of you, you crouch into the posture that Huluzi taught - the Yinglang Step - and tread quietly to a place where you can get a better view of what is going on.

Just around the corner, you spot Huluzi and Yunzi fighting with a person clothed all in black. The enemy was wrapped in black cloth from head to toe, only revealing the eyes. Huluzi pushes Yunzi back, narrowly avoiding a kick from the person in black. He steps backwards and for an instant almost seems to disappear, dropping low to the ground and dashing to the side. Then, Huluzi pounces on his foe from their blind-side, his fists appearing to come from all directions.

His attacks are so fast that your eyes are unable to keep up, but the person in black deflects them casually and gently, snaking their free arm in between his punches to redirect his attacks with light, well-timed pushes. The person in black presses three fingers together and jabs at Huluzi’s outstretched left arm twice. He staggers back, his arm suddenly falling limp. Then, a powerful palm strikes his chest, sending him flying backwards into a burning yurt. You grab the grass on the ground tightly - do you go to his aid? Your duty is to the prince, but the prince is safe and sound with the Duke and his soldiers.

“You are a brave fighter, little Tujue girl. I came searching for the boy prince but found something more fun,” says the person - no, woman - in black. She is advancing upon Yunzi now, talking in Han - she is definitely from the Central Plains and not a Tujue tribesperson. There is something else going on here… this is not a simple raid. They are here for the prince. “Do you want to come back with me? I can make you stronger. I can see the desire for strength in your eyes.”

Yunzi snarls and her whip lashes out. The woman in black snares it from the air casually without even blinking her eyes, the whip smoking and crumbling in her vice-like grip.

“Excellent spirit,” coos the woman. “You remind me of myself. I think I will take you back, whether you like it or not.”

Should you do something? If you help Yunzi, it is only because you know that the Duke’s hasty retreat without even trying to fight off the raid is not the way you should treat your allies. You aren’t doing so out of any measure of goodwill towards that stupid brat. Helping the princess would endear you to the Ashina even more. On the other hand, as always, your place is by Shun’s side. You should rightfully retreat to the eastern entrance as fast as you can, before they leave this place. That is the proper thing to do, as his companion… though were he here, you know that he would ask you to jump the woman in black. In more ways than one, even.

***

A. Using the Yinglang Step, you sneak up behind the woman and stab her in the back with your short sword. There is no better way to distract someone than sending them to the underworld. On the off chance she survives, Yunzi is not out of the fight yet, and Huluzi may still make his way out of the tent. All three of you should stand a fair chance at forcing this kidnapping freak to retreat.

B. You flee to the eastern entrance, looking for the duke and the prince. This is not your fight. There is no need to get involved. You owe the Ashina nothing, and you are the prince’s man. Your only priority is to make sure that he is secure and accompany him back to the capital, where you can forget about this blasted steppe once and for all.
 

五 · A Parting with the Ashina

Hm, let's have the update then.

***

A Parting with the Ashina

Against your own better judgement, you circle around behind the woman in black. She is strong enough to defeat Huluzi in a few moves. She should be much stronger than you are. Perhaps it would be too much to hope that she would hold back against a boy in combat.

You breathe in deeply.

Your vision narrows.

A mistake could mean the difference between life and death, but you feel strangely calm.

Your breathing is composed. Slow. Just like Huluzi taught you. Step by step, you move towards the woman’s back.

She is stretching her hand towards Yunzi. That obnoxious girl, on the other hand, is babbling loudly in Tujue and making a point not to look behind the woman. Yunzi has probably noticed your approach.

Three more steps.

The woman whirls around to face you, though you are sure that you have done nothing to give your presence away. It looks like your skill isn’t good enough after all. It’s do or die now - there’s no going back. You leap the last three steps, thrusting your short sword at your opponent.

Your burst of speed in that three steps is enough to catch her by surprise, as she cannot do much more than dodge. The point of your blade catches the cloth covering her face as she spins away. Her mask is torn off.

The woman underneath the mask does not seem that much older than you - she looks to be in her early twenties. Her features are beautiful but cold and cruel, marred only by a large red patch of skin that runs from under her right eye to her jaw. Her expression twists into one of hateful anger - you seem to be getting that a lot from females lately - as she jumps at you. You are not fast enough to escape her.

The woman’s palm smashes into your chest. The pain is intense, radiating from the point of impact like thorns digging their way into your body. Blood wells up in your throat and mouth, causing you to choke. You feel yourself, but the pain has been replaced by numbness throughout your body. Your fingers fumble and drop your sword. Through the paralyzing haze, you can see the woman standing over you. There is a puzzled expression on her exquisite face as she glances at her palm.

“Are you not the boy I killed when we came in?” she asks, but your tongue refuses to reply. “No matter. I will kill you before you can grow up to break a woman’s heart.” Frowning, she raises her hand to deliver the finishing strike.

Yunzi latches onto the woman’s raised arm and bites into it.

She screams, attempting to shake off the Ashina princess. The woman lands a few good blows on Yunzi, but none with that strange palm technique she used on you. Even when blood begins trickling down the girl’s face, she refuses to let go, continuously attempting to drag the woman down.

Well, you can’t let that shrew one up you. You are not losing to her again. The haze begins to clear as sensation returns to your body. Of course, the sensation is that of terrible, excruciating pain. You grit your teeth and bear with it.

You kick your foot out hard as the woman steps too close, catching her in the shin. At the same time, Yunzi lets go of her grip, taking advantage of the distraction to give a kick of her own. Her feet lodges solidly in the woman’s abdomen. Your enemy staggers backwards, black cloth trailing in front of her. Taking advantage of the respite, you clamber to your feet, grabbing your short sword as you do so. Your knees are shaking, feeling like they are about to give out at any moment.

“That is impossible!” cries the woman as she sees you back on your feet. “No man has ever survived a second consecutive strike from my palm!”

“He is no man!” retorts Yunzi, a bit too eagerly you think.

“I would like it if you didn’t impugn my manhood on my behalf,” you offer weakly, still too dizzy to be too indignant about her veiled insult.

“Is there anything there to impugn?” she shrugs.

Suddenly, the woman laughs loudly, a crude, unhinged sound that is at odds with her beautiful appearance. “I see! I see it clearly now! My dear sister in misfortune, you have already been taken in by this boy. Young as he may be, he has deceived you with his silvery tongue. This will only end in tears, I know the pattern all too well! All men betray. I will do you a favour and kill him right now. You will thank me for it when you realize what foul intents he had.”

Her eyes are wild and steeped in hate as she focuses on you, projecting some sort of misplaced anger about wrongs long past onto your innocent self. Yunzi has been taken in by you? Is the woman blind and deaf, or is she just mad? Mad or not, however, she is a formidable opponent. Even though you are standing more than ten paces away from her, the woman’s killing intent is unmistakable. You will not last a second against her in a straight fight, one on one. The sharpness of her intentions clears your head, however. That, at least, is a good thing.

“Huluzi taught you the Yinglang Step, didn’t he?” whispers Yunzi. “Follow my lead.”

“Is that an order?” you ask.

“No, just a suggestion,” she replies with a tone that implies she’ll happily watch me rot in the hells if I don’t accept her suggestion.

“Then you can follow my lead.” You compose yourself and run towards the woman first, ignoring the complaints of your creaking body. You can hear Yunzi cursing behind you. The woman’s face twists gleefully as she prepares to strike at the silly boy coming straight at her.

You recall what Huluzi attempted earlier.

Crouching down low, you dart to the right at the very last moment. As the woman turns to follow you, Yunzi dashes to the left, having shadowed your steps closely. She immediately begins unleashing a flurry of attacks. The woman blocks her strikes expertly - Yunzi’s Langya Fist is nowhere near Huluzi’s level in strength and speed, and she dealt with that easily - but in that brief instant she is forced to take her eyes off you.

Your sword flashes in a deadly arc. Unfortunately, the woman retracts her left arm at the moment she sees your swing begin - that is the only thing that prevents you from taking that limb off at the shoulder. You draw blood, the tip of your blade opening a gash in her upper arm. Grimacing, she bends her elbow and strikes at your sword hand like a snake - her fingers jab into the back of your palm. This causes your hand to open reflexively, dropping the sword.

At the same time, the woman’s right arm breaks past the princess’s attacks and reaches out for her throat. You react instantly and pivot on one foot, swivelling around so that you can grab Yunzi’s waist-sash. “Watch your guard, you idiot girl!” you yell as you pull her towards you, out of harm’s way. “You watch yourself, you stupid boy!” Shouting at you in a decidedly unladylike manner, Yunzi pushes you down as the woman’s palm narrowly misses your head while your back is still facing the enemy.

You feel Yunzi step onto the palm of your hand uninvited; with a push, you help her soar above the woman’s head. The woman instinctively reaches up to pull Yunzi down, but you grab her rising hand and pull, using your shoulder as leverage. As the woman’s feet lift off the ground, Yunzi lands with an acrobatic backflip and throws a rising kick that lands solidly in the small of the woman’s back, pushing her even further upwards.

You finish the combination by hurling the woman over your shoulder with all your might. Helped along by Yunzi’s kick, you should slam her into the ground with considerable force, enough to leave her dazed.

You feel the woman’s arm twist as she dislocates her own shoulder. She lands on her feet, with her limp arm still in your grasp. With a murderous smile, the woman strikes you. You feel a third palm hit you where the previous two had. This time the pain is even more intense than the last. You fly backwards, knocking Yunzi down as she gives out a short yelp. Your internal organs feel thoroughly shaken by the force of her attack - you cannot find it in you to even blink your eyelids. Yunzi tries frantically to get out from under you, but she doesn’t have any strength left to lift you up.

You cannot hear anything but a ringing in your ears. You can only watch as the woman calmly resets her dislocated arm without any change in her happy expression.

A light shower begins to fall over the camp, hissing wherever it strikes fire. You feel a vague coldness chilling you to the bone.

The woman shouts something gleefully, though she appears to be breathing rather heavily. Her posture isn’t as powerful and threatening as it was. Of course, she is still strong enough to end your life with a single blow.

You try to shift yourself again. If you’re going to die, you don’t want to die on top of that stupid scrawny girl scrabbling pointlessly under you. That would be humiliating.

Again, her palm rises.

Again, someone interferes.

Li Shun barrels into the woman shoulder first, knocking her to the ground. Your worst fears begin to materialize.

This is not good.

She grabs hold of his wrist and twists it - you see his arm bend at an unnatural angle.

This is not good at all.

Your life is meant to be burnt away to make Shun’s journey brighter. If he dies, you will be devoid of meaning in the eyes of the Emperor. If he dies, all that is left for you would be to get yourself fitted for a coffin to accompany Shun to the underworld.

If that is the case, you might as well die trying to save him. One last good deed, as it were.

Your limbs twitch as you force your body back up, straining against limits that you have never noticed. Every tendon in your body convulses in agony, every nerve screaming in pain, as you push the muscles in your body to work for your own selfish desires.

For the third time, you rise from the woman’s attack.

She sees you standing and freezes up, disbelief and uncertainty in her eyes. Then, her gaze flickers, pointing somewhere behind you. You hear faint shouts and the sound of bowstrings drawn taut. Giving you a hateful glare, the woman jumps backwards and disappears into the darkness.

You try to take a step towards Shun, who is kneeling in the mud, but your legs refuse to move.

Is he alive?

Your question is answered a brief second later as he looks up at you and smiles, just as cheerfully as ever. Cradling his broken arm, he gets up unsteadily. Your knees give way as you sink to the cold ground in relief. You are given a start when you feel a warm but skinny back push up against your own.

“You make a lousy partner,” Yunzi mutters tiredly.

“Do they teach the Ashina to dance like bulls?” you reply, your own voice cracking and weak. You are getting sleepy as the adrenaline drains from your body. Even the pain doesn’t seem like it can keep you awake.

“Ah, this must be your renowned silvery tongue that the madwoman spoke of.” Yunzi laughs lightly, the first time you have heard her do so. Her laughter is high and clear, unlike the bellowing guffaws of her father.

“It is an impressive tongue. Are you deceived yet?” You try to taunt her intellect with as much as you can muster.

“Only in your dreams,” she bites back, with real venom in her voice.

“Did I miss something?” asks Shun as he staggers over, looking down at you and Yunzi sitting back-to-back with open amusement.

“You missed plenty, but you won’t be missing my execution. You shouldn't have come back for me. It's just a waste of your arm.” You give Shun a guilty, apologetic grin as you make a weak gesture at his arm. Shun shakes his head, “It’ll be alright. You’ll be fine.” Of course, you know that he is lying. You have allowed his royal body to be harmed - that will not be taken lightly by the Emperor. The Duke of Xiliang arrives in full armour and an escort of a dozen soldiers, his expression seething with barely restrained anger. If Shun were not the Crown Prince and future Emperor of the Tang dynasty, you think the duke would probably have screamed a furious lecture at him on the merits of not being a reckless idiot. Surprisingly, he does not even spare you, the reckless idiot, a glance.

So, that is how it is, you think.

You close your weary eyes.

The rain continues to fall.

***

You can barely move the next morning - only enough to hobble painfully and slowly. Huluzi survived, regaining consciousness once the fight was over; there are fresh pink scars all over his burnt body, and his complexion is sickly and pale, but at least he is moving about more actively than you are.

“You will always be a welcome friend at our tribe,” says Bulun as he claps both of your shoulders with his big hands. You wince in pain, finding it in yourself to still bring out a smile. “I thought I would be as good as family,” you joke.

“Oh, that comes eventually,” he whispers conspiratorially. “Once you’ve married Yunzi. No need to rush things, eh?”

Your face drops into a frown. “I am sorry, great khan, but your daughter really has no interest in marrying me. It would not work out, and I fear you would only waste your valuable time on such fanciful notions.”

Bulun’s grin widens. “Funny. That sounds just like what she said to me earlier this morning. Yunzi told me very clearly that you are not interested in her.”

“She is absolutely right. That is the only point on which we will ever agree,” you offer, in hopes that the khan will finally listen.

Bulun stares at you and sighs heavily. He looks slightly dejected. “Very well, I won’t press the issue any further. Before we part ways, there is one last thing.” He beckons to Huluzi, who walks over calmly and holds out his hand. In his palm lies a single sharp fang hanging from a woven string. There is a single symbol carved on it in Tujue script.

“A wolf’s fang,” says Huluzi. “Engraved upon it is the word for ‘sky’, the symbol of the Ashina. Keep it with you and remember that you are an eternal friend to the descendants of the wolf. Should you call, we will answer.” You accept the rare amulet gratefully, bowing your head as you do so. "Will you be alright?" asks Huluzi, his piercing gaze focused upon you knowingly. You bow your head again. "I will be fine."

You know that you will not return here again.

***

The Duke of Xiliang stands aside, letting you hobble back into the carriage painfully. He no longer looks at you in an angry and contemptuous way; now, his gaze is that of a man looking dispassionately at a dying dog by the side of the street.

You understand that you fully deserve every last bit of that look. Shun’s arm was broken. The Crown Prince’s arm was broken in attempting to rescue his companion, the boy who was to serve as both his friend and protector. Mere lashes will not suffice to express the depths of your failure. There will be a reckoning.

Of course, you could run. You could even stay with the Ashina, who would be more than pleased to shelter you. The Imperial Court would not risk their new-found allies over a foolish, incompetent servant.

But that is not what your oath allows. That is not the full measure of your loyalty.

The Emperor bought you. Shun owns you. No matter what comes, that is a fundamental truth of your being that will never change.

Duty and punishment come hand in hand. To shirk one and expect to escape the other is something you can never allow for yourself.

That is the fate you have made with your own hands.

That is the price you pay to continue living.


---PROLOGUE END---
 

Chapter One: Wanderings of Adolescence

一 · Punishment and Exile

Punishment and Exile

First came the beatings. One hundred strikes with a large stick. By the end of it, your back was torn and bleeding, your bones cracked in a dozen different places. The scars would be permanent.

Next was the stockade. Before you had fully recovered, you were manacled to a wooden stockade in the middle of a market square for a week. Day after day, you were pelted with the finest of Chang’an’s produce. Rotten, wormy cabbages and slimy, stinking eggs were just the least of their selections.

Then, while the Emperor thought about which part of you he should cut off and how slow the torturer should go while doing it, you were thrown in the Cold Dungeon without a stitch to wear. It was named such due to its construction - the walls were chilly even in summer, freezing in winter. The only thing the guards allowed you, in their infinite mercy, was the wolf’s fang amulet you had received from the Ashina.

You stir from your stupor, shuddering from the coldness of the fang resting against your chest. The wounds inflicted by the woman in black have almost healed, though you still feel a shortness of breath every now and then. Your punishment hasn’t been conducive to a speedy recovery. There is a creak of wood on metal as the cell door opens.

Prince Shun walks in, wrapped up warmly in wool and silk and carrying a bunch of rags in his hands. There are melting white flakes on his hair and shoulders - it has started snowing outside. Of course, it makes no difference to you in here; the cell is as frigid as ever. He tosses the rags at you. “I do not want to have to look at your shrivelled...ness.. while talking to you.”

You laugh, grateful for any warmth that you can get. Wrapping the rags around yourself, you ask Shun, “Have they decided on the last punishment, then?”

“It looks like they’re going with the pig.”

You wince. “Searing my ears, clipping my tongue, and then throwing me into a pigsty for the male boars to have their way with me for a month? I don’t think I’ll be very useful to you after that.”

“His Majesty says you will still be able to read and write, and as such, only marginally less useless than you are right now. As your friend, I petitioned him for the dragon, but you are too low-born to get such a consideration.”

“Hey now, you really want my head mounted in your study?”

“It’d be nice to see you all the time, though I suppose you wouldn’t be a sparkling conversationalist then.”

“Absolutely not, unless you can figure out a way to have my head recite the Classics to you.”

With a laugh, Shun sits down opposite you, ignoring the dirt and grime on the ground.

“So, why are you really here?” You cut straight to the point of his visit. You know he didn’t come for a meaningless chat.

“We still have no leads on the people who attacked the Ashina camp that night or what their true aim was,” Shun says, nodding. “The woman who broke my arm was clearly a master from the Central Plains, but by all accounts she is not a member of any orthodox sect.”

“I wouldn’t think so, from her behaviour and moves,” you agree. “but it is possible that she disguised her stances.”

“That is true,” the prince admits. “Unfortunately we do not have much contact with the pugilistic world; the Emperor has been content to let them do as they wish for years while he hides away with his little superstitious toys. That old fool.”

“Well, he bought me because of what those toys told him. And he might just be right, I mean, look at my luck.”

Shun looks exasperated as he grabs you by the shoulders. “I have told you this many times, Jing. You are not cursed with bad luck. All you are is a person who has encountered misfortune, and there is no evidence that will happen till the day you die. You are focusing overwhelmingly on the bad things that happen to you and not the good - that is why you think your luck is poor. Superstitious nonsense is going to drag our country into the grave, and I don’t need that from you of all people.”

“Wait, you don’t believe in the gods or ghosts, then?” you grin. You know he is deathly scared of ghosts.

“Well, no. I mean, I do believe in gods, and ghosts. But I don’t believe that fate controls us. We are what we make of ourselves,” mutters Shun. “I would rather work the fields than pray to the Jade Emperor for good fortune. Anyway, we are meandering from the point. Shut up and listen for a bit, Jing.”

“Yes, Your Highness.” You clam up.

“If the martial arts sects are getting involved in palace politics, this bodes ill. Their strength is considerable; even if we marshalled all of our armies at the moment, we would not be able to subdue them without a bloodbath on both sides. If we are weakened, well…” He looks at the wolf’s fang hanging from your neck.

“I suppose the Tujue would take advantage. We cannot afford to force the sects to comply,” you reason. “The sects themselves know it.”

“Yes,” nods Shun. “But I don’t think we can afford to do nothing either. I don’t have many resources I can call on right now, and only one resource I can trust.”

You grasp what he is saying immediately. “You are sending me to investigate the sects?”

“Secretly, I suppose. Or rather, I want you to infiltrate the pugilistic world.”

“What about my punishment, then?”

“Thankfully, it all works out. I have expressed my displeasure to the Emperor about your performance, but due to your prior history of service and depth of bonds with me, I do not want you hurt. Well, any more than you already are. As far as the palace is concerned, you will be barred from ever setting sight on its gates again upon pain of death,” explains the prince.

“That is rather lenient,” you say. "Are you sure that is alright?"

“It does mean that we probably won’t be able to contact each other until I take the throne and give you an official pardon. I don't expect to hear from you for a few years, at least... we will be planning for the future with this move. It is not an easy decision for me to make, and I had to call in many favours and promise even more. Still, it was either this, or letting you be a pig’s whore.”

You sigh. “Are you sure about this, Shun? You will be alone in the palace, and I don’t mean in terms of companionship. I could watch your back even with a clipped tongue and a sore posterior.”

“I know that, but… this has to be done. I need you to do this. I can find people to watch my back out of self-interest, but I cannot find another friend who I can trust to act for my best interests without supervision, out there in the world. Don’t worry. I know how to handle myself. I have provisioned for you some supplies and a map. Furthermore, there is an admission letter that will gain you entrance to the major orthodox sects that have a tentative understanding with the Imperial Court.” Shun pulls out the letter in question and a list of places where it would be applicable.

“You seem really prepared,” you say. This is as close to an actual order as you have ever heard him give you, and you do not plan to disobey. You owe Shun that much. If doing your loyal duty means that you have to part from him, so be it. You resolve yourself to leaving the capital.

“Time is of the essence, Jing. You will be leaving tonight, before the Emperor changes his mind. Where do you plan to go?”

You look at the list…

***

A. Shaolin Temple. Renowned as the originator of martial arts in the Central Plains, the Buddhist monks of Shaolin are known for their ability with unarmed fighting and staves. Some of the most powerful martial arts can be found in Shaolin. However, they have extremely strict rules, and frequently expel those who cannot abide by their laws.

B. Wudang Sect. The Taoist priests on Mount Wudang have developed techniques based around Taiji. Harmonizing yin and yang, Wudang emphasizes mastery of balance as its initiates learn how to redirect the flow of their opponent’s attacks. Sword and unarmed techniques are the staple of Wudang.

C. Huashan Sect. The noble swordsmen of Mount Hua have trained long and hard to develop their reputation as one of the most powerful sects in the pugilistic world. Their weapon techniques are malleable and flexible, and their masters are reputed to be lethal swordsmen even with a stick in hand. Though the sword is the sect’s main focus, they also dabble in sabers and spears.

D. Beggars’ Sect. The beggars are a widespread union that spans the entirety of the country. Beggars’ Sect members can be found in every city, and their information network is unmatched. You have to become a beggar to join. The Beggars’ Sect emphasizes staves, thrown weapons and unarmed fighting in their techniques.

E. You will not join any of the recommended major sects - the woman who participated in the attack was likely from the darker side of the pugilistic world. Exploring on your own could yield better results than seeking out the orthodox sects. You will wander the roads yourself, enjoy your freedom, and see what you can find out on your adventures. It would be more interesting than begging or being stuck on a mountain with stupid rules for a couple of years anyway.
 

二 · The Killer Physician

Which part of that didn't seem like a joke? :lol: Anyway, actual update incoming.

***

The Killer Physician

Chang’an is a week’s old memory by now, on your lone hike south in search of adventure. Fortunately, it seems that adventure has found you at the beginning of your travels.

You hear screams. Laughter. You remember the caravan lurching, and then crashing. A heavy boot sinks into the mud in front of your face. A thick stench of wet fur, grime and sweat assaults your nostrils as grubby fingers fumble at your clothes. You stir, groaning. You know it would be a bad idea to get up - it’s good way to get a knife in your throat. Not that you could, anyway. The pain in your chest has suddenly returned with a painful vengeance. Not passing out again is all you can hope to do.

The other passengers on the caravan are being beaten and kicked into submission. Out of the corner of your eye, you spot two bandits having their way with a wailing young woman. You recall that she was sitting opposite you and that the both of you had conversed, though you do not recall her name at the moment.

The fingers withdraw with your pouch. With a greedy sneer, the man empties the contents into his palm. The sneer is wiped out and his eyes widen as a flow of silver coins spill out. He must not have been expecting much. “‘ey, boss! We’ve got a rich boy here!” The last thing to drop out of the pouch is a piece of paper, folded tightly. Before he can unfold it, the paper is snatched out of his hands by another bandit.

The newcomer has a belly that can rival a pig’s and enough hair to be mistaken for a beast. Despite his bloated body, his gaze is anything but lazy; it is sharp and brutal. “What’s it say, boss?” asks the first bandit. The bandit leader’s fingers are surprisingly slender - opening up the paper, he begins to pore over the admission letter. Even though you did not want to use it, you had kept it, just in case it would come in handy.

The bandit leader shrugs, a strange calm coming over the fat man’s posture. “I don’t know how to read those fancy characters they use. There’s the seal of the Imperial Court, though. This kid’s something. Strip him, see if he’s got anything else interesting.”

You are roughly hauled up into a sitting position as they remove your clothing in a surprisingly gentle manner. “Wouldn’t want to damage the cloth. It’s good cloth,” explains a rat-faced thug with a scar twisting his lips. There is a collective whistle as your back is revealed.

“Look at ‘em scars, boss. Thought he was a brat of good breeding,” whispers one of the bandits loudly.

“Could be an accident,” chimes another.

“Nah.” The bandit leader shakes his jowls. “Nah. They’re from a beating. Sticks, I expect. This boy is not high-born. They wouldn’t scar one of them nobles, not like that. Found anything?”

“Nothing nice. There’s this thing around his neck, though,” says the rat-faced bandit as he reaches for your Ashina amulet. Not that. Your hand shoots up and grips his wrist tightly, causing the bandit to give an unmanly shriek. Without warning, you feel a boot land on the side of your temple, jarring your skull. A burst of pain shoots through your head as you are thrown to the ground.

“Not a docile one, is he, Shuzhui? Leave it. Let the kid have his worthless trinket,” says the bandit leader, laughing.

“What’re we going to do with this boy, boss?” asks a tall, thin bandit with a pencil thin moustache. “Ransom? Or make him join our gang? Little Mu made a gift of his own head to the guards just last week, we’re short a scout. This one looks like he can handle himself.”

The fat man looks at the letter in his hands again, his eyes resting on the seal. Then, he rips up the paper. The fragments are scattered across the mud, turning them illegible. “Too risky, Zhang. We are running a tight ship, my brothers. The kid’s bound to be connected. Someone might come looking for him.”

“Kill him, then?” grunts Rat-Face.

The leader’s eyes gleam viciously as he smiles. “Not here. They find his stiff here, we’re going to have a hard time making our honest livelihood in the future. Slit the throats of the other passengers, but this one is going missing.”

***

After an hour’s trek through the forest, you find yourself bound and gagged, stripped of all possessions except for your amulet and standing on the precipice of a very steep cliff. Your heart is pounding furiously as you stare at the drop. It would take many seconds to reach the bottom. Sharp, jagged rocks and stunted tree branches line the cliff’s side. A man could easily end up broken before he hits ground. The bandit leader places one hand on your shoulder, standing quietly behind you.

“If you’re lucky, the fall will kill you. There are wolves in this area. You don’t want to be alive when they find you.”

You scream a muffled curse at the man.

“Curse the misfortune of your birth, dog of the Court.” His voice is a low and lethal whisper, spoken for your ears only. Then, he gives you a shove.

It is a long way down.

***

You feel something warm being placed over your forehead. You are lying down on a straw mat - still naked - but where? The last thing you remember is hitting the ground, having broken more than a few branches - and much of your bones - on your way down. Then, in the mists of pain and darkness, you heard a faint growling.

Strangely, your body doesn’t feel shattered to you. In fact, you feel better than you have ever been. Was it all a dream? Are you going to wake up back in the palace?

Your eyes snap open. You meet the gaze of a girl swaddled in rags - between her messy long hair and the amount of cloth wrapped around her, you can only make out her large, glistening eyes. She seems flustered at your awakening. Making a ghastly croaking sound akin to that of a dying frog, she backs away from you and flees.

You seem to be in a hut somewhere in the woods. You can hear birdsong; judging from the brightness, it is early morning. The hut is unfurnished - it doesn’t look like it has been lived in.

Moments later, a tall, old man whose hair has turned entirely white walks in. His posture is upright and his face is stern. The girl follows behind him, taking care not to look at you. The old man kneels by the side of the straw mat and grabs your right wrist roughly. Gripping it with two wrinkled fingers, he closes his eyes and takes your pulse.

You wonder if they saved you. Remembering your manners, you open your mouth to thank the old man, but he hisses at you. “Silence! Do not make a peep, you brat!” Surprised, you swallow your words of gratitude. With a harrumph, the old man lets go of your wrist.

“You would be dead if not for me,” he states flatly. You bow your head. “Thank-”

“Do you know what is wrong with you, boy?” snaps the old man before you can finish your sentence.

“I... fell off a cliff?” you conjecture.

“Oh, that,” snorts the old man dismissively. “If I couldn’t fix that I might as well retire. Your body should be as good as new, though I can’t do anything about the old scars that have already set in. No. What is wrong with you is inside you.” He jabs at your chest painfully with his finger.

“Your qi is a great big mess! I’ve never seen internal energy so chaotic. Yes, all people have both yin and yang within them, but yours are not only equal, they are in constant opposition with each other! It’s a freak of nature, that’s what it is. Let your qi rage uncontrolled and your meridians would blow up and kill you. No wonder they were congested, you would be long dead if they weren’t!”

“Meridians blow up?” That’s something new to you - you thought they were merely channels for qi. The old man turns the full force of his glare upon you. “Of course they do. Are you questioning my knowledge, boy? I am the Killer Physician, Yao Shunshi! Ignore my advice at your own peril.”

Stroking his beard rather smugly after having declared his identity - though you have never heard of him in your life - he continues. “The energies from your core, your dantian, are now impossible for me to seal up or control. It would be like attempting to tame a raging ocean by slapping it. I doubt even the Taoists at Wudang, experts that they are at harmonizing yin and yang, can fully subdue your wayward internal energy. I have given you pills that will suppress your qi for now, but I am afraid this condition is rather permanent. It’s unfortunate that I accidentally cleared the congestion in my attempt to heal you with my qi in the first place.”

“You… what?”

“Now, boy, don’t take that tone with me. You were about to go down and meet King Yanluo when I got to you. I had to stabilize your vital signs. Besides that, you also had the poisonous remnant of another person’s internal energy circulating around your system, like a drop of oil mixed into a lake. I had to expunge it to heal you.”

That must be an effect of the woman in black’s palm strikes. This would be a good chance to ask about it, you think. “I… was attacked by someone and wounded by their palms,” you say. “Do you know anything about the internal energy you found?”

“Hmph,” sniffs Yao as he strokes his beard again. “As if I wouldn’t! You have been whoring, haven’t you, boy? No need to be shy about it. I suppose you are of that age...”

“No, not recently. What does that have to do with anything?” you ask in puzzlement.

Yao sighs and shakes his head, an elegant gesture that seems to perfectly exemplify his disdain for the ignorance of youths nowadays. “You were struck by the Yuhua Duqing Palm (玉花獨情掌, Jade Flower Sole Love Palm). It’s a technique particular to the ladies of Yuhua Hall, the most popular brothel in Jiangnan. Did you cross one of their ladies? You must have. Here’s some advice. Pay up when you’re done.” You hear an embarrassed squeak from the girl sitting in the corner. She seems to be staring intently at the floor, drawing circles with her finger.

That sounds interesting. It looks like Yuhua Hall is your next destination. Turning back to the Killer Physician, you begin to smile. “I don’t know how to-”

He interrupts you by grabbing your left wrist. You feel a sharp, aching pain shooting through your arm. “Oh, I know exactly how you can repay me. Do you know why they call me the Killer Physician? When I save a life, I take another as payment, to balance the world. I spent half my cache of herbs to save your life… and unfortunately, the one who begged me to save you was my idiot apprentice Cao’er over there.” He jerks his thumb at the girl, who shakes her head furiously and continues staring at the floor, as if it will open up and swallow her into a nice hiding spot if she looks at it long enough.

“I can’t go killing my precious heir and inheritor of my knowledge, boy. So, I will make a once-in-a-lifetime exception and have you work it off in other ways. You came at a right time - I will need an extra hand for some dangerous work in the future. From now on, you will be my second apprentice. Now... I can see that you are a wild one. If I let you be, you will flee in the night, thinking that you are some sort of untameable stallion. Young people. Hah.”

You had considered that, but you keep your eyes steady and focused on him without saying anything in return. He lets go of your wrist, the one that had hurt.

“Take a look at that purple dot on your skin. It will grow day by day, turning into a ring that encircles your wrist. When it is complete, you will die. Horribly. The only way to prevent it from growing is with a temporary antidote that I have, and I am the only person who knows how to remove the poison entirely.” His hand stops stroking the damnable beard, and a sly smile sprouts on his face. “You will work for me until the day I deem your debt repaid.”

Who knows how many years that will be? Even so, from the confident look on his face you know that it is useless to protest. You will have to bide your time for now and follow. The old man gets up, grinning crazily.

“Now, if you are done being surprised, get up! You are perfectly healthy now and have no excuse lying around being an invalid. We have work to do, places to go. There is an old woman with a cold in a nearby village that needs my attention.”

“Who are you going to kill for that?” you ask. Master Yao gives you a glare. “Are you dense? The bloody woman isn’t going to die from her cold. I take payment for minor ailments, taels only. How else would I eat?”

***

Yao turns out to be a rather tough master. The three of you wander from place to place according to his whims, curing little ills as you go. Apparently, it is rare that someone actually seeks him out in order to save lives - his price is known and few are willing to pay it. However, you cannot deny that his skills are bordering on the realm of the divine; he makes even the most reputable Imperial doctor look like a quack in comparison. During your travels, you perform many odd jobs and learn many things about herbalism and acupuncture, but you find yourself being relied upon to do a certain type of task in particular.

(Herbalism +2, Pressure Points +2)
(Neigong +1, but cannot be raised any higher for now)

A. Both Yao and Cao’er are really quite bad at talking to people. Horrendous, actually. You find yourself often being the face of your little physician troupe in socializing, negotiating and haggling for payment with stingy peasants and rich merchants alike. You begin to talk more smoothly and think more quickly, being forced to mentally calculate the proper compensation for the value of the herbs used and services rendered... and in some sadly frequent cases, especially when it comes to the merchants, acquire the unpaid monies subtly. (CHA +1, INT+1, Speech +2, Sleight-of-Hand +1, Sneak +1)

B. You often take the job of travelling deep into the wilds in order to gather rare herbs and animals. The isolation of the mountains sharpen your senses. You become more perceptive of colours and sounds and movement, as you set traps for snakes and other animals - but more commonly snakes. You become able to identify your target herbs and animals from a distance. The long treks in the wild also improves your endurance, as you frequently find yourself returning under a heavy load of materials collected for Master Yao. (PER +1, END +1, Herbalism +1, Sneak +1, Traps +2)

***

In addition to medicine, the Killer Physician also proves to be rather adept at the art of killing. There are those who would refuse to pay his price after his work is complete. These he would end; by force if necessary, though he takes only the life he is owed. You have yet to encounter Master Yao putting his reputation as the Killer Physician in practice, as all you have dealt with so far are common ailments, but you know he is of considerable skill as a martial artist. The first technique he imparts to you is the Jinshetuipi (金蛇蛻皮, Golden Snake Shedding Skin). It is an unorthodox qinggong technique that specializes in avoiding an enemy's clutches via erratic movements - he perceived your high agility and deemed it useful for you. You accepted the technique with little hesitation; you had lost your scroll for the Yinglang Step together with the rest of your possessions when the bandits attacked. You had memorized many of the drawings, but what you could replicate was an incomplete technique.

This was not the only skill you learned. You were also offered the chance to learn:

A. Duancao Legs. (斷草腿, Grass Breaking Legs) A physician's hands are to cure, not to kill. So said Master Yao's own master, though Yao doesn't seem to abide by that maxim. The Grass Breaking Legs is a kicking technique that is quick and sharp. True masters of this ability would be able to cut pliable grass by the force of their kicks alone.

B. Jiudu Silver Needles. (九毒銀針 Nine Poison Silver Needles) A deadly poison technique created by concocting nine basic poisons. One strike in the proper point will kill any man not versed in the art of self-defense. The needles soaked in the poison can be used in close combat, or thrown, if the practitioner has skill with throwing weapons.

C. Yuhe Finger (癒合指, Healing Finger) A neigong dependant finger technique that transmits internal energy to a pressure point when struck. Practitioners will focus on the ability to cure ailments and manipulate a person's qi into a healthier arrangement.

***

Votes for each choice will be counted separately.
 

三 · A Call for Help

Time's up. I suppose kicking it is.

***

A Call for Help

Winter turns to spring, and then to summer. As autumn draws to a close and the winds begin to bring a hint of the coming cold, you find yourself on the outskirts of Xuchang, the latest city where Master Yao’s wanderings have taken you. A well-off merchant by the name of Gu Zhan had taken sick and heard of the famed Killer Physician’s presence in the city. Living up to his reputation, Master Yao had healed the man with some efficacious herbal brews. Then, he advised the man rather loudly that he should purchase some of these herbs for his mistress, who must have transmitted the clap to him.

That did not go well. It took all of your charm and patience - not much of the latter, you’ll admit - to negotiate safe exit from the merchant’s manor. You didn’t even get paid.

“Master,” you sigh loudly, “did you do that on purpose? I have told you many times to mind your bedside manners. Perhaps it would be better if you concentrated on the healing and left the talking to me.”

Yao snorts loudly as he lights up the book of alchemy he had brought along to read and tosses it to the roadside with utter disregard for fire safety. “If his mistress is not kept well enough that she attracts stray flies like rotting meat, that is not my fault. I gave him a proper warning, like a physician should do. Rubbish. Utter rubbish, this book is.”

“Subtlety, Master.” You know you are not the best person to talk about subtlety, but the time you have spent with Yao and Cao’er has been very enlightening.

“Subtlety, eh?” Master Yao suddenly grins slyly. “When did you do it?”

“You have sharp eyes, my master,” you say, as you open up your palm to show a little pouch. “You were making a big fuss and crying bloody murder as they tried to beat your head in. In all that ruckus, no one was looking at the box. It was the best choice I could have made, considering the circumstances. I’m not going without dinner tonight; we didn't even have enough money to buy this chicken when we walked into the city." You shake the bag containing your dinner in his face. "The two of you have been spending a lot of taels on buying books and then burning them after reading.”

“I made that fuss on purpose, stupid disciple of mine,” says Yao, ignoring your concerns over finances and book burning. “You still have much to learn about the ways of the world, but it is good that you no longer hesitate to procure what should be rightfully ours.”

You open the pouch and count the coins within. “Slightly more than what is rightfully ours, it seems.” At that, Yao frowns. “You know what to do, Jing.”

You nod. “I’ll pass the surplus coins to one of Gu’s servants. If it makes it back to him, good. If it doesn’t, he was paying his servants too little anyway. You know, they’re starting to call you the Thieving Physician.”

“And yet they ask for me anyway. How can they complain?” laughs your master. He does have a point. Despite his unorthodox, eccentric reputation, the Killer Physician Yao Shunshi is in high demand. This is not because his prices are cheap. Indeed, they are frequently exorbitant and fluctuate wildly depending on how much he likes his patients. It is rare for him to like his patients.

Master Yao is sought after because of two traits of his.

Firstly, he will never refuse a call for help. No matter how minor, how major, or how dangerous the situation is, he will heed the call. Back during the summer, he led you and Cao’er right into the middle of a turf war between two gangs over a peasant’s fever. You had to kick your way out of several excitingly dangerous events that temporarily quenched your thirst for reckless adventure.

Secondly, you have never seen him fail, not even once. His reputation is such that no one has ever found an illness he could not treat. Master Yao once boasted that if death was an ailment instead of the natural end of life, he could cure it.

These two traits combined meant that if you called for him in time, he would come, and he would heal you.

As the two of you approach the abandoned hut outside Xuchang that serves as your temporary - and more importantly, free - lodgings while you are in the area, you spot a pillar of smoke rising towards the heavens. That is probably the last of the books that they bought. Yao and Cao’er have a remarkable memory. The both of them are able to memorize pages and pages with just a single glance. Every year, they would spend a considerable amount of money to purchase all of the updated manuals, and memorize them. Then, they would burn the books. When you asked why, Yao just said that it was an offering, and nothing more.

You see Cao’er fanning the flames of the fire. When she spots you and Master Yao approaching, she gives a slight nod of the head before turning her undivided attention back to the flames… though you can still spot her stealing glances at you out of the side of her eyes. Your master goes back into the hut, grumbling as usual, while you go over to his senior apprentice. Despite being two years younger than you are, she is far, far better than you can ever be in the arts of healing. She can concoct a good batch of qi-suppressing pills and temporary antidotes for you within hours, while it would take you perhaps a full day of trial and error. However, her excellent memory and enormous skill at medicine is not the only reason why Master Yao took her in - Cao’er had been born with what your master calls Immortal’s Eyes. She is able to perceive the meridians and the flow of qi with just her eyes alone, and he often brags that she will grow up to become an even more famous physician than he is. But for now...

You sniff the air. As expected, she hasn’t been keeping up her bathing regimen. The girl just seems to hate water in general. Earlier on you had taken it upon yourself to scrub her clean personally, but, well… girls grow, as they always do.

You blanch at the memory of Master Yao sniggering and pushing the responsibility of explaining a girl’s flowering to a fourteen year old boy. Thankfully she had already learnt of such things from all that reading she does.

You place a firm hand on her greasy, tangled hair, causing the girl to freeze up and turn red. “...yes?” As always, her voice is meek and hoarse from disuse. She always sounds like a dying frog when she speaks, which is not often.

“Did you follow my instructions?”

Head-shake.

“Why didn’t you?”

“...forgot.”

“Go do it now, or the only thing they’ll be calling you in the future is the Stinky Physician,” you order with a laugh. Cao’er bows to you and runs off, keeping her eyes glued to the ground all the while. You had been an only child while with your real parents, and with Shun it was like having a brother your age. This is the first time you’ve had something akin to a younger sibling. It’s a strange feeling - you’re not sure that you enjoy herding her around, but you’re not sure that you dislike it either.

Of course, Master Yao isn’t anything like a parent. More like a grumpy, troublesome uncle with a malicious streak.

***

The roasting chicken fills the air with a pleasant aroma. As you turn it over the fire, Cao’er returns from her bath. Her hair is no longer greasy, though it is as messy as ever. She has swapped into the other bundle of thick rags that she wears - you’ve put that out to dry. Prior to your arrival Cao’er had taken care of the daily chores, but you soon discovered that she did it rather absent-mindedly. You are unsure how someone so well-versed at the art of brewing potions can be so bad at cooking. Thankfully, you had spent some time with the maids in the kitchen and picked up a thing or two.

My dear brother Shun, if only you could see me now. I am not sure if you would laugh or cry, you think as you split up the chicken like a good wife. A big portion for the growing girl, a middling one for the growing boy, and the chicken’s posterior for the old master. He raises his white eyebrows as you serve the hindquarters to him. “We need the nutrition, master,” you say.

He gives a big, dramatic shrug in return and tucks in, muttering about cocky kids. You’ve learnt Yao’s boundaries as a master - he may be harsh and demanding when it came to professional skills, but in daily living he is as carefree as a bird and eats like one. As long as you performed his tasks and did it without complaint, he would be satisfied.

After dinner had been put away, Master Yao beckons with a finger, summoning the both of you to sit in front of him. Clearing his throat, he begins.

“We have received two important requests. I never turn down any request, but these are important even by my demanding standards. The first is a request from an old acquaintance of mine in the Beggars’ Sect. One of their brethren is awaiting trial for murder in Kaifeng, and they claim he has been falsely accused. My acquaintance asks for my assistance in obtaining a second opinion regarding the state of the corpse so that they may clear the beggar’s name. The second request comes from the Songfeng Sword School, south of here near Tuzhonglin. The head of the school has suddenly fallen ill and is in critical condition. If I do not save him, he will die. They are aware of my price and are prepared to pay it.”

Your master smiles thinly. “As you can see, I cannot be in two places at once. Cao’er, you will take my place for one of these requests. I think it is time for you to become more independent. You are definitely up to the task of handling any of these requests.”

The girl shrinks back, pulling her head into the mass of rags that she calls her clothes. “...but…”

“Don’t worry. I’ll send Xu Jing with you,” replies Yao with a nasty grin, cutting off any thoughts you might have had about having a few days off from dealing with the two of them. You do not hate them, but they do aggravate you at times, even with your new and improved patience. Cao'er, on her part, seems visibly relieved, the tension draining from her posture.

“Very well, master,” you answer tentatively, “but a question, if I may. Which request would you prefer to handle?”

“A wise question,” snorts Yao, though you do not know if he is being sarcastic. “I would rather handle the Songfeng case. I have little interest in looking at those that are already dead. What do you think, clever apprentice of mine?”

***

A. You would prefer to take the Beggars’ Sect request. Despite her shyness Cao’er is rather good at investigating corpses, as you have seen firsthand for yourself a number of times, and this should be something she can handle easily. Furthermore, the Beggars’ Sect are a major sect with an unparalleled information network, and making friends with them would be extremely useful to you - the beggars are noted for their loyalty to their allies.

B. You would prefer to go to Songfeng Sword School. It may not be a big sect, but it is rather reputable in the orthodox world and known to be honourable. More importantly, Master Yao will follow through with his ‘save one, kill one’ principle in this case. Cao’er is not bound by those principles, and if she saves the head of the school you could be walking away with money or techniques instead of taking another person’s life.
 

四 · Songfeng Sword School

Songfeng Sword School

Master Yao accepts your request to go to Songfeng with a shrug and a slight chuckle. “If you wish. I believe Cao’er will be up to the task of curing the man. I will go to Kaifeng. At the very least, going there means I’ll get to share a drink with Liuwu again. The man knows his wine for being such a dirty beggar.” Stroking his beard, he remarks approvingly, “That makes up for the tedious task of examining the corpse.”

At dawn, just as you are preparing to set off he gives you a dagger, which you strap to the inside of your boot. Leaning closely to you, the old man whispers, “Should anything happen, do not allow Cao’er to kill. She can never kill. If you have to, kill in her stead.” You understand what he means. Cao’er turns… different, when she hurts a living thing, accidentally or otherwise. “Do you expect trouble at Songfeng, master?” you ask quietly.

Yao snorts and slaps you on the back hard. “I expect trouble everywhere. Now off with you!”

***

The journey to takes you the better part of the day - by the time you finally reach your destination, the sun is setting. Despite her small stature, Cao’er has borne the trek without a single noise of complaint.

As you walked, you had asked around Tuzhonglin about the school that you are heading to, finding out a bit of its background. Rong Muben is the master and founder of the school. He had once been a senior disciple on Huashan, reputed for his light swordsmanship. After creating a reputation for himself, he had married and settled down in the forest near Tuzhonglin twenty years ago. There, he had built his Songfeng Sword School. The school is relatively reputable but not large - there are at most thirty or forty students. Apparently Rong Muben has combined his honour with an utter lack of ambition, lacking the will to expand his school. He has not challenged any other schools in ten years, preferring to spend his time cultivating himself in meditation. Times have been hard recently, and the son has just returned a few months ago from a year’s stay at Huashan Sect, where his father had trained.

The two disciples at the gate to the compound stare at you with an unfriendly eye.

“Report your name!” challenges one of the disciples.

You make a courteous bow and introduce yourself and Cao’er. “We are apprentices of the Master Physician Yao Shunshi. I believe we are expected?”

The two look at each other, whispering.

“No, we didn’t-” begins one of the disciples, before a woman’s voice is heard from the courtyard, its owner approaching the gate swiftly. “Are the physician’s apprentices there?” A matronly woman of about forty steps out of the gate, respectably dressed. She looks flustered and worried, deep lines having etched into her brow, but finds it in herself to give you a gentle, welcoming smile.

“Ah, the two of you must be Master Yao’s apprentices! I am Madam Rong, the wife of our house’s master, Songfeng School Master Rong Muben. Master Yao sent a message saying that he was busy and he would send two representatives in his stead. He did not mention that they were children, however… no matter! Master Yao’s reputation is unimpeachable! Even his apprentice will be better than any doctor.”

She looks at you with hope, showing such faith in you that you can’t help but feel embarrassed. “Oh, no, I’m not the one who will be doing the healing. My senior here is the real expert. I’m Xu Jing, and she’s Cao’er,” you say humbly. Cao’er gives a yelp of panic as you direct the attention over to her.

“Such a cute young girl is your senior? That is impressive, Cao’er! I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” says the woman enthusiastically, patting the girl’s head bravely - it takes some courage to touch that mess of hair. You can tell that Madam Rong is trying to stay calm and put Cao’er at ease despite her own worries. The motherly instincts of a grown woman, perhaps? “Please, please do come in.”

As she leads the both of you into the courtyard, her footsteps quicken. You gesture at Cao’er to hurry up. The school’s master may be in very poor condition.

***

Rong Muben’s face is pale, his eyes dark and his cheeks sunken. Cao’er swiftly goes by his side and takes his pulse. After a while, she looks up at you and begins to recite the materials that she will need. In such situations, she does not hesitate to speak, though her voice is still as hoarse as ever. “Five ke of caomu, two and a half ke of zhongliang…”

You hurriedly open up your bags and open up the packed herbs. After measuring the proper amount, you place the herbal mixture in a wooden bowl, passing it to Cao’er. “Madam Rong, could you please show my senior to the kitchen?” She obliges quickly, placing two hands on Cao’er’s shoulders and steering her out of the room. In the meantime, you go over to the sickly Master Rong.

You recognize the mixture that Cao’er had asked for - Master Rong has been poisoned. Looking at the dazed patient more closely, you can see the tell-tale signs of dark spots under his jaw. As you are about to try and speak to him, you hear a quiet cough from the doorway. Turning your head, you see a young man of perhaps twenty in the robes of a Songfeng disciple, except slightly more ornate in its embroidery.

“What are you doing with my father?” he asks. You give him a polite bow, making sure not to establish eye contact. You can smell his arrogance even from a distance - it’s not the first time you’ve met such a man. You know his sort; he is the type of man who would have been a bully as a boy. “I’m an apprentice sent by Master Yao. We are here to heal him.”

“Really?” he frowns. “Better do a good job, then. Mother has been fervently praying for Father to be healed.”

“How long has he been sickly?” you ask politely.

“Does that matter?”

“It does. The longer a sickness breeds, the harder it is to banish,” you speak, taking on the cultured tones of medicinal tomes that you have read. It is comfortable, as if slipping back into the palace lingo that you once used.

“Perhaps a week, then. Father fell off a horse and has never been the same since,” replies the young man absent-mindedly, his brow creasing.

“I see. That is important information. Thank you… young master?”

“Rong Zhiyu, heir of the Songfeng Sword School. It has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance, apprentice physician. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have matters of the school to see to so that things will be running smoothly when Father recovers.” Placing his hands together, he bows and departs.

Soon after, Cao’er returns with Madam Rong. The potion is ready - it stinks, as it always does. Madam Rong gently cradles her husband’s head and raises it, while Cao’er pours the nasty concoction down his throat. Then, she stabs at his pressure points with her finger, swiftly and precisely, without hesitation. Within minutes, the colour returns to Master Rong’s face. His eyes slip closed and a gentle snore begins to emit from his lips.

The three of you exit the room quietly, allowing the man to rest. Madam Rong gives Cao’er a tight hug - truly, she is a brave woman not afraid of filth. “Thank you! You are truly the followers of the wondrous physician.” She smiles tearfully. “I… I expect that I will have to pay the price now?”

“...not cured yet. I’m not as good as my Master,” croaks Cao’er in response. “I need one more session with him tomorrow to remove the p… illness…” It looks like she’s a bit more tactful than her master in this regard. Cao’er then shakes her head, continuing, “Also, no killing either. We’ll be paid normally...”

You haven’t said anything about the price for saving a life on the way here, thinking that you would raise it when the treatment is complete - she’s decided on this herself.

The look on Madam Rong’s face is one of utter surprise and joy, as if Buddha himself had come down to bless her. She embraces Cao’er in a hug so tight that you can hear her breath squeaking out. “Thank you! Thank you! I won’t forget this. You can be sure that I will let everyone know that Master Yao has some very fine apprentices to follow in his footsteps. The both of you will always be welcome here at Songfeng!”

***

The grateful Madam Rong escorts you personally to your room. Cao’er had refused to sleep in a separate one, and with the clucking of a disapproving mother hen Madam Rong had grudgingly allowed it. Very grudgingly, as she continues knocking on the door every ten minutes to find out if you need anything. You spot her shadow hovering through the paper walls, listening in. It seems that she’s guarding Cao’er’s chastity as fervently as she would her own daughter’s.

After sometime Madam Rong stops poking her head in, seemingly called away for other things. You heave a sigh of relief. Once the two of you are truly alone, you can’t resist patting her on the head; she’s just like a cute little animal. “Good job. I’m really proud of you.” Cao’er blushes and smiles shyly, staring at the floor again. She has done well - if everything goes smoothly, tomorrow you will leave with a proper reward, without taking Madam Rong’s life. If.

This is a clear case of poisoning, and you already have your suspect. Madam Rong seems oblivious, and Cao’er was tactful enough to refrain from mentioning the poison - she is leaving the decision to you.

“How do the others not see it,” you mutter. Then again, a mother will always think the world of her son, and he may have gained the support of the rest of the disciples.

There is yet another knock at the door, and a voice speaks. It is not Madam Rong this time.

“This is Rong Zhiyu. May I come in, apprentices?”

You know he will come in whether you allow it or not. “Please do, Young Master Rong,” you call out.

Rong Zhiyu walks in, grinning thinly. Falsely. In his left hand he is carrying a sword, in the other, a book. Another sword is tucked in at his waist. You tense up, shifting your body instinctively so that Cao’er is behind you. Even so, you force your face into a smile. It is probably more natural than his on account of your constant practice.

“I’m just here to tell you the good news. Father is fully recovered now, and won’t be needing your assistance tomorrow.”

There is no need to even think about it - he is lying. Cao’er will not be wrong about the amount of treatment required.

“I am unsure what reward you would want - Mother said that you did not demand the Killing Physician’s fee, and I am grateful for that. Unfortunately, as you know we are not a very rich school. I thought of giving these to you,” says Rong Zhiyu, as he tosses the sword and book at you.

“That sword has been passed down through the ages in the Rong family, and the book instructs you in the Songfeng Swordplay. These are our prized heirlooms.”

You look at the sword, drawing it partially from the scabbard. The design is old - perhaps more than a hundred years old - and when you wield it there is something off about its balance, though you cannot tell what exactly. You have had experience with swords in the palace, and this sword just feels wrong in your hand. Perhaps it is just badly made.

Then, you look at the book. There is only one page within - the first step of the Songfeng Swordplay.

“The rest of the steps are school secrets - if you want them, you will have to join and pay a fee,” smiles the young master. The 'gifts' are clearly meant as insults. You can feel Cao’er grabbing your sleeve.

“These are marvellous treasures, Young Master Rong. Are you sure we can have them?” you say, chuckling with feigned pleasure.

“Of course. They are really more than you deserve, but I would say it is fitting payment for curing my dear father.”

“Thank you, Young Master Rong,” you bow politely. “That must not be the only reason you are here, right?”

His eyes narrow. “Since your business here is done, perhaps you can be on your way, apprentices.”

“I would, but the road is dark at night, Young Master. Where would you have us go? We have walked a long way today,” you reply.

“I have arranged for an inn’s room at Tuzhonglin, just ten minutes away. I will have four of our school’s disciples escort you there,” he says, staring at you. It looks like his mind is set and he will not be swayed. You are not wanted here.

You are also not new to the jianghu any more. Grinning at Rong Zhiyu, you know that there is a chance that those disciples will attempt to cut you and Cao’er down in the dark, once you’re safely away from the school. Of course, in the woods you could always try to lose them, but if you walk away now, you are certain that Master Rong will die. You would be betraying Madam Rong’s trust, and your master’s own reputation.

On the other hand… Cao’er’s grip on your sleeve tightens, as she is starting to get nervous at the situation.

***

A. You agree to leave with the old sword and the single-page book as payment. If they attempt to attack you, you will try to slip away. If necessary you will kill them. You cannot let Cao’er get wrapped up in this. It is unfortunate for Master and Madam Rong, but you cannot help them, not against the viper in their own blanket.

B. You agree to leave, but once you are in the woods you will attempt to give the disciples the slip. You will put Cao’er some place safe and ask her to show you how to heal Master Rong. Picking up what you can, you will then sneak back into the school alone - bringing Cao’er along will be too difficult for your skills - and attempt to cure him yourself.

C. You refuse Rong Zhiyu to his face. He is a bully of the worst sort - he would never have tried this with Master Yao. He can do his best if he dares, but you bet that he will be too cowardly to face you in a fight. Even though he is five years older than you and trained properly in the sword, a swordsman is nothing if you can prevent him from drawing his blade. You have your legs.

D. You offer to help him. What is wrong with poisoning? You will ask Cao'er to hold back and only pretend to heal, while you give more poison to Rong Muben yourself. Rong Zhiyu may be dislikeable, but his father won't live forever anyway and it'll be good to have him as an ally by helping him now.

E. You pretend to offer to help him. You tell him Cao'er can use more lethal poisons to ensure that his father dies. Of course, that will be a trick, and Cao'er will be doing her best to heal him instead. Hopefully he will fall for this proposal. You will try to expose him afterwards; there is no point healing him and not dealing with the son if he's just going to try the same thing again after you leave.
 

五 · Turmoil in Songfeng

Turmoil in Songfeng

You rack your mind for a while, thinking of the best way to reject him, and decide that you should at least be talking like you are addressing a senior eunuch even if you are telling him no. After all, you are the same person who, at the age of seven, had once pissed in the rice bowl of Grand Eunuch Li upon your prince’s suggestion; you will not back down from this bully. You will stand your ground. With etiquette.

“I am really afraid I cannot do that, Young Master Rong,” you answer directly, taking such a polite tone that you feel like punching yourself in the head. “My senior is exhausted and requires immediate rest. I am sure the hospitability of your school rivals that of any inn, young master; I hope you will not begrudge us partaking of it?”

Rong Zhiyu does not move, nor does he say a word. He doesn’t know how to answer you. A perfect gentleman with nothing to hide would acquiesce to such flattery, and that is how he wanted to present himself. “No,” he finally says unconvincingly. “I must insist.” Not the smartest man around.

You already have an answer ready. “I have no say in the matter if you insist, young master. However, I do insist that my senior and I be allowed to bid your respected mother goodbye before we go, to thank her for her hospitability. We will need to inform her that we will be coming back the next morning for the follow-up session. Although your father is already recovering, we do need to perform a check-up to ensure he will enjoy fullness of health. I am sure you have no objections to that, young master? I’m sure no one can accuse you of being an unfilial son.” Perhaps you shouldn’t have said that last sentence, but then again, it was too hard to resist such a good-natured, innocuous line.

“You are really something, aren’t you...” The young Rong grimaces angrily, staring at you. “Let’s see how long you can keep flapping that glib tongue of yours! I will not let you mock me!” His hand reaches towards the sword at his side - whether to threaten or to attack you, you don’t know, but you will not let him draw that sword.

Rong Zhiyu may have more skill and experience under his belt, but you are faster.

Whipping your foot up, you kick his hand away before he can close his fingers around the sword’s hilt.

His eyes widen in surprise as he takes a step back, cradling his sore hand. You take a step forward, covering Cao’er entirely with your own body. Rong looks at you with suspicion and fear, realizing that you are not a simple apprentice who knows only herbs and medicines.

“Young Master Rong,” you begin with a genial smile, “I am sure this is all a misunderstanding-”

“THIEVES!” shouts Rong without warning, as he turns and bolts through the door. “Help! Thieves! The apprentices are thieves!”

You chase out after the screaming young master and realize too late that the old sword he had given you is still in your hand. At least a dozen Songfeng disciples are heading towards you down the corridor, with Rong Zhiyu awaiting them. You don’t know if they were summoned by his shouts, or if they had been waiting there all this while, but it doesn’t change the fact that you are trapped. He points an accusing finger at you. “This boy attempted to steal a sword from us!”

The disciples glare at you menacingly, some of them drawing their own swords. Should you fight? Should you flee? You doubt you can talk them down.

Before you can decide, a loud voice interrupts the din. “What is going on here?” Madam Rong pushes her way past the disciples, looking around her in bewilderment. She turns to her son and asks, “Zhiyu, what is going on?”

“Mother,” beseeches Rong, “we must dismiss these burgling misfits! I warned you that the apprentices were bound to steal from us, and they have. That boy there went and stole the old family sword!”

Madam Rong spins around quickly, staring at you. There is a severe look of disappointment in her eyes as she catches sight of the sword. “Oh, Xu Jing, you should not have done that!” she exclaims loudly. “My husband would have given it to you if you asked for it tomorrow. It’s just an old sword after all. This is most unseemly! I knew the Killer Physician and his apprentices were the sort to do as they wish, but this...”

It looks like despite her friendly nature and the services Cao’er has rendered, the eccentric reputation of Master Yao - helped along by you - is not a wall that can be surmounted all that easily. You resist the urge to scream your innocence, or to shout anything sarcastic that they could misinterpret. Taking a deep breath, you calm yourself. Protesting your innocence or suddenly accusing Rong Zhiyu of poisoning will only make you look worse at this point. Expecting anyone in this school to believe your word over that of their young master, without any shred of evidence, when you are in a pinch yourself and could be expected to lie to save your own skin - that is an exercise in futility.

“I am very sorry, Madam Rong, Young Master!” You take the very best apologetic behaviour that you have learnt from your years in the palace, and bend your body in a deep bow, offering the sword back obsequiously with outstretched arms as if they were the Dickless Five themselves.

“I have always been interested in swords from when I was a child!” That is the truth.

“This sword felt interesting in my hand,” That is also the truth.

“ I am not sure how the sword came to be in my room in the first place, but I couldn’t resist taking a closer look at it,” you begin to lie. “Unfortunately the young master must have misunderstood the situation when he entered the room without knocking.”

“That’s… right,” muses Madam Rong. “I could have sworn you did not leave the room with Cao’er…” She catches herself and makes an embarrassed cough. “I mean, I thought the sword was in the armory. Did we misplace it?”

“He… he must have snuck out and taken it!” protests Rong Zhiyu angrily. “You are a common thief and it was a mistake ever letting the two of you step into this house!”

“I am truly very sorry for offending with my actions, young master, but my actions are my own. Do not lump Cao’er in together with me. My senior is in every way better as a person, a rare flower blooming on a heap of dung. She would never condone what I did - she came only to heal your esteemed father.”

You take a surreptitious glance at Madam Rong as you remind her of what Cao’er has done for the school’s master. Your heart is pounding very quickly - you are throwing out words as you think of them, hoping to find a way out of this little pickle and praying not to make a misstep. You had underestimated Rong Zhiyu’s cunning. Well, not by much, but still…

“Mother, do not listen to this sneak,” snarls Rong desperately.

“Oh, dear son, perhaps we overreacted a little?” says Madam Rong finally. You feel the joy of relief rushing through your body. Rong Zhiyu would not cut me to pieces without reason in front of his mother. If he was that sort of man, he would have cut his father’s throat while the old man was still weak from poison; you do doubt the son can best the father in a straight fight.

“Please, young master, you may retrieve the sword. I meant no offense by it,” you say, continuing to keep your body bent. You could keep this up all night. Your best record for such a position was issued by the Emperor via Grand Eunuch Li’s counsel after the rice bowl incident - ten hours. Your back hurt for days afterwards.

“I think we should let the boy look at the sword more if he wants to, shouldn’t we? Zhiyu?” asks Madam Rong as she turns to her son. “He does like swords, like you do. I think he will respect the sword and its current owners enough not to run off with it, even if he was not educated as well as you are.”

The young master just stares at me with undisguised hate. Things aren’t going the way he planned at all, but to be fair, things aren’t going the way you planned either. You straighten yourself without waiting for him to respond. With a somber face, you say, “Again, I must apologize for causing the disturbance tonight, madam and young master. I hope you can find it in yourselves to forgive me. You must not blame Young Master Rong for his misunderstanding, madam. I can see he is someone who will zealously fight for the school’s honour, and a man of upstanding character.”

“Yes, my son is a good man,” smiles Madam Rong. “Being our only child we put everything we had into raising him as a gentleman, and I am happy to say that he has surpassed all of our expectations. He may be a bit… over-enthusiastic at times, and trusting in nature, but he always does the right thing.”

Behind her, the son in question glowers at you.

“I can see that he is exactly as you describe him,” you say. You had just one more thing to say. “Ah, Madam Rong, my senior had bid me say something about your husband’s condition.”

She becomes nervous. “What is it? Is there something wrong?”

“Oh, oh no. Not at all. She just said that until the dawn comes, your husband would do better with his spouse’s touch. The medicine she made promotes an energetic circulation of yang qi. She says it will aid his recovery in both his flow of qi and… ah, other matters if you stay by his side tonight.” You say the last line with a tone just suggestive enough that a mature woman would understand its meaning, though you take care to keep your manner remote.

“Oh, oh my,” says Madam Rong, turning slightly flushed. “That… would be nice. Cao’er is a very knowledgeable girl for her age, isn’t she? Thank you.” Rong Zhiyu gives a slight choke of disbelief, a scandalized look creeping over his face at what you have just implied. He stomps off in a huff, the disciples following in his wake while casting suspicious glances over their shoulder at you. Madam Rong, on the other hand, gives you a quick nod of the head before walking off towards her husband’s room.

You heave a sigh of relief. That was a close call. Had you been a bit slower with your words for any reason, Madam Rong would likely have ordered you to be locked up. Then, no doubt you would suffer a mysterious accident while in the cell. You don’t even want to think about what might happen to Cao’er.

When you head back into your room, you find that she’s fallen asleep, grinding her teeth loudly and sprawled wide on the bed. You roll her onto her side, making room for yourself, and sit down as you rub your eyes. The one-page manual that Rong Zhiyu had tossed at you is still here. You open it, studying the instructions for that one step. You won't be able to execute it overnight, but you have nothing to do anyway. It’s going to be a long night.

***

You are pleasantly surprised when you awake the next morning without finding your throat opened up by an angry heir of a sword school. However, there is a heavy weight pressing down on your legs, and they have turned uncomfortably numb. Sometime during the night, Cao’er had crawled into your lap. You shake her awake and begin preparing yourself. It’s time to wrap things up at Songfeng.

When you arrive at Rong Muben’s room with Cao’er in tow, he still looks frail but in much better condition than when you saw him last. Madam Rong is still with him, her face shiny and her hair slightly disheveled from exertions that you will not mention on this fine autumn morning. Rong Zhiyu is already there, looking uncomfortable. When he sees you, however, he smiles gracefully and bows. His eyes, however, are full of venom. You have made an enemy here.

Madam Rong introduces the two of you to the conscious master, who bows his head politely and thanks you for your help. “I am in your debt, Xu Jing and Cao’er,” smiles Master Rong. “I did not think I would survive this sickness.” You take note of those words. Most masters are able to know if they have been poisoned - that he did not realize it means that the poison was of a very insidious nature. You are definitely not the first physicians to have paid a visit; the others must have failed to diagnose the poison that was killing the master.

Cao’er gives you a quick tug of the sleeve, noticing you lost in thought. “...will tell you the details of the illness when we do our studies later, Jing,” she whispers. You nod.

The second session is almost similar to the first, though you glimpse Cao’er hitting different points this time around. When it is done, Master Rong exhales. “This is wondrous. I feel like a new man, better than I was before the illness. You must be as good as your master, little girl.”

“...no… not yet,” she replies shyly.

“I am not sure how I can repay you,” says Rong Muben. “My son says that you have been particularly taken with an old family sword of ours. It is yours if you wish it. I understand that the common price for the Killer Physician is the life of another, and I am very grateful that it has not been requested. We do not have a lot of taels at the moment, but we will give what we can spare. I may also find some other way to repay you for your kindness, perhaps a letter of recommendation for your conduct.”

You glance at Rong Zhiyu. You know that he will not give up this easily and that he will make another attempt on his trusting father in the future. However, you are also certain that Rong Muben, oblivious to the danger, will not listen to your warnings. After all, you have not managed to find any evidence at all. If you bring it up, a man like him will only consider it an insult to him and his family. You could collect your payment and walk away. That means that should Rong Zhiyu become head of the school, you will have made an enemy of Songfeng.

According to the Stratagems, to ensure your foe is defeated, you must be thorough. When the grass is cut the roots must be eradicated. Leaving Rong Zhiyu alive and in position to carry out his plans may come back to haunt you in the future regardless of how powerless he may seem right now - you have certainly earned his ire. How, then, can you eradicate him?

There is a path ready for you to take - a path where you prey on Rong Muben's honour to protect him. The Killer Physician’s price. Though Cao'er had declined it, you know she will follow your lead in this matter, deferring to your judgment of the situation. You will claim it, and you will claim Rong Zhiyu’s life in a fair duel so that there can be no complaints. Rong Muben, being the honourable man that he is, will be forced to accede to your request. He will not seek revenge for this price, though you will not be favoured by the Songfeng school either. Who can be, after killing their young master and heir?

If you do not, you would be leaving Master and Madam Rong to the whims of their son, and possibly their deaths. Is that how you should conclude this case? You feel that it leaves things unfinished, that you have only helped them insofar as it is convenient for you to do so, that you have no need to worry about anything besides the scope of your job and the magnitude of your rewards. But perhaps it is the wiser choice to take.

You choose to…

***

A. Accuse Rong Zhiyu in front of his father.

B. Do not accuse Rong Zhiyu in front of his father.

1. Claim the Killer Physician’s price, forfeiting all other rewards that you may get.

2. Walk away with the rewards that Rong Muben will offer.
 

六 · The Physician's Price

The Physician’s Price

You decide to act. “Master Rong, you were poisoned. It was not any normal illness.” He stares at you gravely, his face solemn. “Poison, you say? That is a surprise. Who would want me dead? I do not have any enemies in the jianghu. I, Rong Muben, have always conducted myself with honour. Could you be mistaken in your diagnosis?”

You shake your head. Perhaps Cao’er could explain it more convincingly, but you do not want to drag her into this matter. If she speaks up now she would become involved. This is not her burden to bear. “It is not mistaken, Master Rong. I-”

“Wuxian Canshui Poison, (五仙殘水毒 Five Immortals Crippling Water Poison)” blurts out Cao’er quickly as she interrupts you. You look at her in surprise as she tries to cobble together a proper sentence. “... it’s used by the Wudu… the Five Poisons Cult. It’s one of their five main poisons. I mean, they use it a lot… the effect is, it’s theirs…” Cao’er tries bravely but runs out of steam and words as she shrinks under the attention of the Rong family. You place a hand on her shoulder, holding it firmly.

“Wuxian Canshui?” laughs Rong Muben fearfully. “I don’t think I have crossed the Wudu Cult in any way in my entire life as a pugilist. And sadly I admit my school is too insignificant to attract their attention. This is… well, this is a bit unbelievable.”

His nervous dismissal is understandable. The Wudu Cult, the cult of the Five Poisons, are acknowledged as the masters of poisons in the pugilistic world. Based in Guizhou, their Tufan leader, Tulu Huodu, is powerful enough in conventional martial arts that he has gained recognition as the feared Western Snake.

“My senior is never wrong in her diagnosis. More importantly, Master Rong, your son is responsible.” There is no point sugar-coating your words, or beating around the bush; it would only be a waste of time. You throw out the accusation quickly. “If not for the actual deed, then at least for the plan. I feel obligated to warn you of this.”

Madam Rong gasps, covering her mouth with her hands.

“Master Yao’s apprentice,” says Rong Muben heavily, “you may have saved my life, but that does not mean you can come into my house and spout nonsensical lies. My son told me that you might attempt to accuse him of some nefarious deed over the old sword you took. I did not think it would be so, but…”

“Master Rong-”

“Silence, boy. It is not gentlemanly for a person to accuse blindly without proof, even if he is a benefactor of mine. I would like you to depart from my school after receiving your reward.” His attitude is suddenly cold and stern - he will not listen to you anymore. It looks like your words have really insulted him. You give him a rigid bow. He does not believe you and does not plan to even give your words due consideration. What did you expect to accomplish by telling him that? You knew it would turn out this way.

“Ah, yes, the reward, Master Rong,” you say. Your voice is equally cold as you try to keep your feelings under control. There is no more place for unrestrained emotion here. You cannot do this out of anger or out of spite. You have been taught that once a path has been decided, straying from it for emotional reasons will only lead to disaster. Telling yourself that you are doing the right thing, you say the words.

“Keep your rewards. I will claim the Killer Physician’s price, as his apprentice,” you declare loudly.

“You… you said…” Madam Rong mumbles confusedly.

“Are you going back on your word, boy? Why do you do this?” Rong Muben asks, raising his voice. He is not pleased at all.

Rong Zhiyu strides towards you with an angry look on his face, though his smiling eyes tell you that he feels happy inside. Vindicated, perhaps. “Father, I told you they were not to be trusted! Allow me to arrest them-” You interrupt him, raising a finger. “The price must be paid, Young Master Rong. A life for a life. The world must be balanced. You will be the price for saving your father.” Rong Zhiyu falls back, his face suddenly pale.

The wail from Madam Rong pierces your eardrums. “No! Take me! Take me instead!”

“If you think I am going to help you kill my only son,” growls Master Rong with his teeth clenched, “you are sorely mistaken. There is no need to do this, Xu Jing. You promised to waive the price in return for rewards. Why go to these lengths?”

“Because I believe he is a danger to your life, Master Rong. The way of the physician is to heal, but we do not only limit ourselves to healing sickness of the flesh. Cao’er has cured you of the poison in your body. I will cure you of the poison in your family.” You keep your voice carefully frigid and your eyes intently on the silent Rong Zhiyu. It feels like you are putting on a stage act, speaking your words carefully and removing them from your real self. The truth that you are declaring on this morning seems even more remote to you than the lies that you spoke last night.

“There is no poison in my family, Xu Jing. I will not accede to this.”

“You refuse to pay the price, then?” Your voice drops, almost a whisper yet as sharp as a knife.

“Let me pay it!” shouts Madam Rong tearfully. “I was the one who called for you. If anyone has to pay with their life, it should be me! Isn’t that the rule of your master?”

“That is wrong, madam.” You shake your head - you do not actually know the rule that Master Yao operates by, but if he operates by no rules, whatever you say is true anyway. “If that is the case, any rich man could just buy a servant to die in his place. That does not serve the balance. Those who save have the right to choose the one that will die. I will ask again. Master Rong, do you refuse to pay this price?”

“I… no, but why do you make this so hard? Anything but my son! I would rather die than send him to the grave!” shouts Rong Muben desperately.

“I do not ask for you to send him into the grave, Master Rong,” you reply. “I ask that you permit me a duel to the death with him. That is a fair way to pay the price, I would think.”

“My son is a fair swordsman,” mutters the master of Songfeng, his distress fading. He seems confident that his son will defeat me. “Can you even handle a sword? You look too young to fight him.”

“That does not matter. This is the price I name.”

“And it’s a price I accept!” says Rong Zhiyu fiercely, confident now that you've requested for a duel. “This scoundrel has dishonoured my good name. I will not let him speak his lies anymore!”

“Very well,” sighs Master Rong. If his son has accepted, it seems that he will accede to this request. “I wish it would not come to this, but if it must be so… Xu Jing, you are a brave boy and I must admire that, but you should have learnt that falsehood is not something that should be spread wildly. I will send my apologies to Master Yao for your passing.”

“We will fight in the training yard, Xu Jing,” says Rong Zhiyu as he gives you a nasty smile. He steps out of the room to head to the place of the match. Before you do the same, you look at Cao’er. Without a word, she nods - she will take care of herself.

***

The training yard is covered with loose gravel, freshly raked over by the apprentices. Rong Zhiyu has already drawn his sword and is making a few practice swings with it as you arrive. Your audience will be his parents and the school’s disciples. This is undoubtedly a more hostile crowd than the one you had during your horse-back match with Yunzi. You push at the gravel with your toes. The footing seems fine.

Rong Zhiyu bows politely when he sees you, hands clasped together. “Let this be a fair duel with swords. The heavens will smile upon the righteous,” he calls out to the cheers of the disciples.

“You are an unfilial son and a poisoner, Rong Zhiyu,” I say just as loudly. “Heaven only sees fit to mock you with its smile.” Many of the disciples fall silent upon hearing your accusation - this will not do your reputation any good, but it is beyond salvage now anyway. You focus on the man ahead of you, blocking out everything else.

“I told you I would cut your glib tongue off!” snarls Rong Zhiyu as he starts the match impatiently without waiting for the signal. His weapon - a long, slender sword with a slightly flexible blade - points straight at your head. Your opponent’s footing shifts in the gravel, his right leg sweeping in front of his body as he falls into a stance. He holds his sword out, his blade parallel to the ground. You recognize this as the first step of the Songfeng Swordplay (松風劍法 Pine Breeze Swordplay) - the Bending Pine Branch. With an effortless lunge, he swings his sword in a graceful arc.

You block it with the old sword in your possession, still sheathed in its scabbard. The sword behaves strangely when swung and for now it would be a liability until you got used to wielding it. In an instant, Rong has pulled his sword away, skilfully parlaying his initial attack into a series of slashes and jabs that flow seamlessly. This is the essence of the Songfeng school’s technique - the wielder will strike gently but swiftly, akin to a breeze swaying the needle-like leaves of the pine tree.

Unfortunately, you can’t block a blade with your bare legs, nor are you good enough to take on a naked sword with the moves you know. Forced on the defense, you throw your sheathed sword up into a block at every move he makes. His blade doesn’t stop when it hits yours - it slides smoothly off the scabbard as Rong redirects it into another attack. It is only your quicker speed and the relatively slow movements of the technique that prevent you from being cut. Whenever you see an opening for an attack, Rong appears to instantly draw away, before launching another series of strikes by starting off with the lunge. These are probably breaks in the technique designed to lure an enemy into overextending and also to create space should the user require it; their purpose is rather obvious to you. Even so, you can find no real opportunity to attack.

You won’t hold out at this rate. Cursing, you kick up a spray of gravel, causing Rong to fall back elegantly. There is a smirk on his face - the bastard isn’t even winded, while your body is already beginning to tire from keeping up with his moves. The energy you expend in defense is much greater than the amount he uses on the attack. There are snickers from the disciples. It looks like you’ll have to change your tactics a little. Besides, there may be a flaw in his technique.

You shift your feet around, feeling the texture and give of the gravel. As he lunges yet again, you block the first strike. Again he moves his sword; again, in the same direction. You twist your sheathed sword, heavy in your hands, and yet growing familiar; metal clangs against metal as again you block him - and again, he moves, in an increasingly predictable way.

His breezy swordplay is nothing more than a string of moves chained together elegantly to respond to the way you block. The more predictable you are, the more predictable the Songfeng technique becomes. Of course, it took you the exchange of many moves to finally realize it, but it’s not too late yet.

You shift the grip on your sword, as if preparing to draw it. Rong hesitates for just a moment, and you take that chance. Moving in close, you jab your leg outwards, hitting him in the shin before he can react. As he grimaces in pain, you follow up with a sweep. Rong’s eyes flash dangerously.

Your sweep misses, as somehow your opponent sidesteps it. Qinggong. Probably something he picked up from Huashan. His footwork quickens as he adopts another stance unlike the gentle moves of the Songfeng Swordplay; he begins utilizing quick, wild swings. You evade the first two strikes but the third grazes your arm. You block his follow-up attack hurriedly. Softly, Rong’s sword slips away from your guard and thrusts at your heart.

You only manage to avoid that lethal move by throwing yourself backwards with full force, but you are off-balance now. The young master of the Songfeng school presses the attack, grinning eagerly. Mixing his slow Songfeng swordplay with the quick attacks of his other technique, he manages to get past your guard at last.

His blade strikes home, nicking your sides and limbs. With every hit he scores, his smile grows wider and his attacks grow more frenzied and careless. His excitement seems to grow.

“I’ll kill you,” he whispers with an ugly grin. “I’ll cut you up for not knowing your place. You thought you could challenge me?” You parry his attack with a strong swing, affecting a puzzled expression on your face despite the pain. “You seem to be rather excited. Have you killed before?”

He just snarls wordlessly at you and presses the attack, faster than ever. Your ungainly defense holds - you are amazed that you have come this far without a proper technique, but surely you cannot win like this.

Another narrow escape, as the blade slices a bloody line across your cheek. Every cut that he makes focuses your thoughts even more, sapping away the anger and desperation that you have. Every cut that he makes seems to incite him even more, as his moves turn nervous in anticipation of the point where he finally cuts you down. You imagine he is probably thinking ahead to the moment of his glorious victory in his mind.

As he grows wilder, you grow calmer.

After all, that is the state of mind they taught you to hold when you need to kill.

You remember being instructed to memorize the points of least resistance where you can stab a man. You remember being forced to practice on bound prisoners. Again, and again, and again, until the flow of blood over your hands becomes natural and you could do it without hesitation. Well, you do not dwell on that much nowadays - it is an unneeded memory. The fear of killing has already been removed from your spirit.

Rong steps back, suddenly wary. Though the arrogant look has not been wiped off his face, there is a hint of fear in his eyes. You just smile at him. From the way he acts, you can tell that he has not truly killed a man before, at least not with his own hands. If he succeeds here, you would be his first.

That… would be embarrassing.

***

A. You attempt a high level Duancao technique, one you have read about but have not even begun training. You will throw your sword at him as a distraction, and then run right at him. Using your Yinglang Step you will dart out of his vision at the last minute, and then swiftly kick him in three spots in the abdomen - the points of zhizheng, tianxi and taixi. By hitting these three pressure points with the force of a kick, you should be able to kill him instantly.

B. Having studied the first step of the Songfeng Swordplay all throughout last night, and seeing it in action multiple times today, you think you can derive a counter for it now. You draw your sword and taunt him into another lunge. You are certain he doesn’t have the skill or control to stop his lunge, and then you will strike with a move of your own - utilizing your strength and speed - designed to defeat that bending pine branch and take his life in one blow.

C. You feign defeat and drop your sword. The simplest ploy is the most effective. When he gets close to claim your life you will just draw your hidden dagger and stab him in the neck and whichever other parts necessary.

***

The chronicle has been updated.
 

七 · Falling Pine

Falling Pine

You draw the old sword, letting the scabbard drop to the floor.

The weathered metal is dull in the morning light, with a single word carved into the blade: the character for ‘fish’. Rong Zhiyu’s wary gaze turns into a dismissive smirk. “Ah, finally you draw the sword I gave you. A child fancying himself a swordsman, that does not even have a sword of his own. Do you even know how to wield one properly, boy?”

“The sharp end goes into the enemy,” you say. “How hard can it be?”

The disciples laugh and jeer at you. “Oh, be polite!” Rong calls out to them, laughing. The thought of you pitting your sword skills against him seems to have eased his mind. “He must have gone mad in desperation!”

As you put your right foot forward and point the sword at him, the blade parallel to the ground, the mocking crowd is silenced.

“What do you think you are doing?” says Rong Zhiyu, anger flashing in his eyes – yet another emotion added to the volatile mixture within him.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” you reply, posed in the stance of the Songfeng Swordplay.

“Insulting my father and his technique, it seems,” growls Rong. This time, you do not answer, keeping the sword pointed at his heart and your stance steady. All of the elements are in place.

You have the old sword, a Rong family heirloom, though they do not place much importance on it nowadays.

You are adopting the stance of the Rong family’s signature technique, preparing to execute the first step of the Songfeng Swordplay.

As the proud young master of a sword school that has made its name with that technique, as the heir and inheritor of the school, Rong Zhiyu can only make one possible decision. He would have to match you in the Songfeng Swordplay and defeat you in a head-on clash. There is no other conclusion he can come to.

Should he use a Huashan technique in his attack now, his name would be tarred no matter what he says. The young master of the Songfeng Sword School resorting to another sect’s techniques in order to beat a fifteen year old physician’s apprentice who has only studied the first step of the Songfeng Swordplay? He cannot afford to do anything else in front of all the disciples of the school and his parents. It would shame him, his father, and the school completely and utterly even if he won.

Surely, with his privileged position and years of training, he would know the technique’s intricacies far better than you did. Surely he would be able to execute it faster, stronger, and more gracefully than you could. How could his Songfeng Swordplay be inferior to yours?

No, for Rong Zhiyu there is only one answer that he can accept.

“It looks like you’ve decided to die in a humiliating manner,” sneers Rong Zhiyu as he falls into the Songfeng stance confidently, his movements far more elegant and practiced than yours. “I’ll show you the difference in our skills.”

Your heart is pounding away underneath your calm exterior. He has taken the bait, just like you expected. Now all that is left is for you to execute your move perfectly. You shift your grip, testing the balance of the sword. It should do. You calm your heavy breathing, controlling and regulating it with the measures you learned through the Yinglang Step.

“What’s the matter?” Rong Zhiyu calls out mockingly. “Not coming to attack with your imitation technique? Are your knees trembling now, when faced with a true master of the sword?”

You twitch your hand, making the point of the sword weave and bob unsteadily as you return his mockery with a polite smile. “I’m waiting for you to show me how it’s really done, young master.”

“That tongue of yours, I will have it torn out today!”

Rong shouts as he lunges, executing the first step of the Songfeng Swordplay perfectly.

He is a better swordsman than you are, by sheer virtue of intensive training from a young age. He knows more moves, understands more techniques. However, despite your inexperience, if you focus all of your strength and understanding into one move, you can beat him there… and only there.

His sword swings in a graceful arc. Like the breeze rustling around a pine tree, it is malleable and gentle. Catching the breeze is not an easy task even for a master.

If you cannot capture the breeze, you will just have to chop down the pine tree.

Your feet kick off the ground as you rush into his strike, imitating his movements. You match him, despite starting later. Your arm is faster. Your sword flies to intercept his.

Metal meets metal. As he tries to pull away into another move, your sword follows even faster, helped along by its strange balance. In a situation where a true Songfeng practitioner would be withdrawing cautiously to glide into a second move, you are pressing the attack towards the center.

It is a fast, reckless charge.

Rong Zhiyu attempts to snap back to a defensive position, knowing that he has overreached on the attack, but your blade is too swift and strong. His desperate, unsteady guard is knocked aside. His stance is broken. The pine tree has fallen. In its absence, the gentle breeze transforms into a strong gale, but the wind is now yours.

Your blade arcs towards his head at a high speed.

And then, the old sword falls apart, the blade snapping into two at the stress of your attack.

It really was just a badly made sword after all. Your swing falls just short of its mark, notching Rong’s nose with the broken end of the blade.

His counter-swing, which had started slow and was never going to arrive in time to save him, bites into your collar, digging into bone. A bloom of pain washes up your neck and shoulder.

A wide grin spreads across the lucky bastard’s face, filled with relief. “Even Heaven is on my side!” he shouts loudly into your face.

You, on the other hand, quietly thrust your sword-arm upwards and outwards. Even a broken blade can kill. And this is a movement you have practiced many, many times, until you could do it in your sleep.

The sharp end does, indeed, go into the enemy. Travelling under his rib-cage and avoiding bone, it sinks deep into Rong Zhiyu’s chest, finding its mark.

This is why you are a killer, and he isn’t.

What idiot would think that he’s won a duel to the death when his sword is merely lodged in his opponent’s collarbone?

The young master of the Songfeng Sword School falls to his knees, a confused expression on his face. As you stagger backwards, clutching your wound, the audience explodes into a cacophony of roars and screams and wails. You see Master and Madam Rong rushing to their sole son’s side. The disciples run towards you, their swords drawn. You are too tired to even escape, but they stop just short of your reach, surrounding you in a cautious circle. A few of them back away a step or two when your gaze meets theirs. You hear the sound of feet shifting in the gravel as the ones behind you attempt to approach in what they think to be a stealthy manner.

“Stop! That is not how Songfeng disciples should act!” The disciples look at each other nervously and part ways as Master Rong comes to the fore, his face pale and his hands bloody. With a swing of his hand, he throws a glinting object at you. The broken sword clatters to the ground, stained with the blood of Rong Zhiyu’s heart.

“You go now, Xu Jing. Go, and take the sword that killed my son along with you. I never want to see you or the blade again,” says Rong Muben, his voice tired. He seems to have aged ten years in an instant.

You reach down and grasp the sword, wincing at the pain. Giving Rong Muben a deep, respectful bow, you turn and walk off as the disciples of the school make way for you silently.

The walk to the gates of the compound feels long and arduous. The pain increases every time you move your feet forward. If you die here, you are sure Rong will not lift a finger to help you. You stumble and grab a nearby pillar, leaving your blood-stained prints on it. Your vision blurs.

You hear hurried footsteps coming towards you from the front. A disciple ignoring the command of Rong Muben? You suppose your ill luck is not done tormenting you yet. But, no, the footsteps sound lighter.

You stagger forward one more step, and collapse into Cao’er’s arms.

***

When the both of you arrive at the hut outside Xuchang, with you swaddled in bandages, you see Master Yao has already returned. He is sitting outside the hut, stoking a fire. Another man is with him, wearing rough and ragged sack-cloth clothing and a dirty red cap. He appears to be a decade or so younger than Master Yao, his face weathered and his whiskers gray.

When Master Yao sees you approach, he raises his eyebrows. “You are late. I was about to go down to Tuzhonglin to look for you.”

You sigh as you drop on your haunches with a groan, Cao’er quietly supporting you from behind. “As you can see, Master, I am in no condition to walk quickly.”

“Hmph,” he snorts, getting up and coming over to inspect your wounds. “They have been treated well. Don’t be a big baby, you should recover fully by tomorrow.” He turns to Cao’er, saying, “Good job healing your useless junior.” Yao goes back to his seat and looks at you impatiently. “So? What happened there?” You glance at the other man, who has a twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “He’s a friend,” snaps Yao. “What’s the story?”

You nod and begin recounting all that had happened at the Songfeng Sword School. Your master listens quietly, sombrely, and when you finish, his friend laughs loudly.

“He’s every bit as resourceful as you made him out to be, Shunshi! And your senior apprentice will be scarier than you in the future if she can cure Wuxian Canshui at this age. She’s much better than you boasted of!”

Yao glares at him unhappily. “He’s still a useless kid. Coming back injured like that just proves it, and he nearly got his senior into trouble.” You look at your master with an amused smile, irking him. Has he been praising the both of you behind your backs?

The ragged man gives you a mischievous bow. “That is a marvellous adventure, Xu Jing. I will retell your exploits to my friends. Of course, the gossip of beggars and rogues mean little to the stuck-up swordsmen hiding up in their mountains, but to those who wander the jianghu seeking adventures and wrongs to right… or rights to wrong, they will know of your name.”

You return his bow respectfully. “I thank you, kind uncle. May I be correct in presuming that you are a member of the Beggars’ Sect? Could I know how to address you?”

“You would be right. Qi Liuwu is my name. Call me beggar if you like,” grins the man.

You spring to your feet despite your wounds – you are in the presence of beggar royalty here. The leader of the huge Beggars’ Sect and one of the most powerful martial artists in the world today… “I-it’s an honour to meet you, Master Qi!”

“Oh, sit down, and stop with the polite speech,” complains Master Yao. “You have not been half as polite with me since the first month of your apprenticeship. What’s with the sudden manners?” Qi laughs. “That’s right, listen to your master. No need to stand on ceremony with me, kiddo. We’re all travellers of the road here, and all equals. Come, drink with us.” He shakes a gourd of wine – you see that Yao and Qi appear to have already dealt with two more gourds lying empty on the ground.

You gratefully accept – after the events at Songfeng, you need some relaxation.

“So, Master Yao, Master Qi,” you ask, “how did Kaifeng turn out?”

Yao frowns while Qi just smiles sadly. Your master is the first to speak. “Qi’s friend was not the murderer. That much I can say. The rest, well…”

“It was just Xiong’s bad luck that he happened to be at the scene of the crime. Who would believe a beggar?” says Qi.

“What about the evidence you delivered to the magistrate? You did find out that he could not have killed the victim, right?”

“Oh, the magistrate gave some argument based on the Dialects about how the evidence was not admissible in court.”

You frown. “But the Dialects have nothing to-“

“Of course they have nothing to do with it, boy,” snaps Yao. “But even though it is a public trial, the audience is full of beggars and peasants. How would they know what the Dialects have to say? No scholar in Kaifeng would defend a beggar either. I delivered my coroner’s verdict, and that is where my duties as to the request ends.”

“Before you ask your master why he did not intervene,” interjects Qi, “he would rather not, and I would rather he not do so. Direct intervention would have counted as saving a life. I would not have my friend kill for the sake of another friend, or break his principles in doing so. No, that would not be right. But it is how it is. A beggar has no friends or family to rely on except his fellow beggars and the kind acquaintances he meets on the road. We are grateful for what help we receive. No need to ask for more. But enough of this topic. Drink up!” He tosses another gourd at you.

As the night passes on, the drink flows and the laughter grows. Cao’er falls asleep rather early, leaning against your shoulder. This is the most excitement she’s probably encountered in the year since you joined them. She must be really exhausted.

“Hey, kiddo,” calls out Qi suddenly. His face is red from the wine, and it seems that he is already drunk after imbibing half a dozen gourds. “What’s that sword you have there? That the one you –hic– killed that bastard with?”

You look at the broken sword that you have brought back. “Yes, it is.” You offer it to Qi, as he clearly wants to take a look. He ponders the sword with a furrowed look, and then swings it around casually so fast that you cannot catch his movements. When he finishes his swing, bits of old metal have dropped off from the sword. A beautiful short blade is left behind. The inscriptions are archaic, catching the flickering light from the fire. It predates even the Han dynasty… perhaps even the dynasty of the First Emperor.

“The Yuchang Sword…” mutters Qi. “Thought to be –hic– lost for a hundred years. It’s one of the Ten Great Swords of history. I suppose… –hic– it’s bad luck for you that it has come into your hands.” Cradling the slender sword, he looks grimly at you.

“Bad luck? Why is that?”

“Well, m’boy… this here sword,” he whispers theatrically, “it’s an Emei treasure. You know, the nuns? I think it was stolen from them ages ago. They are going to –hic– hunt you down if they find out that the blade has re-emerged from hiding.”

Emei – one of the major orthodox sects. They only accept female disciples in their ranks and are regarded as one of the great powers, strong enough to rival Shaolin and Wudang. You grow slightly nervous.

“Scared? You ought to be, kiddo,” groans Qi. “Once they send their Castration Nuns after you, you will be sorry.”

“I’m sorry, what? Castration nuns?” You try to clarify what you have just heard.

“You heard me the first time! Castration! Nuns! Nuns that are trained to castrate!” exclaims Qi.

You glance over at Master Yao. “Is that true?”

He nods solemnly. At this point, you don’t know whether they are making fun of you or not.

“But… but… don’t worry! –hic– I’ll teach you how to protect yourself from them. Watch my hands carefully. Once you master this move, –hic– you will be unbeatable.”

“Oh, no, not again,” grumbles Master Yao. “Liuwu, you better-“

Ignoring your master, the Eastern Beggar squares off into a stance and begins performing moves from a technique, calling out their names as he executes them. It appears to be a palm technique, strong and robust in its attacks. Qi is performing it so fast that you cannot catch his moves – it almost appears as if his arms have multiplied in number. The fire is blown out by a stray swing of his palms. With a shout, he finishes performing the final move of the technique, striking out at the hut behind him. There is a loud crash as the wooden wall splinters inwards, a great hole forming in the hut even though Qi is still standing a good distance away from it.

“Bad habit of his,” grumbles Yao, “Every time he gets drunk, he tries to show off his Xianglong Palms (降龍十八掌,Dragon Subduing Eighteen Palms). Looks like we were unlucky enough to get the full show this time. Usually he wouldn't be steady enough to complete even the first move.”

“So, what did you think of it, kiddo?” smiles the drunken beggar as he wobbles back to a sitting position. “I’m not supposed to teach it to outsiders, but eh, screw the council of elders. I’m the head, and what I say goes!”

You nod your head slowly. The entire sequence of moves was too fast and powerful for you to perceive, but you think you managed to catch the very first move that he used – the most basic strike of the Xianglong Palms. You believe that he called it ‘The Arrogant Dragon Regrets’.

You replay it over and over in your mind, wondering if you are getting it right…

***

When you wake up the next day, Qi Liuwu is gone. Master Yao prods at you with his foot. “We can’t be staying here any longer, boy. That idiot trashed the hut. Time to move on. I feel like wandering, so do you have any particular destination in mind?”

***

A. Xiangyang City. A vital fortress city overlooking the Han river, it is run by a military-minded prefect. Wudang Mountain is a few days’ travel from Xiangyang.

B. Luoyang City. One of the main capitals of the Tang dynasty, though Chang’an serves as the current residence of the Emperor. The Shaolin Temple is located on Mount Song, close to Luoyang.

C. Xuzhou City. A major trade center in the Jiangnan region, it is also an agricultural center. The Luoying Manor, a learning house for martial artists who are interested in the pursuits of art, history and scholarly knowledge, is located near the city.

***

Also, the drunken tale of the Castration Nuns bothers you. Perhaps...

A. You pawn off the Yuchang Sword.

B. You keep the Yuchang Sword.
 

八 · Obtaining an Invite

1. A - 7, B - 1, C - 13
2. A - 1, B - 20

CB still wins.

***

Obtaining an Invite

You make your way slowly towards Xuzhou – due to the approaching winter, colds are becoming more frequent, meaning that you had more jobs to take. Your abilities are proving sufficient to handle most of the minor ailments you encountered en route to the city. This gave Master Yao more time to spend tutoring Cao’er – he seemed to be preparing her for some sort of test, though he refused to tell and you refused to press the matter. On your part, you began practicing your qinggong further as you traversed the wilderness, granting you an even lighter step.

When you arrive in Xuzhou, the snow has reached the city before you. At this time last year, you were shivering in the Cold Dungeon. Now you spent it with Master Yao and Cao’er in the warm and cosy Jingtu Inn, one of the cheaper establishments in the older districts of Xuzhou.

“Hmph,” snorts Master Yao grumpily, “give me a cold little hut anytime. This place disagrees with my bones.”

“I am not sure whether you continue being contrarian just for the sake of it, Master. We’re paying a cheap price for these comforts. Be grateful. It’s not like we could find any suitable lodgings outside Xuzhou anyway, unless you plan to live under a tree.” You frown at him as you pop a piece of duck meat into your mouth. Cao’er had finished her meal early and was poring through a set of books – they appeared to be basic martial arts manuals this time, of the cheapest sort anyone could find on the junk market. You wonder what she is planning; she’s being tight-lipped recently.

“Cities are too crowded for my taste.” Your master grimaces, picking at his food. “Why are we here again?”

“Getting senile in your old age, master? You asked me to pick where to go,” I say, laughing.

A duck bone is flicked into my forehead before I can even react. It stings – the old bastard used his inner strength for that flick. He cackles. “Are you being stupid, my idiot disciple? I asked you why we came here.”

“Sorry, master,” you bow your head. You never did explain why you picked Xuzhou to him – the old man had just agreed without asking for a reason. “I want to visit Luoying Manor. I have heard that it is a gathering place for many different martial artists. Perhaps there I can find out more about my strange qi and the Yuchang Sword.” You’ve made a rough wooden sheath for the sword and wrapped it up tightly, concealing it on your person. With the thick robes worn during winter, it goes entirely unnoticed.

Yao ponders your statement for a while, stroking his beard. “Some very strange people are rumoured to be amongst the bookworms that gather at Luoying, and it would not be out of the question that some of them may have an idea of what to do with you.”

When Master Yao calls someone strange, you know that he means it.

“But,” he continues, “I have never been in there, so I would not know. After all, I have never been invited.” Looking at my puzzled face, he laughs maliciously. “Oh, my idiot disciple! Did you think you could just walk up to Luoying Manor and ask to be let in? Or even pay your way in? It is a rather exclusive club. They would turn down even the Emperor himself if he was not to their liking.”

“I see,” you say. “This invitation… how do you think I can get my hands on one?”

“How do you think?” grins Master Yao. “I’m not here to do your work for you. All I need in my life is to wander, to heal, and to kill. What you do in your spare time is none of my business.”

***

It does not take long before Master Yao’s arrival in the city becomes widespread gossip. Business begins rolling in – there is always a small ailment or another that needs healing amongst the wealthy tradesmen and merchants that populate Xuzhou. Xuzhou proves to be rather more generous than Xuchang. In your spare time, between bringing Cao’er on walks around the city – that girl would coop herself up in the room for a year if you let her - and assisting your master, you begin gathering information on Luoying Manor from the locals.

Luoying Manor and its estate are located on the far bank of Yunlong Lake, at the base of Yunlong Mountain and opposite Xuzhou proper. There are boats that take travellers over to the manor. It is owned by a mysterious woman named Lady Ji, who is rumoured to be an ageless and beautiful immortal, having resided in the manor for over two hundred years. It seems that Lady Ji has never left the grounds, preferring to live in seclusion.

Initially, you think that Master Yao appears to have been mistaken about the need for an invite; according to the innkeeper, many scholars travel there year-round. However, you find out from an old scholar in Xuzhou that there is an ‘inner court’ that can only be accessed by known fellows of the manor. These fellows are selected via a mysterious trial during the winter solstice conference which can only be attended by obtaining an invitation. This is probably the ‘real’ Luoying Manor.

The nature of the trial is unknown even to those who have passed it. No one knows the criteria by which they select their fellows, but the selection process is done every four years, during the winter solstice conference, and four are chosen at each trial year. Attending the conference itself requires an invitation, and these are given out by Luoying Manor via different means. This year is a trial year – if you do not participate it will be another four years before you have the chance.

There are those who are already fellows of the manor – these will receive their invitations without condition.

There is the poetry competition held on Yuntang Pavilion on the near bank of the lake – the top three participants will receive an invitation.

There is also the martial arts contest at Quewu Square on the same day, a melee where up to thirty contestants are thrown into the ring, with the last man standing winning the invitation.

Finally, in thanks to the prefect of Xuzhou for continuing to protect the city and the lands around it, the Manor will always grant an invitation to the prefect with which he can do as he sees fit.

Since you are already here, you think you might as well try out for an invitation; the traveling merchants (and the gossip they bring) won't arrive until spring anyway.

***

A. The top scholar of Xuzhou, an influential man by the name of Jiang Du, is a fellow of the manor. You approach him, intending to cajole, threaten, or outright steal the invitation if necessary.

B. You participate in the poetry competition on Yuntang Pavilion. As the top three participants may win an invitation, you should have a good chance as long as you place at least third. Besides, there are ways to get rid of competitors…

C. You participate in the martial arts contest. Even though it is a battle royale with the last man standing, and the participants are most likely all adults, you think you should be able to manage surviving such a contest. And again, there are ways to get rid of competitors…

D. You approach the prefect of Xuzhou, Zhu Yutong, in order to lay your hands on that particular invitation. It seems that he has been looking for someone to undertake a mission to Luoying Manor itself, and is offering the invitation to those who will. You might have competition for the task, however – there will be a test, and the details of the job are unknown until you pass it.

***

Note: You may still get a chance to attempt another of these choices if you fail in the one you pick right now. But picking the poetry competition will outright rule out the martial arts contest, and vice versa, as they occur on the same day.
 

九 · The Tournament at Quewu Square

The Tournament at Quewu Square

You decide that your strengths are in combat, not poetry. After all, given the reputation of Luoying Manor as a hall of scholars, the competition in the poetry contest should be much tougher. With that optimistic thought in mind, you head to Quewu Square.

Despite the cold, stalls have been set up all around the arena to cater to the large number of spectators. The hawkers call out their goods with gusto. There are the usual mantou, candied fruits and fried cakes being sold, but the hot pot vendors are also out in full force today. The stage for the competition is a large, raised square platform. It seems big enough to fit thirty people, though there isn’t much room for manoeuvring with all thirty there. Making your way to the registration table, you find that most of the slots have already been taken up.

Before you write your name down, you look around you; your arrival hasn’t gone unnoticed by the other competitors. Between the public appearances you have made with Master Yao in the city, and your reputation as his apprentice, attempting to register under a false name would be a waste of time.

You confidently write your name in ink, completing the registration.

The rules of the tournament are as follows:

One must not touch the ground outside the stage with any part of his body.

One must not use any weapons, whether openly or concealed.

One must not strike to kill or to maim.

It appears that to lose, the participant must be thrown out of the ring. You continue to sniff about for more information. Most of the participants are in their late twenties, and probably more knowledgeable than you are in the field of martial arts. You spot a couple of thugs, a monk, and a few priests, though most of the participants appear to be scholarly in background

After a while, you manage to strike up a conversation with a warrior-poet from Changsha, far to the south. His name is Ling Tong, a member of the Zifu Hall, a small gathering of gentlemen scholars in that city. According to him, the competitions do attract participants, but not as many as one would think. A good number of the fellows of the manor will pass their invitations on to worthy disciples or friends during a trial year, so that they may have a chance to be accepted. Others trade it for favours, though outright selling the invitation for money appears to be a taboo and could lead to a revocation of their fellowship.

“By the way, young master Xu, I will say that many of the competitors here will be looking to come to an understanding before the battle starts. Do you know what I speak of?”

You nod, rubbing your chin – a habit you have started to pick up from Master Yao stroking his beard all the time. It only makes sense. “A non-aggression pact? That would make things neater.”

Ling Tong beams at you. “Exactly. This is not my first time participating, and I happen to know a few familiar faces. If you like, I could spread the word that you will be in on the pact. Your, ah, reputation for defeating the heir of Songfeng precedes you. I think I would rather you direct your ability at others, at least for the initial minutes of the match,” says the man honestly.

“My reputation, eh?” you say, curious. “What have you heard, by the way?”

“Well,” the man speaks carefully with a smile, “two tales. One where you are the villain, and one where you are the hero. In both, you strike down the young Rong with a single blow. I believe that, at least, is the truth. To be honest, after talking with you I would prefer the heroic tale of ‘The Apprentice Defends His Beautiful Physician’.”

“Beautiful… wait, never mind.” You have no idea what that old drunk Qi Liuwu told his beggars, but the results are certainly terribly embellished. Perhaps you should tell Master Yao to send a note to Qi about this.

“So,” says Ling Tong brightly, “Will you accept my offer, young master Xu?”

***

A. You accept his offer.

B. You accept his offer, but see if you can secretly form other pacts on your own.

C. You reject his offer.

***

After your conversation with Ling Tong, you begin to wonder if there are any more things that you can do to increase your chances of victory…

A. It’s time to get sneaky. You haven't lived this past year without learning a thing or two about the concept of 'fairness'.

1. You’ve come prepared with a powder from Cao’er. It is a fast-acting laxative which you will introduce into the shared jar where the fighters drink from. They can’t fight you when they are fighting their stomach.

2. You gently and surreptitiously prick whatever lax fighters you can find with a needle lightly coated with Three Poison Powder. At these quantities it will not kill them, but it will likely cause nausea and dizziness after they take to the stage.

3. You begin spinning a sob story, complaining about Master Yao forcing you into this competition. Though there are some ruffians here, many of them appear to be honest gentlemen. You hope to gain sympathy and make the other fighters lower their guard in the ring afterwards.

4. You attempt to divide and conquer, following the precepts of the great strategists of old. Walking from one fighter to another, you begin to spread vague insinuations that certain fighters might resort to cheating, or have made rude comments about the other.

(Pick at least one from the above choices, all A votes will be considered as one bloc in voting.)

B. You do all of the above. If you’re going to cheat, you should give it all you’ve got.

C. You… try not to cheat. Let this be a fair and honest match!
 

十 · Try Again

Try Again

The gong reverberates throughout the square, signalling the start of the match.

The roar of the crowd rises above the shout of the fighters as they rush at each other. From the corner of your eye you can spot a few others hanging around near the edge of the ring, like you are. There’s no time to worry about them, though, as a bullish man charges at you, hoping to shove you out. You lower your body and feint towards your right. As he turns his body slightly, you dart quickly in the other direction. Your right foot catches the man’s legs, knocking him off his feet. Without waiting for him to recuperate, you dive into the melee. You are not a small adolescent, but the difference in mass is too great for you to fight him head-on at the ring’s side. One slip of your feet and he would toss you out of the ring.

As you wander along the confusing battle, quickly shrugging off any stray hands that attempt to capture you find yourself face-to-face with people that you’ve made an agreement with. A brief nod before turning away is all that is mutually given. Even so, you meet far more foes than you do friends; it was hard to convince more than a handful of contestants by playing it straight. At the same time, however, you couldn’t strike too freely because as it turns out, most of the ones who did agree to team up with you were fighting each other.

Suddenly, two large arms encircle you just when you have dodged a rather scary blow from one of the participating priests. You struggle to get free, but the hairy man holding you up appears to be a grappler of no mean skill. Every time you seem to be slipping out of his grasp, he cuts you off with a well-timed strategic squeeze, shifting his grip to keep you subdued.

“Hey, hey,” you say, desperate to find a way to overcome the man, “What’s this? Are you that interested in books too, uncle?”

He certainly looks more at home using books to paper up his hut in the mountains, rather than being anywhere near Luoying Manor. His laugh booms in your ear as he shouts, “Of course I am. I am the Bookwise Mountain Man, Shan! Now, boy, off you go!” With a tremendous shout, he hurls you into the air before you can speak another word. You are sent flying clean over the heads of the other competitors, towards the edge of the ring.

With a quick flip, you land on your feet instead of your back, but your balance is off. Your feet stumble backwards until you are teetering on the edge of the ring… but you’re still in it. Safe!

Or so you think, as with a shout of “Got you!” the idiot who had charged at you at the start of the match blindsides you, carrying the both of you off the platform.

And that’s how your first tournament at Quewu Square ended.

***

You trudge back to the inn through the streets of Xuzhou with nothing to show for your participation but bruises. You had acquitted yourself respectably, being the 16th participant out of the match, but losers do not get any prizes. Only one person was going to walk away with the invitation, and today that would be the Bookwise Mountain Man.

“Hey, hey there!” shouts a bright, clear female voice. “Aren’t you Master Yao’s apprentice?”

As you turn around, you see a pretty adolescent girl waving at you. She’s dressed in the colorful clothes of the southern Miao tribe, with multiple bracelets and bangles adorning her hands and feet. Her long hair is left free, however – you’d usually see Miao girls tie them up in an ornate head decoration. The girl runs towards you excitedly.

You sigh. Perhaps this is a business opportunity in the making, with the girl looking for Master Yao, and you’d at least bring in some more money.

Lost in thought, you are caught off guard when the girl throws her arms around you. She presses up against you, rubbing her cheek against yours. Is it some sort of Miao greeting? “Now, let’s see… “ she whispers gently in your ear. You feel a sharp stinging pain in your back. As the Miao girl moves away from you with a spring in her step, humming lightly, you collapse to the ground as the pain grows. Your muscles begin to convulse and you find yourself staring up at the girl as she looks at you with a dazzling, expectant smile.

Then, you pass out.

***

You feel your cheeks being pinched. You open your eyes.

“Oh, look, Master Yao. Your no-good apprentice is awake,” says the voice of the person who’s just poisoned you.

You’re back at the inn, looking up at the Miao girl who is frowning at you. Slightly annoyed, you sit up suddenly, hoping to catch her head with yours and play it off as an accident.

“Whoa!” The girl jolts away quickly. She has good reflexes. “What are you trying to do?”

“I don’t feel like lying in bed,” you reply quickly. “Who are you? What did you do to me?”

“Master Yao, you raised such a rude apprentice,” the girl says as she sprawls into a chair in an unlady-like posture. “Then again, he’s just a kid after all.”

“Right, and poisoning me in the street was an adult thing to do, right?” you retort at the girl who can’t be older than you are.

“Ah, but you fell for a woman’s touch, didn’t you, boy?” she smiles, with a hint of mockery in her lips. You can’t find any words to respond this time – she is right. You did let down your guard partially because she was a cute girl. She giggles, batting her eyelashes. “Nothing to be ashamed of. An adult woman’s charms are irresistable to a virgin boy.”

“Oh yeah?” you sneer. If she’s going to continue provoking you... “Like that body of yours is anywhere near a real adult’s. I’ve seen the real thing, and you just don’t have the curves.”

The girl flushes red. “Wha-“

“Stop it, now,” growls Master Yao, “or I’ll flick the both of you a dozen times in the head.”

The both of you clam up immediately. It looks like the girl too has felt the power of Master Yao’s Tanzhi Divine Skill (彈指神功, Finger-Flicking Divine Skill). She gives you a smile and sticks her tongue out.

“The two of you are going to get along so well. I wonder what bad luck I attracted to have her visit while you are around…” sighs your master. Cao’er comes over to you with a bowl of medicine. “…drink …counters poison,” she mumbles. You do so dutifully. It is bitter, but nothing you can’t handle.

“Cao’er, Cao’er,” calls out the Miao girl with a theatrical sigh, “I lose to you again. You keep finding ways to defeat my poisons in mere hours.” Cao’er nods in acknowledgement at the praise, though her fingers pull at your bedsheets nervously. “So, does anyone mind telling me what is going on here?” you say acidly. “Why is there a mad girl in our room?”

“This is Chi Qilin, a veritable pest,” grumbles Master Yao. “She appears every now and then to consult us on poisons.”

“I usually greet the master or Cao’er with a sampling of my latest poison,” she says with a sniff. “It’s not my fault that his latest, most useless apprentice ever doesn’t seem to know how to deal with poisons.”

“I was distracted,” you say, though your excuse sounds hollow.

“Oh, because of that ignominious defeat you had at the square? I was watching the match. I suppose anyone would be distracted at losing so badly,” Qilin replies cheekily.

“I’d like to see you try better,” you say.

“I could. I could beat you in ten moves. In fact, I already beat you in one move, out on the street,” declares the girl triumphantly. There’s something about her that reminds you of a certain someone that also rubs you the wrong way. You grit your teeth. You hate pushy girls.

“Let’s put that to the test, then. I’ll take you on in a fair match.”

“Sorry, I’m allergic to fair matches. That’s why I’m an experienced adult, and you’re a no-good kid,” she grins. “Master Yao, where did you pick up this bumpkin?”

Yao sighs loudly, seeing that he won’t be getting any peace as long as the girl’s in the room. “Cao’er brought him to me. He was half… no, nine-tenths dead. Of course, it wasn’t a problem for me. Why are you here bugging me, Miss Chi?”

“I just heard you were in town,” she smiles brightly. “Figured I could drop by and exchange some medical information with Cao’er. It’s just a coincidence, I was here in the first place to attend the winter conference at Luoying Manor.”

“You have an invite?” you blurt out, unbelieving.

“Of course. Who do you think I am?” grins Qilin. “I’m not you.”

“She probably obtained it from her father,” says Master Yao wearily before you can say anything. He’s probably going to kick the both of you out if another argument flares up. “He’s one of the fellows of the manor. Now, I want the two of you to stop getting on my nerves, or it’s finger flicks. Do you understand?”

You and Qilin nod quietly. As Yao turns back to his books, she sidles up to you on the bed. You edge away from her, sensing a threat of some sort.

“Are you still mad?” she says, her voice suddenly low and timid. “I didn’t mean it, you know.”

“No, not really,” you say awkwardly, though you still remain highly suspicious of her motives.

Before you know it, she presses against you from behind tightly, her arms draped over your chest. It looks like you may actually have to retract that comment about not having curves. You feel her breath tickling your ear. “I’m sorry.” And then, she bites it gently.

“Hey, what are you-“ Even the chambermaids weren’t this forward.

“Hush now,” she whispers. “It won’t be long.” Her arm moves up your chest and under your robes. Somehow you can't find the strength to pull away from her. Yao snorts loudly, muttering about kids nowadays. Cao’er is already at the corner of the room, drawing circles with her fingers while making darting glances from between her tangled mat of hair.

You feel something slither into your clothes, traveling down south.

“What was that?”

She’s already pushed herself away from you, a cruel, mocking smile on her face. “Just my pet snake, Xiaoqing. She has all the curves you’d want in a lady.”

***

You’re forced to get rid of Xiaoqing outside the room, as Master Yao makes good on his promise and kicks the both of you out after giving a very painful finger flick that leaves your foreheads red. The damnable Miao girl runs off giggling with her snake, leaving you half-clothed in front of the innkeeper who has come up to see what all the commotion is about.

It’s been a long day, but you can’t rest yet. You’ll need to think about what to do next; should you continue attempting to get into Luoying Manor, or should you give up for now?

A. You try to get into contact with the scholar Jiang Du, but you find out that he’s away, called off to the capital for urgent business. He appears to have left his invitation at home, however. You could sneak in, or perhaps you could persuade his wife to let you have it.

B. You attempt the prefect’s test. It looks like he hasn’t yet decided on a suitable candidate, and the opportunity is still open for you.

C. You go for one of the invitations of the top three contestants in the poetry competition. They will probably be drinking wine and exchanging poetry at Yuntang Pavilion daily until it's time to leave for the conference.

D. That stupid, no-good, poisoning girl Chi Qilin has an invitation of her own. It’d be proper payback to sneak up on her and take her invitation in recompense for all her mischief.

E. You give up on getting an invitation. You'll continue working here until spring comes and the roads are more conducive to travel. Then, after listening for information from the incoming travellers, you will move on, as a wanderer would.
 

十一 · Visiting Madam Jiang

Visiting Madam Jiang

Jiang Du’s house is in the eastern part of Xuzhou. Pretending to be stopping by for a house call, you ask for directions from the innkeeper and set off. The sun is beginning to set, but the streets are still packed. Xuzhou is home to a thriving night market, one of the largest in the region. The predecessor of the current Emperor had abolished the strict rules governing the opening hours of markets, leading to a boom in markets that operated at night, or in the cases of large cities such as Chang’an and Yangzhou, around the clock. These markets dealt mainly in foods, clothing and accessories, and it was not uncommon for certain markets to attract a greater crowd at night than they would during the day.

Out of the corner of your eye, in the bustle of the crowd, you catch a flash of familiar red. You still your footsteps, slow down your pace, and begin winding through the throng cautiously. You are sure that the girl is following you.

“Hey, watch where you’re going, kid!”

You bump into a vendor hauling a large sack of candied fruits on his back. Apologizing, you help him pick up the scattered fruits. The vendor begins haranguing you for payment but you quickly run forward, disappearing into the crowd. There seems to be no sign of the girl behind you. Was it just your imagination after all? Cursing yourself for letting her get on your nerves and turn you paranoid, you make your way quickly to Jiang Du’s house before the sun fully sets.

You are greated by a cute, round-faced maidservant at the gates to his compound. Putting all thoughts of the aggravating Chi Qilin out of your mind, you put on your best palace smile.

“Greetings,” you bow low. “I apologize for appearing at such a late hour, but my master bid me send urgent word to Master Jiang Du.”

“I’m sorry, but the master is out at the moment. He will not be back for a week, I expect.”

You feign disappointment at her words. “Is that so? That is terrible! My master, Physician Yao Shunshi, had an important message for him. I cannot return before it is heard.” It is a typical method that you’ve used to gain access to merchants’ houses before, knowing that they are not around to prevent the money that they owe you for treatment from being subtly paid up on their behalf.

The maidservant seems at a loss, her long locks tumbling as she looks around her nervously. As a servant it would be too forward of her if she offered to convey the message to her master. She doesn’t seem experienced in the serving profession. “If I might ask,” you say, “How long have you been working here, miss?”

“Oh, I-I think,” she stutters, “perhaps about two months?”

“That explains why you look so fresh and vivacious,” you say. “Whenever my master sends me out on errands I always meet tired, old maids, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see a girl like you greeting me at the doorstep.” One thing you’ve learned from the chambermaids – youth gives you the license to be be blatant with flattery. They told you that an older man may be expected to lie to gain their favour, but a child’s mouth is honest. You’re not quite sure that’s true in any way, but it’s worked for you so far. “You must be the prettiest and youngest servant in the household,” you say.

“Oh, of course not. That’s not true at all,” she blushes. “All of the maidservants here are newly hired. I’ve heard that the master likes to take on young servants because…” She falters, but you do not need her to finish her words to get the idea. She continues, “That is why I cannot take your message. I am sorry. We are all new here.”

You smile at her comfortingly, offering her a way out. “Perhaps the mistress of the house could take the message instead?”

“Of course! You’re right!” she smiles. She runs off into the house to get Madam Jiang. You heave a sigh of relief. You would much rather deal with these nice, kind girls than the pushy ones like Yunzi and Qilin. It does not take the maidservant long before she returns with Jiang Du’s wife. She is tall and thin in both stature and face. Her expression is that of a frown as she scrutinizes you.

“What message is it, boy?” she asks in a snappy manner.

“Ah, something from my master, Physician Yao Shunshi. It… I can’t tell it here, Madam Jiang. We need some privacy.”

Madam Jiang sighs. “Are you sure it is important?”

“Very important, madam,” you say solemnly.

“Fine,” she sniffs, as she turns about and beckons at you to follow her. With a tip of the head to the maidservant, you follow Madam Jiang into the house.

Walking through the hallways, you see that the maidservant at the gate was telling the truth – most of the maids you see inside the house are relatively young. This is another thing you learnt about getting in and out of compounds; the inhabitants are just as important as planning escape routes and identifying the location of the money box. In this case, it seems like it’ll pay off in another way. You are no expert yet, but experience has been a valuable teacher. Nothing instills the memory of a lesson well-learned like messing up and trying to escape a dozen angry cleaver-waving men.

Madam Jiang leads you into a small study and closes the door. Turning to you, she folds her arms under her chest. “Please be quick about it, boy.”

“There actually two things, Madam Jiang.” You see her frown in disapproval and quickly continue speaking. “The first matter involves this year’s invitation to Luoying Manor. My master told me that your husband was looking for someone to give it away to. He would be interested in obtaining it in return for a favour.”

“Give it away? I have not heard my husband speak of it. He was still planning to go when he ended up being called away to the capital.”

“I am also authorized to offer taels in return for the invite,” you say.

“Is that so?” says Madam Jiang. “We do not lack for money, but what are you offering? He will not be using the invite anyway.”

You open your pouch, showing all that you have. It is rather meagre, by Jiang family standards.

“Is that all?” sniffs Madam Jiang. “It would be hard to explain it to my husband if I let his invite go for so little. It would demean the invitation's value, even if it will be unused. I will have to think about it. Still, I have not heard of him wanting to give it away.”

“Well, that is strange. Perhaps my master heard wrongly, then.” You fall back on your second plan. “You must forgive my old master for believing such stories. Invitations are so hard to get, especially during a year in which fellows are selected. Everyone wants one. I believe your husband is one, madam?”

“Yes, yes,” she says bitterly. “Not like it does his ego any good.”

“I do not wish to cast aspersions on a gentleman’s character, but staying in the middle of winter with a group of eccentrics in a manor run by a reclusive beauty must worry you so, Madam Jiang.”

She laughs for the first time. “You have a way with words for one so young. Perhaps you aspire to grow up to be a no-good scholar like my husband? He’s also good with words.”

“Of course not, I am just a humble physician’s apprentice.”

“Yes, of course you are,” she says drily.

“If I may ask, though, I am personally interested in the invite. I’ve heard that the design changes every year, and that it cannot be forged by mortal hands. I wonder if it wouldn’t be-“

“It would be too much trouble, boy.” Madam Jiang cuts you off quickly. “I’m not going over to the second floor study to fetch it for you. Now, what is the second matter?”

“Ah, that is a rather sensitive issue. You see, my master has also heard rumours of… well, the maidservants in this house.”

At that, Madam Jiang’s face grows dark. “What do you mean?”

“Do not be angry, madam. My master wishes only to help. He understands that issues between men and women can be rather delicate, and that is why he sent me. He has heard of Madam Jiang, the dutiful wife who lifts the famed scholar Jiang Du to greater heights, and expresses his utmost respect. In return for a kind word in Master Jiang’s ear, he would be willing to perform a simple favour.”

“A favour?” Madam Jiang laughs again, her demeanour suddenly relaxing. “Hm, you certainly are tactful about it. Are you going to poison all the harlots he’s brought into the house? He never follows my advice on that part. I suppose rumours have spread so far that even the mountain-dwelling hermit physicians have heard of it. What a disgrace!”

You pause momentarily. Her candour is unexpected; you had only been fishing in the dark from what little you could observe. It appears that she has much resentment against her husband. You might have stumbled across something that could be risky. “Well, I… no, that would go against my code, madam. All I was expected to do was to offer you a cleansing medicine that would purge your body of ill humours and increase your considerable beauty, or some private physician’s lessons on the nature of the human body.”

There is a sudden predatory gleam in Madam Jiang’s eyes. A faint blush colours her cheeks. You don't like the way she's suddenly looking at you from head to toe. “Private lessons, you say? It's funny you should say that. I have not had any lessons in a while. My useless husband certainly doesn't teach me what he knows. What manner of lessons are we discussing here?”

“W-well,” you mumble, backing away slightly. Perhaps this was a mistake…

***

A. You give her the medicine. Of course, it is an actual cleansing medicine. The laxative you got from Cao’er this morning, in fact. You have heard of the placebo effect from Master Yao. You'll inform her of the side-effects beforehand. As long as she believes it works…

B. You give her ‘private lessons’.

C. You don’t offer any of the favours right now, telling her that you are only conveying the offer today and not the favours themselves.

***

1. You attempt to obtain the invite by sneaking into the second floor study.

2. You attempt to convince Madam Jiang to allow you to purchase the invite outright.

***

A1 or B1 would mean you take the invite quietly, while she is otherwise distracted or... uh... exhausted from learning.

A2 or B2 means you can bargain down the price or perhaps even get the invite by trading a favour.

C1 means you do some sneaking after pretending to leave.

C2 will be just as it says.
 

十二 · Arrival at Luoying Manor

Arrival at Luoying Manor

“Well, that was rather impressive,” murmurs Madam Jiang as she looks up at the ceiling. “You’re… strong. And so nimble.” She shivers slightly. “That was an educational session. You are unexpectedly experienced,” chuckles the woman.

The maids in the palace had trained you – in secret, away from prying eyes – when you came of age. The chambermaids often complained to you that most men cared only for their own pleasure, and so they were rather pleased to get their hands on a eager, confident and charming young male that they could thoroughly mould into a satisfying, attentive lover. Your meticulous training to become their perfect companion in bed had been interrupted before it could come to fruition, but all that was really left was to keep practicing what you had learnt. You might not be able to go all night without rest, but you had learnt plenty of techniques that capitalized on your strength and agility.

Of course, you aren’t about to reveal that to Madam Jiang.

Besides, she had come with a surprise of her own – her commanding aggression in pushing you down, and the experienced, shameless hunger with which she moved against your body from the start told you that Madam Jiang was someone who wasn’t a stranger to participating in ‘lessons’ with other men besides her husband. Halfway through, you had to wonder if you were the one being used up for her benefit here, and if you had been mistaken to come. Certainly, right now your body aches badly, as if you had been mauled lovingly by a devious beast.

“So, how much do you want?” asks Madam Jiang nonchalantly.

“Pardon me? I don’t-”

“Do you think I’m like those simpering young maids?” she laughs, a sly glint in her eyes. “I can tell when a boy has another motive in mind. You are not one of those romantic fools, are you?”

You cannot do anything but shake your head wordlessly. “Of course not,” she says scornfully. She does not seem to respect you much. “So, shall I consider this a free favour, or would you like to be rewarded for your sizeable performance? Unlike my husband, I don’t like to receive without giving in return.”

“Ah, well…” If there’s a chance here, you are going to take it. Damn the consequences. “Perhaps, the invite for my master?”

She frowns. “That’s all you want? That useless piece of paper? You are really a dutiful apprentice, aren’t you?”

***

You leave the Jiang house in the middle of the night with what you had come for, escorted out quietly by the maidservant that you had met. From her casual, polite expression, you get the idea that this is probably not an uncommon occurrence despite Madam Jiang telling you that it has been a while. It is probably mistaken to assume that what is ‘a while’ to you will be the same amount of time to another person.

When you get back to the inn, you find that Cao’er is still awake and waiting for you. She stares at you for a while, and to your surprise, begins sniffing you all over. “…did you do it?” she asks, in a tone you have never heard her use before. You gently push her away – having her crawl all over you like that is stirring your mood up a bit despite your prior exertions; you're a healthy young male after all – and affirm her suspicions. There’s no point in lying. She puffs out her cheeks, looking sullen. Without another word, she goes off to her bed and curls up under the sheets in a huffy manner.

The next morning, Master Yao sits you down at the table. His face is sombre and serious as he places a small jar of ointment in front of you.

“Open it,” he says.

You do so. A pungent stink assails your nostrils. The jar contains a foul-smelling, oily ointment. In the middle of the ointment floats a strange, long tube, closed off at one end. You poke at it and pick it up – it’s stretchy, probably part of a some animal’s intestine. You look at Master Yao.

“If you’re going to go around doing anything that moves, it is best to be protected,” he says with an entirely straight face. “This is my latest medical creation, based off the preventive caps they hand out in the brothels. Of course, it is far superior to those little toys. I call it Yao’s Protective Sheath. The special ointment makes the lamb’s intestine a lot more reliable for vigorous use without compromising on sensitivity. It also wards off illnesses a lot more effectively. I think it will be a good addition to the herbal wares we have.”

“Master,” you say calmly, looking at the dripping sheath. “This will never take off.”

“What, why not?” He looks genuinely surprised.

“It stinks,” you say.

“Hmph,” snorts Master Yao. “They all stink by the end anyway. That is merely a minor detail. Its performance is unparalleled.”

“Not like this,” you shake your head ruefully. “Why are you showing me this anyway?”

“Do you think I don’t know what you were up to?” he asks, raising his eyebrows. “Now, I couldn't care less who you tumble into bed with, but you should always be mindful of health considerations as well as the possibility of sowing your reckless wild oats. Keep it with you. I will teach you how to make the treating ointment – you should be able to handle the lamb intestine extraction by yourself. Perhaps you will find a way to reduce the smell, if that concerns you. You are my apprentice after all, you should be able to manage that much.”

You look at the surprising gift again. Is this his way of looking out for you? “Thank you, master. I did not know you cared so much.”

“What, of course not,” he mutters, grumbling. “It would trouble Cao’er if I had to take a knife to you to heal some more persistent illnesses of the genitalia. Now, have you gotten what you came to Xuzhou for?” Master Yao changes the topic quickly while you are still wondering what Cao’er has to do with this.

“Yes, I’ll be boarding the boat tomorrow. The conference will last for three days – I may be there up to four days, if I manage to enter the inner court. Do you need me to get anything for you?”

Yao shakes his head, stroking his beard. “No, I don’t think so. Search for what you deem interesting. It’s your journey to make, not mine.”

You nod and bow to your master. Dropping the protective sheath back into its jar, you wipe your fingers before storing it away carefully.

***

The boat ride to the manor was relatively uneventful – you had half been expecting the boat to spring a leak and sink. Perhaps your luck is turning for the better? Thankfully, Cao'er had not sulked for long, having seen you off with a tight hug at the jetty in Xuzhou. She whispered something about Yao's gift, and told you to protect yourself. You're not sure what type of image the girl has of you in her head now, but you're sure she's mistaken. You'll have to correct that misconception when you return.

As the boatman steers his vessel through the icy mist of the lake, the outline of the manor looms out at you. You disembark together with the other passengers. Three of them were the winners of the poetry competition – two middle-aged, one young. There was the mountain man who had been the indirect cause of your defeat in the tournament, and then two strangers you have not seen before. Then, there was that damned girl.

Chi Qilin winks as she leaps onto the pier ahead of you. She had spent the boat ride chatting animatedly with the other men, gaining their attention. That suited you fine – it just meant you didn’t have to put up with her. She opens her mouth to speak to you, but thankfully the white and pink-garbed servants of Luoying Manor arrive to save you from the girl. They begin checking the invitations. After completing the checks, you are led to the manor house itself. The trees lining the pathway are barren in winter, but would probably prove to be a splendid sight when spring arrives. Luoying Manor is larger than you expected, and more luxurious. Shun would probably not feel out of place staying here.

The servants take your little entourage to a large banquet hall, decorated with long silk banners. Here the air is warm, though you see no fire in the hall. It is already filled with people; there are probably a hundred guests. Some are seated at the numerous tables, while others are mingling and engaged in conversation. At the front of the hall is a raised dais for the mistress of the manor who has not yet arrived.

All of the attendees are older than you are – the ones your age only number two: the poison girl, and the young scholar. You are shown where to sit, and just as you do so…

“It looks like I’m sitting here too,” says Qilin cheerfully as she slips into the empty seat next to you. When you do not respond to her, she continues, “What, are you still mad at me?”

***

A. Nothing good will come of ignoring her – she might just keep pestering you. You give up and engage her in conversation. Since her father is a fellow, she should know more than you about this conference. She shouldn't be entirely useless.

B. You stand up and search for an obvious candidate to talk to. The young scholar is nearby, looking pensively at the garden outside. Perhaps you could talk to him instead. If he won the poetry competition at his age he must be a rather good scholar.

C. Even in the mingling crowd, there is one man who seems to have been given a very wide berth, sitting alone near the center of the hall. He has come without a shirt in winter, revealing his powerfully built and scarred body. You attempt to approach the lone, dangerous-looking man.
 

十三 · The Winter Solstice Conference Begins

The Winter Solstice Conference Begins

You ignore Qilin and get up from your seat. There are better things for you to do than talk to her – for example, you could approach the mysterious, shirtless man sitting alone in the center of the hall. As you draw closer to the man, you hear Qilin shouting at you frantically, but whatever she’s saying is none of your concern. The whispers of the crowd grow louder and more worried at your actions, but you are not about to let that stop you.

The powerful man sits cross-legged on the floor. His muscled body is lined with weathered scars. From his face he looks to be in his forties, with long, wild hair and a short, grizzled beard. You clear your throat, slightly nervous, and greet him.

“Hello, sir.”

The entire hall falls silent. Every pair of eyes in the room is now focused on you and the man.

He turns his head, looking at you straight on. His eyes seem dull, as if he is not entirely there.

“What manner of business do you have with me?” The man’s voice is polite and cultured, in a way entirely unbefitting his appearance.

“Ah, I am new here, and I was just wondering if you would-“

He stands up, cutting you off. Up close, the man towers over you by more than a head’s length, and you are rather tall for your age. His dull eyes fixate upon you, and you feel a tremendous wave of fear sweep over your body. It is a feeling you recognize – you have encountered it at least twice before. You felt it when fighting the woman-in-black. You felt it when duelling Rong Zhiyu at Songfeng. It is the fear of death, and this man scares you so much more than the both of them combined. You feel that if he makes a move right now, you would be more certain of your death than if you sprang in front of the Emperor naked and pissed in his face.

“Someone get that boy back! He’ll get killed! Don't just stand around here!”

“Hey, you go then! I’m not going to cross him! We step into his range and we are minced meat!”

Panicked murmurs come from all around you, as the crowd reaffirms your sudden realization that this has been a bad decision.

Unfortunately, it has always been your bad habit not to back down in the face of death.

Forcing your legs to stay upright with all of your will, you maintain your polite smile. “I was wondering if you would be so kind as to acquaint me with your good self,” you say, a bead of sweat trickling down your face. You hear a few gasps from the crowd.

A flicker of interest sparks in his dark eyes. A smile stretches itself slowly over his face. His gaze turns sharp and keen, staring intently into you. The bearded man places his large hands over your shoulders, channeling his internal energy into your body. You feel a throb of dark warmth seeping into your core. Then, he speaks, “Your qi. How very interesting. How beautifully chaotic, like the raging swirls of a stormy ocean. You have rare talent. It would be a shame if I did not let it blossom.”

Then, his smile turns into a wicked grin. “You will be my next apprentice. I have just run out of living ones. Come, I am taking you home.”

His grip turns as solid as steel. You wince in pain as you try to shrug him off, but your efforts prove futile. “I can’t!” you say quickly. “I already have a master, and I’m bound to him-“ The man snatches up your arm – the one with the mark of poison. “This? I suppose it is a conundrum. I cannot cure it, and I am afraid I would rather you not die of petty poison. Still, I do have a solution.” He pulls at your arm gently. The crowd begins to shout, calling for help.

“Take off the limb and the poison will not reach your heart. Do not worry. Under my tutelage you will still be more powerful than any man, even with one arm.” With nary a hint of effort from the man, you feel your shoulder joint dislocate. You can already imagine your arm flying off in his grasp, spraying blood all over the hall.

A sweet, gentle fragrance fills the air. “Master Zhang,” says a woman’s voice. It is a beautiful voice, soothing and pleasant to the ear. You feel a slender hand place itself over your dislocated arm. The man frowns, as if taken by surprise. Neither of you had sensed her approach, it seems. “Lady Ji. I am afraid I am preoccupied with some personal business at the moment.”

“Master Zhang,” repeats the voice, sterner this time. “This boy is a guest of the manor, as are you. It is not proper etiquette to harm another guest, nor is it polite to abduct one before the conference has even started.”

With a loud sigh, Zhang lets go of your dislocated arm. It falls limply to your side, causing you to groan from the pain. “Very well. As you wish, Lady Ji. I will take him with me after the winter solstice conference.” He laughs cruelly as he turns around.

“Do you not wish to participate?” asks Lady Ji, standing out of your sight.

“I have decided to spend my time at the inner court this year. Until later, Lady Ji,” says Zhang without looking back. He walks out of the hall. The crowd scatters hurriedly, with not a person wishing to get in his way.

“What a capricious man,” sighs the lady of the house. She turns you around and you get a glimpse of her for the first time. It would not be wrong to say that she is possibly the most beautiful person you have ever met. Her complexion is exceedingly fair and clear, and her features as exquisite as the finest dolls. Her clothing is made of the finest silk, after the ancient fashion of court ladies from a much older dynasty that you cannot identify. The prettiest concubine in the Imperial Palace would be as a dull pheasant hen in her presence. Though you cannot pin-point her age, she does not seem a day over thirty.

“Are you okay, child?” she asks. You give her a deep bow in response. “My arm is still attached to my body. It’s not even a flesh wound. I am eternally grateful for your assistance, Lady Ji.”

“Think nothing of it,” smiles the lady with a radiance that would outshine even the sun. “While you are here, you are my guest, and under my protection. Luoying Manor places utmost importance on the safety of all who reside here.” With a polite nod of the head, Lady Ji sweeps away from you and towards the dais at the front of the hall.

You stagger back to your seat, where Chi Qilin is staring at you. “Wow,” she says. Her eyes seem to be full of admiration. “That was insane. You went and talked to the Southern Maniac. You actually did it.”

“Oh, so that was him?” you groan.

“You really didn’t know? Would you have gone to him if you did?”

You give that question two seconds of thought before shaking your head. “No. I think I would still have approached him even if I knew his identity beforehand.” And that was the truth – you do think you would probably have done so.

Qilin laughs, tickled at your answer. “You’re a strange one. Well, I must admit, you really have guts. I think I see you in a different light now.” She stands up and walks behind you. Instinctively you move away from her; who knows what manner of poison she plans to inflict upon you this time?

“Hey, don’t worry. I’m just going to do this…” Her hands flash forward before you can react and grip your dislocated shoulder firmly. With a gentle push, almost as if she is giving you a massage, she nudges it back into position. You give a little shout of pain. “There,” she says cheerfully. “The joint-dislocating poison is a favourite over at our place, and I’ve had to learn how to fix such problems myself after getting hit by it one time too many.”

You swing your shoulder about, flexing it. It’s pretty much perfect – you couldn’t do any better yourself. You are about to thank her when she interrupts you.

“So, that’s the second favour you owe me,” grins Qilin. You give her a stare of disbelief. “I could have done it myself in a while! Wait, second favour? What’s the first one?”

“Oh, think about that yourself,” she smiles mischievously.

Before you can press her for more details, Lady Ji commences her welcome speech. The hall falls into respectful silence as the winter solstice conference begins.

***

The post-banquet affair is set aside for mingling between the attendees. This is a good chance to trawl for more information. You walk around, asking about:

(Pick only two)

I. Lady Ji.

II. The trial for fellowship.

III. The Ten Great Swords.

IV. The Southern Maniac, Zhang Jue.

V. Your strange qi condition, though you do not reveal that you have it.

VI. Yuhua Hall and the Yuhua Duqing Palm, as well as the woman-in-black.

***

The conference is also a place where scholars and other knowledgeable and skilled persons present what they have learnt. Many of the people here are masters in their field who excel at conveying their teachings in an interesting manner, and there is much to be learnt – it is a pity you do not have the time and learning prowess to absorb it all. Strangely, the atmosphere of the conference seems to boost your attention and concentration; you find yourself remembering more than you usually would, helping you learn faster.

Many little presentations happen over the course of the first day, and while attending them you find that you have learnt the most from:

A. A very impressive lecture by a distinguished and renowned orator on the art of persuading people. (Speech +3)

B. An enlightening guide on how to combine scholarly knowledge with artistic skill, letting both blossom. (Scholarly Knowledge +2, Artistic Skill +2)

C. A brilliant demonstration about sleight-of-hand movements by a mysterious, masked street performer. (Sleight of Hand +3)

D. An exciting lecture on the principles of weapon that allows people with zero knowledge about handling weapons to quickly learn the basics of how to use one. (Axe+1 , Bow+1, Saber+1, Spear+1, Staff+1, Thrown Weapons +1)

***

You retire to your room that night, exhausted. Slumping into your bed, you drift off into a nice slumber… until you are rudely awakened by a warm weight atop your body.

“What’s… what’s this heavy thing?” you groan out as you try to push it off you.

“Hey, that’s rude!” whispers Chi Qilin angrily.

“It is even more rude for you to be coming into my room and sitting on top of me in the middle of the night when I am trying to get some sleep!”

“Hush, be quiet. It’s the middle of the night. People need their sleep. You are a very inconsiderate brat, aren't you?” says Qilin. In the darkness you can barely make out her finger held to her lips.

“Yes, everyone is trying to sleep, except for certain unladylike girls who creep into a man’s bedroom. Is this the adult behaviour you are so proud of?” you retort quietly.

“Is this not adult behaviour?” she asks innocently, though you know she is mocking you. "Adults are known for sneaking into each others' chambers."

“No, not yet,” you say. “Here, let me show-“

Qilin lets out a brief squeak and leaps away from you before you can grab her to teach her a lesson. “W-Well, I am here for another thing, not to dally with a virgin boy.” She changes the subject quickly, though she seems a little flustered.

“To be honest, I need your help,” says the girl, regaining her composure quickly. “There’s something strange going on with the young scholar that came with us and the other two strangers.”

“What’s this, more of your busybody meddling? What business is that of yours, or for that matter, mine?” you sigh tiredly.

“Well, don’t you find it suspicious? I spotted them walking off further into the manor grounds just now. They might be going towards the rumoured inner court.”

“Then follow them, if you’re so interested,” you say irritably.

“A lady shouldn’t be wandering about in the middle of the night unchaperoned,” says Chi Qilin with a straight face.

“Why me?” you groan exasperatedly.

“I thought you would be gutsy enough to do it.”

“No, I was asking the heavens why I am being cursed with this misfortune.”

“Oh, that’s just your karma. You were definitely a great villain in your previous life... probably a big seducer of women and murderer of hundreds. Do more good deeds – like helping me out, and perhaps it’ll go away!”

You can’t believe the cheek of this girl.

***

A. You go with her. You are curious about what she said anyway.

B. You have better things to do than go with her. Like sleep.
 

十四 · Midnight in Luoying

Midnight in Luoying

You wonder just why you are doing this. Chi Qilin leads the way, darting between the shadows of the naked trees with all the ease of a weasel. She’s a much better sneak than you are, but that is not surprising considering her duplicitous nature. “I hear them ahead,” whispers Qilin as she presses herself flat against the wall, while you kneel besides her. The both of you peek around the corner.

The young scholar and the other two men are standing in front of a gate that leads to the inner compound. The scholar is unarmed, while the other two men have sabers hanging from their They appear to be arguing, though you cannot make out their words from this distance. The scholar begins gesticulating wildly.

“Falling out between thieves?” you murmur.

“No, I don’t think so,” says Qilin. “The scholar is talking about… let’s see, a sword? Family? I can’t read the lips of the other two, it’s too dark and the angle is wrong.”

One of the men draws his saber. Instantly, the scholar begins to shout for help, backing away.

“So, what do we do?” asks Qilin. “Are we going to help?”

You brought me all the way out here and you ask me this?” you respond with a snort of disbelief.

“I’m a lady,” she simpers. “A gentleman should lead the way. Besides, they don’t look too tough.”

“How good are you at fighting? I’m not sure we should stick our necks out.” After the events of today, you can’t help but be cautious.

With a grin, Qilin whips out a pair of throwing knives. “Allow me to demonstrate.” Barely taking any time to aim, she hurls it at the saber-wielding man before you have time to remind her that killing isn’t allowed on the manor grounds.

The knife flies straight and true – it hits the man’s head hilt-first, causing him to shout out in pain. The other man whips his head around and spots the two of you immediately. You bemoan your bad luck and run out at him, cursing the troublesome Qilin as you do. If you ran away now you’d never hear the end of it from her. At any rate, since you are already out here, you might as well see this through.

The other man pulls out his saber as you charge at him. The moment he raises his weapon, a knife hits his hand point first, sinking into his palm. He drops the saber, screaming in agony, and you drive your knee into his stomach. As he staggers back, groaning, you shift your footing and sweep him off his feet with a kick.

The first assailant leaps at you before you can finish off your opponent, his saber narrowly missing your chest. As you quickly withdraw, a stone flies at the man – he blocks it with the flat of his blade. “What happened to your knives?” you shout.

“I only brought two! Sorry!” comes the reply. “Wasn’t expecting any trouble!”

“What? You weren’t-“

You are forced to cut your indignant shout short as you roll away from another slash. Though Qilin’s constant stone throwing keeps the man off balance, he is skilled enough to deflect the stones while leaving no room for you to press your attack. You draw your dagger and attempt to stab at him, but your hasty attack is poorly executed. With a flourish of his saber, he knocks your puny blade away, leaving you open for a counter attack.

The young scholar tackles the man in the back. The man staggers forward, but is otherwise unmoved. With a quick blow, he knocks the scholar to the ground. You attempt to move forward, but the saber flashes back into a guarding stance as the man’s eyes dart towards the girl behind you.

This time, however, two stones fly at him – he hits one away and is nailed by the other between the eyes. Qilin had lulled him into a predictable pattern by throwing only one stone at a time. With a yell, you step forth and seize the opportunity. You drive your dagger towards his chest.

There is a dull clang as your dagger hits metal in the folds of his robes. As the man pulls away, his clothes tear. A bronze crest falls out – that is probably what you hit.

You hear shouts in the distance – there are people approaching with lanterns in their hands. The man spits on the ground and runs off before you can stop him. His injured compatriot remains moaning on the ground, clutching his hand. You go to help the scholar up as some servants and guests of the manor arrive, attracted by the commotion.

“Miss Chi,” you say in a sickly sweet voice, “Could you go talk to the crowd? You got me into this mess after all.”

“Of course, Mister Xu,” she replies, in the same sickly sweet tone, “I would be delighted to help you out again after just saving your life with my throwing skills.”

As Qilin goes off to explain the situation, the scholar bows deeply, thanking you. “My name is Xiahou Yu. I believe we were on the same boat. Thank you for coming to my aid.” You return his bow. “I am Xu Jing. Don’t mention it, anyone would have done the same. May I ask why you were out here at night? Had I not been out on a stroll, things may have ended poorly for you, Master Xiahou.” He grimaces, looking at his remaining assailant. The man is being tied up by two servants of the manor, with Qilin proudly ordering them around as if she owns the place already.

“It is a personal matter. I had reason to believe one of the two men – the man that escaped – knew something about a recent calamity to befall my family. I decided to tail them, and then confront them.” Xiahou Yu sighs loudly, looking up at the moon with a wistful expression. “I suppose I am still too naïve to be travelling in the jianghu by myself.” You realize that you have heard of his surname recently, and in connection with a sword, too. The Xiahou clan, who were rumoured to have one of the Ten Great Swords, and who were reportedly attacked and killed by mysterious villains recently.

Yu bends down, picking up the bronze crest that the man had dropped. “Perhaps this will give me a clue. Do you recognize this, Master Xu?”

Your breath catches in your throat as the emblem on the crest comes into view. You recognize that symbol – it is the seal of the Emperor’s secret police, which you have seen but a few times. You doubt that the man you fought was one of them – they would be far more skilled, and wouldn’t leave such incriminating evidence behind – but he could be an auxiliary or a hired sword with connections.

“Master Xu?” asks the scholar again. You are unsure how to respond.

“This is an imperial symbol, Master Xiahou.” Again, Lady Ji comes to your rescue, appearing mysteriously by your side with no hint of her coming. “I will tell you more about it later in private. For now, you should retire to your chambers and get some rest for tomorrow.”

Xiahou Yu blushes and bows to the lady. Giving you a quick smile, he walks off, a servant joining him as an escort.

“Well, that was fun!” giggles Qilin as she comes to your side to greet the lady of the manor. “Good evening, Lady Ji.”

“You are out of your mind,” you sigh. “We could have been killed.”

“Events were under control. There was no need to worry,” says Lady Ji enigmatically, with a slight smile on her lovely lips. “Now, I would have words with the both of you immediately. You have been rather… adventurous. It would be remiss of me to allow you two to run about further without having your audience.” You are not sure whether she means to praise you or admonish you.

Following Lady Ji, you are brought to a small, brightly lit room. The walls are covered with beautiful ink paintings. The lady takes her seat and gestures for the two of you to follow suit.

“Xu Jing,” she calls out your name in a soft voice that would mesmerize any person. “Born under an unlucky star, brought from poverty to riches, and cast out from riches to poverty. Your life has charted an interesting path indeed. Having tasted the sweet fruits of freedom, you no longer yearn for life in the palace so strongly, do you?”

“Whoa. Wow,” exclaims Qilin. “Wait a minute. You’re a noble?”

Your back is tense and straight as you stare ahead of you. What is Lady Jing playing at by saying this in front of others? For that matter, how does she know of your background?

“In a way, yes. You can call Xu Jing a noble. He has had a noble’s education.”

Qilin begins grinning mischievously, as if she’s planning some sort of scheme in her mind. You are about to retort when the lady speaks again.

“And what about you, princess of poison?”

That shuts her up quickly, her expression changing from devious to shocked in a second.

“Your clan dangles their secrets above your head, daring you to taste the forbidden fruit. Your uncle and master of the sect has placed great expectations upon you, as his designated successor. You may seem driven, but you are uncertain inside, are you not? Are the secrets worth it? Are they worth killing your warmth, making you cold inside?”

Qilin laughs nervously. “My father said that you would be a tough woman to handle, Lady Ji. He was not wrong.”

“Everyone has their own past, Chi Qilin.” The lady addresses the both of you. “I will not say why I have revealed some of your secrets today. It is something you will have to ponder.”

“Perhaps the lady might be kind enough to reveal some of her own secrets as part of this mutual pondering session,” you reply, trying to get an advantage on the situation. “I must say that I am intrigued.”

“An interesting suggestion. Perhaps I will, but not today.” She gives a little chuckle of pleasure and turns to Qilin, looking at her straight in the eye. “You will not be selected as a fellow this year, but should you wish it, you will have an excellent chance in four years’ time.”

Qilin immediately begins pouting. “Seriously? That’s no fun. Father’s going to laugh at me and refuse to teach the more advanced poisons.” She doesn’t seem to depressed about the matter, despite her act.

“Now, about your standing, Xu Jing…”

Lady Ji turns her eyes towards you. You stare back, meeting her gaze without flinching. Her beautiful eyes are dark, speckled with hints of green. You wonder if it’s just a trick of the light.

“Answer this question with a simple yes or no. Do you desire to become a fellow of the manor?”

***

A. Yes.

B. No.
 

十五 · The Southern Maniac

The Southern Maniac

“You are an honest person,” says Lady Ji. “Very well. I shall grant you your desire.”

“What? Why does he get to join?” protests Qilin indignantly. Lady Ji only looks at her and smiles gently. “Because it was decreed by fate. Do not worry, Lady Chi. You will get your chance in four years’ time. Now, I will have to request that you leave us for a while – what follows next is by tradition private.”

Sticking her tongue out at you, Qilin reluctantly leaves the room. With a wave of her hand, Lady Ji beckons her servants over. They place two old teacups and an equally ancient-looking teapot in front of you. Steam is still rising from the spout; the tea is freshly brewed. “Serve the tea to indicate your status as the newest fellow of the manor. Drink the tea to demonstrate that you are a fellow of the manor. Then, the induction will be complete,” intones one of the servants.

You do so, carefully pouring out the tea into the two cups. With a respectful bow, you hold out one of the cups with both hands. Lady Ji accepts it gracefully, and with a swift gesture upends the cup, letting the tea splash over the floor. “With this, the gods of the earth recognize us.” You take up your own cup and down the contents in a single gulp. A slight chill runs through your brain as you do so. “With this, the immortals of the heavens bind us.”

“The ritual is finished. The price has been paid. Congratulation, Xu Jing. You are now a fellow of Luoying Manor.” Lady Ji smiles warmly. “Your name and visage will be made known to all the servants here after the winter solstice conference has ended; you will then have use of any room you wish… except my own chambers, of course.” You blush despite yourself.

“Thank you, my lady. You are too kind. I did not expect the ritual to be so simple,” you say.

“Simplicity is enlightening. Throughout the ages, Luoying Manor has abided by simplicity in principle, if not in deeds. Therefore, the ritual is simple. It calls for a person to cast away what he already knows in order to gain an open mind so that he may learn in a state of humility.”

You try to wrap your head around the lady’s words. “You mean… the price is some of my knowledge?”

“You may put it that way if you like, Xu Jing,” says Lady Ji amusedly. “I don’t feel any different. I can’t tell if I’ve forgotten anything,” you say.

“How would you remember that which you have forgotten?” laughs Lady Ji. “In any case, dear boy, you should retire to your chambers. The night is drawing to a close, and you should rest.”

***

The next day, you wake up well after the sun has risen. Upon making your way to the main hall you are beset by Qilin almost immediately. She begins pestering you with a barrage of questions about what happened after she left.

“Didn’t you eavesdrop or peek in on us?” you say with a mocking grin.

“I wanted to! But the servants were really too alert for me to do anything,” she complains. “So, what was it like?”

“It was rather simple,” you say. “Just some tea, and then she tells me I’ve lost a bit of my knowledge.”

“No further secrets I don’t already know from my father, then,” sighs Qilin as her shoulders slump in dejection. “I thought there’d be something to help me pass the trials.”

“Master Xu! Miss Chi!” Xiahou Yu approaches the both of you with a hearty greeting. “I haven’t had the chance to thank you for your aid last night.”

“Oh, it was nothing,” says Qilin. “Justice had to be served.” You scowl at her. As the young scholar begins to warm up to you, you discover that your suspicions of his background are correct. He is of the Xiahou clan, which has been recently exterminated by unknown assailants, and he is searching for any clues that may help him discover the mastermind behind the attack. Despite being prone to a certain amount of pompousness, he appears to be a good person at heart.

“I will be heading down to Yangzhou after this,” says Xiahou Yu. “I have heard that there is a respected place called Yuhua Hall which is known for its information-gathering capabilities. Hopefully I will find some leads there.” You suppose a brothel does hear many gossip from its customers, and it is respected in its own way, but Yu doesn’t appear to know that it is one. You spot Qilin smirking from the corner of your eye, a slight blush on her cheeks.

Well, it’s not your duty to tell him about the place. Besides, Yu seems so tense most of the time that it looks like he could do with some refreshment.

The rest of the conference passes without a hitch; you manage to learn little more as most of the participants begin splitting up into private circles for heavy scholarly discussion beyond your capability to follow. Despite having become a fellow, the inner court will remain closed to you until the conference ends – it looks like you will not be officially confirmed until then.

On the third and last day, Lady Ji appears to announce the fellows that have been selected this year. The new fellows are Guye Aluba, a nomad from the far north, Shan, the Bookwise Mountain Man, yourself, and to your surprise, Xiahou Yu. The four of you are escorted to the dais to applause from the rest of the attendees.

Afterwards, Lady Ji approaches you, a rare look of concern on her face. She leans in close to whisper in your ear. “Xu Jing, you must make haste back to your master immediately. I have prepared a boat at the pier.”

“What is the hurry, my lady?” you respond, puzzled.

“Zhang Jue has just left for Xuzhou. I fear he may be looking for your master.”

***

You jump off the boat before it has finished docking and break into a run. If the Southern Maniac has reached Master Yao and Cao’er…

You dash up the stairs of the inn and fling the doors to the room wide open. Master Yao is seated at the table, with Cao’er huddling behind him. Zhang Jue is perched on a chair across from your master, a teacup in his hand. Then, there are a group of wrinkled, stern looking old nuns standing in the corner of the room furthest away from the Southern Maniac.

“Ah, you are back, Jing,” Yao says calmly. “We have some visitors.”

“You are early, my apprentice,” says Zhang. “Have you found out all you needed to know?”

“You are the one who has stolen the Yuchang Sword,” says one of the nuns as she shakes her horsetail whip at you. “We request that you return it to us.”

“You have Emei’s beloved phallic object in your hands?” grins Zhang suddenly. “How amusing!”

The nuns sputter in outrage, but do not make any attempt to move towards the Southern Maniac for his insulting remark.

“So, Jing,” sighs Yao. “Apparently you have agreed to go with Master Zhang here and become his new apprentice.”

“I haven’t agreed to anything,” you say quickly. “My apologies to Master Zhang, but I am afraid I really cannot go with you at the moment.” Zhang Jue just raises his eyebrows, a cold smile on his face.

“Words will not work on him, Jing,” says Master Yao. “If you do not know Zhang Jue well, I do. He is not a man that will take his eyes off his prize. If you do not agree, he will likely kill me, and Cao’er, and then all of the nuns here. Then, if you are still resistant, he will kill you.”

“That is so,” nods Zhang sagely.

“Unfortunately, I am not so keen to hand my apprentice over to the Southern Maniac either. It is said that none of his disciples have survived six months under his tutelage. I will not send my apprentice off to certain death,” says Yao, a serious look coming over his face.

“There appears to be a slight misunderstanding here,” laughs Zhang Jue. “My last disciple lasted six months and three days, setting a new record.”

“You see?” says Master Yao as he gets up from his chair. “Jing, take Cao’er and run.”

“We do not care whose apprentice Xu Jing becomes,” says the head nun, “but all we want here is the sword.”

You glance at the nuns. Perhaps if you give them the sword…

“If you do anything as dull as handing the sword over, I will kill you first,” states Zhang Jue simply. The nuns glare at him, and then at you. You look around you, beginning to panic. It looks like everything is going to blow up into a messy fight in the next moment. This is all too risky. You fear that if a fight breaks out, Master Yao and Cao’er may be injured or killed, but you do not want to go off with Zhang Jue either for the sake of your own good health. You are keenly aware that you are nowhere close to squaring your debt with Master Yao too, and are loathe to abandon him.

***

A. You give the sword to the nuns, hoping to negotiate for their assistance against Zhang Jue. With their help, it could be possible that the Southern Maniac may be forced to retreat.

B. You do not give over the sword to the nuns. There’s no telling whether you can convince them to help you even if you do, and making this a three-way fight may help your chances in surviving.

---

1. You do as Master Yao says and flee with Cao’er. You have to keep her safe. This is no time to be reckless.

2. You stay behind to fight. You might not amount to much, but you are confident you won’t get in the way at least. An extra hand may prove vital in turning the tide of the fight.

***

C. You reluctantly agree to go with Zhang Jue, attempting to negotiate your release from Master Yao’s service so that he may leave safely with Cao'er. If he agrees, you will swear an oath of personal debt towards the Killer Physician in gratitude.
 

十六 · To the South

To the South

“I will go with the Southern Maniac, master.” You speak your words calmly and loudly, despite the confusing mix of emotions in your heart. You feel that it is a disservice to leave before you have repaid your master and Cao’er for all they have done for you, but you would never be able to live it down if they risked their lives for your own folly.

Yao turns, looking at you and through you with his wrinkled eyes. Then, he nods. “You have made up your mind.” It is a statement, not a question. He understands why you have come to this decision. Your master returns to his seat. “If you are serious about this, I cannot stop you. I do not think this is the wisest choice to make, but it may well be the kindest.”

You walk over to the table. The teapot is still warm – picking it up, you refill Master Yao’s cup. “Please accept this last gesture from your disloyal disciple.” With the briefest hint of hesitation in his aged hands, he takes the cup from you and drinks it with a firm nod. Then, he draws out a pale brown pill from his medicine box and tosses it to you. Catching it, you swallow the medicine. The mark on your wrist begins to fade almost instantly. You are now free from the Killer Physician.

You turn to Cao’er, forcing yourself to smile. She looks confused and shocked. Her mouth opens and closes like a fish gulping water, as she can find no words to say to you. Grabbing your sleeve, she casts her red, watery eyes downwards and begins glaring at the floor in silence. “Cao’er-“

With a sigh, Master Yao’s fingers stab into the side of Cao’er’s neck. Her eyes roll back up in her head as she slumps into his arms. “I will have some words with her. She will be in a stubborn mood for a while, but it’ll pass. Go with your new master before he gets bored.”

Zhang stands up, his bulky body straightening out with a surprising grace. “That would be a wise option, master physician. Perhaps we may call upon you some day, when he is nostalgic for his old friends.” The Southern Maniac walks out of the room without looking back. It is clear that he expects you to follow. You see no point in dragging out the farewell any further. With a quick bow to your old master, you hurry after the new one.

***

Zhang Jue leads you out of the city and towards the river. At the bank you see a crude raft lashed to a rock. He stops and turns around. “Sisters of Emei. Why do you persist in following us?”

The six nuns stand a safe distance away, having tailed you from the inn in Xuzhou. “I am afraid we must ask for that sword to be given back to us,” says one of the nuns.

“I’m afraid that question has to be posed to my new master,” you say, smiling. “By the way, I am curious; how did you know I had it?”

“We have been investigating its whereabouts for a long time,” says a nun. “It was only recently that we found out that the great grandfather of Rong Muben was responsible for its theft. We visited Songfeng Sword School recently, and Master Rong pointed to you, saying that you slew his son and took the sword. You haven’t exactly been conspicuous in Xuzhou; you were easy to find.”

“Actually, both the young and old Rongs gave it to me, but that’s besides the point. So, master,” you say acidly, “is it alright for me to return the sword now? Or does the Great Southern Maniac care so much for a fish knife?” Now that Master Yao and Cao’er won’t get involved, you see no reason to hold back your tongue.

“That is an interesting tone you’re taking with me, my apprentice,” smiles Zhang Jue. “Do you think I will not kill you for being rude?”

“I think that you will not kill me over mere words. Judge a man by what he does, not what he says.”

“A lofty standard. Would that all men held such views. Unfortunately, words are in themselves deeds. They are spoken, and speaking is amongst many actions a man can do,” laughs Zhang, challenging you to rebut him.

“I hate to interrupt,” says the nun with slight trepidation and annoyance, “but can we have the sword back?”

“Xu Jing,” says the Southern Maniac with a bored look on his face, “draw the Yuchang Sword and fight the Emei nuns with it.” You bite back the urge to let out a cry of “What?”, instead settling for, “Yes, master.”

The nun frowns. “That would be… inadvisable,” she mutters. “We do not seek bloodshed here.”

“Neither do I,” says Zhang. “Defeat the boy and the sword is yours. I am sure you can accomplish that without killing him. As for my apprentice… well, be careful with where you point that blade.” He winks. “I will try not to wound anyone with a sharp sword,” you say sarcastically as you draw the Yuchang Sword from its sheath.

“That is right. If you wound any of the nuns, I will inflict that wound upon you in return.” You are not sure if the Southern Maniac is serious, but you have to assume that he is. The rest of the nuns begin stepping back, leaving their leader at the fore. As she assumes her stance, Zhang frowns.

“A duel? I want all of you to attack my apprentice at once.”

“Master Zhang,” says the nun testily, “Emei does not gang up on a child. I alone will be enough.”

“If you do not attack him together, I will join the fight. This is a good chance to gain the sword you so desire. Besides, he is my apprentice. Do not underestimate him.”

“I may be your apprentice, master, but I have yet to learn any skills from you,” you say. “I do not think I will be able to handle all of them at once.”

“We’ll see about that,” says Zhang confidently. “Lose and I will kill you.”

The nuns retreat away to confer. When they come back, they seem to have made up their minds to secure the sword today. “We will make this quick, Xu Jing.” They spread out, getting into formation.

“The Guihe Formation (閨鶴陣 ,Maiden Crane Formation), eh?” muses Zhang. The nuns begin to surround you, as if enclosing you in the wings of a crane. As the first nun leaps to the attack, Zhang calls out, “Two steps backwards.” Confused at his words, you dodge the nun’s palm strike by jumping to the left, only to run right into the clutches of two others. Redirecting your motion, they spin you about and toss you to the ground. You rapidly scramble to your feet, sword at the ready. “One step to your right, then three steps forwards,” calls out Zhang again. You decide to follow his instructions. You take one step to the right. A horsetail whip narrowly misses you as you do so – surprised, you decide to press the advantage and grab the whip. Before you can do so, a nun strikes at your spine from behind, sending you sprawling to the floor again.

“Roll to the left before getting up, leap to the right, then take four steps backwards,” says Zhang lazily. He’s leaning back on the rock, looking rather bored with the whole thing. You aren’t so stupid as to not perceive what he is doing. Casting away any misgivings you may have, you devote your body wholeheartedly into replicating the Southern Maniac’s instructions. You roll, avoiding an outstretched hand aimed at grabbing your crotch. Stumbling to your feet, you immediately jump to the right, evading a nun’s flying kick. You take four steps backwards the moment your feet touch the ground, barely taking the time to balance yourself. The head nun’s leg sweep barely misses your feet. It looks like the bastard knows what he’s doing after all.

With a snarl of irritation, the nuns continue their attack, and Zhang continues calling out his directions. You will yourself to follow his words as faithfully and as precisely as you can; the nuns’ formation is too fast and confusing for you to fight alone. As you dart, dodge, and roll around the battle, you find it easier and easier to catch their movements, but there is still no opening for you to attack. You cannot hit them, but neither can they hit you as long as you follow Zhang’s directions.

Suddenly, the nuns stop, retreating back into a single line. Their old faces are scowling heavily.

“Hm, what is this? Have you gotten bored already?” asks Zhang.

“We will not be training your apprentice for you, Zhang Jue,” snaps the head nun. “This mockery is pointless.”

The Southern Maniac just laughs. “Do you not want the sword, then?”

“We have waited for years. We can wait a little longer,” she hisses.

“If you do want the sword, the Abbess will know where to find me,” says Zhang cheerfully. “I have not changed my residence. I would suggest that you try again regularly as once we reach my island, I will not lift a finger to direct my apprentice. That would be your best chance.”

Glaring at the both of you, the nuns retreat, muttering decidedly unnunly curses from their mouths.

“Island?” you ask, when they are out of sight. “That is the place where your talent will blossom.” Zhang Jue’s grin is now cruel and wide, his eyes gleaming with mad glee. “I will turn you into a peerless warrior, my apprentice.”

He leaps onto the raft, laughing in anticipation. “We head now to Yinhu Island, Xu Jing. Be prepared.”

***

Yinhu Island is located some ways to the south – it takes you half a month to reach the island, braving the waves along the coast. The locals call it Maniac Island; it is the home of the Southern Maniac when he is not wandering the land. The climate of the island is humid – the greenery is more jungle than forest.

Zhang’s large house, built in the style of a mansion, is perched near a precipice. You do not know how it remains standing; it looks like it would fall at any moment. As you gaze at the sight, your new master speaks up.

“Let us not waste any time getting started.” His fist buries itself in your stomach. You can feel a snap as he channels his qi into you, inciting your dormant internal energy beyond the pills’ capacity to suppress. Your qi gushes forth – this is the first time you have experienced it while conscious. It is as if a million knives are shredding you up from the inside. Forced to your knees, your numb fingers reach into your clothes, fumbling for more of your medication. You spill the pouch onto the ground as another sharp wave of pain tears through your body, causing you collapse to the muddy ground, unable to even scream from the pain.

“This is your nature, Xu Jing,” says Zhang Jue calmly. “Embrace it, even as it kills you…”



---CHAPTER END---
 

Chapter Two: The Eight Sects' Challenge

一 · Maniac Training

Maniac Training

The first thing you were taught under Zhang Jue’s tutelage was how to accept your chaotic inner strength. You spent seven days and seven nights writhing in pain in the jungle as Zhang Jue systematically broke down your meridians, the channels by which a person’s qi travels.

“Vessels are useless,” he said. “All you need to do is to unshackle your qi from the narrow channels that constrain it. Your qi has transcended the need for a path. The harmony of the Way is heresy to your being. Let your strength flow freely; embrace the discord and chaos, and you will become more powerful than you can ever imagine.”

Then, he added, dispassionately, “If you survive this.”

You did, somehow. In the blinding pain you somehow found in yourself the will to cling on to life. By the end of it, however, streaks of white had appeared in your hair, far before your time. You had always looked slightly older than your age, but now, at merely fifteen, you could pass for a man of twenty. The agony may have shortened your lifespan, though you do not know for sure. Without meridians it meant that any injuries you suffer to your internal system can no longer be healed by the qi of others. You would have to cope on your own.

However, you gained power out of it. For the first time in your life, you were now able to use your inner strength. The Southern Maniac named it Yuanshi Hundun (原始混沌, Primordial Chaos). The orderly world was born after yin and yang came into perfect balance and harmony; before that there was nothing but dark and undifferentiated chaos. Befitting its name, the Yuanshi Hundun coursing through your body is unpredictable and barely controllable even at the best of times. When channeled, however, it gives you a burst of strength and speed at the expense of making your strikes and movements erratic. Due to its nature, it is impossible for you to cultivate your neigong via calm meditation and docile practice.

Master Zhang praised you for surviving; that lasted for all of two seconds before he set the tigers on you.

***

Training on Yinhu Island is harsh and deadly. You often find human bones during your training; no doubt scattered remains of your master’s former apprentices. The first part of your training was spent in the jungle that you shared with countless deadly beasts. You approached this obstacle mainly via:

A. Trapping. By learning to identifying the lay of the land and the tracks of the animals, you placed traps with which you could capture or kill the beasts. To do this you needed a keen eye and a mind for constructing and placing traps. (PER+1, INT+1, Traps+2)

B. Stalking. You turned the jungle into your own playground, hunting the animals that hunted you without their knowledge. Your senses became keener, and your movements quicker. (PER+1, AGI+1, Sneak+2)

C. Head-on assault. You contested the beasts’ territory in a show of strength. You beat them down in a direct fight, though you only managed it after downing copious amounts of alcohol. (STR+1, END+1, Drinking+2)

D. Befriending. In a stroke of rare good fortune, you somehow managed to befriend the animals. Your master was slightly amused at your approach, and proceeded to kill all of your animal friends. You were inspired to compose a great poem to lament their passing. (CHA+1, LUC+1, Artistic Skill+2)

***

After your ordeal in the jungle, during which you developed a combined qinggong skill out of your fundamental knowledge, your martial arts training began in earnest – your regimen was strict and brutal, with no time to even sleep. You were kept awake and functional by ingestion of raw snake and bear gall bladders that Zhang ripped out. At times you wondered why the island was not yet depopulated, and then your skull was cracked open because you were not paying attention while sparring with your master.

The Southern Maniac had plenty of techniques, and all of them were ones designed to kill. He was less of a swordsman, preferring to relish in flesh-to-flesh contact, though it did not mean he was not handy with a sword. Your training focused on your unarmed and sword skills, the ones you were already proficient in. The first technique he taught you were the Shouwang Claws, (獸王狂爪, Mad Claws of the Beast King), his signature technique. With it, Master Zhang could rend flesh from bones, dig out a man’s heart, or tear off a limb. You do not aspire to that much, but even in your inexperienced hands the technique is lethal. Besides that, you were also taught another technique:

A. Fanfeng Feixue Sword (反風飛血劍, Counter-Wind Flying Blood Sword). Developed by Zhang Jue as an unorthodox variant of the Huashan Sect’s renowned swift sword technique, it is meant to counter their rapid slashes with even wilder, more furious and brutal attacks of your own that would spill their blood across the arena. It has never been tested against Huashan in actual combat.

B. Chuzhan Fist (除斬拳, Dividing Sundering Fist). Developed by Zhang Jue as a counter to the Taiji Fist of the Wudang Sect. Zhang believes that it is possible to disrupt the gentle negation stance of Taiji, breaking their harmony by applying more force, faster than they can handle, and thus this technique focuses on ruthless, straightforward attacks that attempt to overwhelm the enemy with sheer power and speed. It has never been tested against Wudang in actual combat.

C. Wuni Fist (五逆拳,Five Deadly Sins Fist). Developed by Zhang Jue as an answer to the famed Luohan Fist of Shaolin Temple. In response to the straightforward, direct attacks of the Arhat, the Deadly Sins movements focuses on attacking the weak points in such a straightforward technique by utilizing a variety of clutches, grabs and throws in addition to quick, jabbing strikes. It has never been tested against Shaolin in actual combat.
 

二 · A Taunting Invite

A Taunting Invite

The nuns are here again. Perched on a comfortable tree, you watch them pass under you as they venture nervously along the little dirt road that leads from the pier. You cock your head, studying them. There’s still six of them, but one of the regulars is not present. Perhaps you should enquire over her health. After all, they are rather old.

You heave yourself off the tree, dropping down lightly – though not entirely silently – on the path behind them. Still, they do not notice – their footsteps are loud enough to conceal your landing.“Hello, sisters. It’s a pleasure to see all of you again,” you say warmly. The entire group of nuns turn around swiftly, in a stance prepared to do violence.

“Xu Jing,” says the head nun politely and coldly with a nod of her head.

“Sister Miaozhu,” you bow, proceeding to greet each sister by name. “And Sister Miaoshen, Sister Miaofang, Sister Miaoqi, Sister Miaoying… I am pleased that we meet each other in good health once more, but where is Sister Miaoli?”

“Sister Miaoli is not well enough to make the trip this time. Her health has been poorly recently, and the Abbess deemed it time that she retired from active duty on the team,” replies Sister Miaozhu tersely. The Emei nuns never referred to their squad as the Castration Nuns that the rest of the jianghu colloquially called them; to them, it was only the ‘team’. You had made the mistake of bringing that up in the third of your five encounters so far – you had barely managed to get away with both your testicles and the sword that day.

“My sincerest apologies, sister,” you say regretfully. “I was looking forward to challenging her variant of the Guihe Formation this time. I see that you have brought someone to take her place, though?” You crane your head to take a look at the last nun, who is standing out of sight behind the expansive Sister Miaoshen. “That is Sister Yifang, the newest member of our team,” says Sister Miaozhu. “Yifang, introduce yourself to the thief.”

The nun obediently steps out in front of you, her palms placed together. You resist the urge to whistle. Your first impression is that she is wasted as a nun. Her looks would command attention in any city. Demurely, she bows to you and introduces herself. “Good day, Master Xu. I am Yifang of the Emei Sect.“ The girl is definitely younger than you are.

“Xu Jing, disciple of the Southern Maniac,” you respond.

“I know this might be a waste of time to ask,” sighs Sister Miaozhu impatiently, “but can we have the sword back now?”

“I’m sorry,” you say sadly. “As you know, my master has bid me guard the blade with my life. If I give it away I will lose my head.”

“If that’s the case, we can help you!” blurts out Yifang, suddenly pleading for you to see reason. “Emei will protect you if you return the blade to us. Please, Master Xu, let us help you.” You glance at the older nuns. Some of them are rolling their eyes and sighing, others are snickering.

“Words are wasted on his ears, Yifang. This boy is as bad as his master. Don’t let his sweet tongue fool you,” scolds Sister Miaofang as she scowls at you.

“Indeed I am,” you laugh, stepping backwards as you draw the Yuchang Sword concealed in your sleeve. Now that the latest session is about to start, you drop all pretenses of formality and polite speech. You know you shouldn’t annoy them, but you just cannot resist. “I never thought I would see a naïve young nun sent along with the tough old biddies. It is as if a lone flower has blossomed in a field of weeds, its beauty made more apparent by contrast.” Sister Yifang’s pale, pretty ears turn red almost instantly.

And with that, the nuns come after you with renewed vigor in their creaky old bones.

You find yourself surrounded before you can even slip into a more heavily forested area. “We won’t make the mistake of allowing you to vanish into the trees this time,” cackles Sister Miaoshen. You grin, concentrating on their movements. The Guihe Formation is flexible and ever-changing; it is not as famous or as powerful as the Emei’s renowned Xuannu Formation, but the Castration Nuns are specialists in this formation and and have improved it in interesting ways every time you met them despite their old stodgy looks.

They come at you, in pairs and threes, breaking away and attempting to misdirect your attention. Unlike your first encounter, the Emei nuns had begun using swords against you a while back. In your hands the Yuchang Sword soars through the air; you effortlessly parry Sister Miaofang and Miaoqi’s attacks coming at you from the left and right, knocking their swords away with your greater strength. The dry leaves on the ground crackle behind you; instinctively you leap forward, past the two nuns, as Sister Miaoshen’s grapple embraces only empty air.

You find yourself face to face with Sister Miaozhu. The head nun has always been the most skilled of her team. Her sword is graceful and deceptive, rooted in the Emei Swordplay known for its misdirection, while your prowess with the sword is still that of an amateur, relying on your superior strength and speed to compensate for the lack of techniques. Sometimes you think that if she were the one with the Yuchang Sword instead of you, your defenses would be skewered in a flash.

You take two steps backwards – if Sister Miaozhu pins you down now, it would be all over for your ballsack. If this part of their formation hasn’t changed, Sister Miaoqi should be approaching you from behind, while Sister Yifang would charge in from the left. Sister Miaozhu would retreat to draw your attention straight ahead.

Sister Miaozhu steps back, following the pattern. At this point, you would usually turn and attack the nun approaching you from behind, but this time you decide to try something different. Using the space granted to you, you spring forward with a powerful lunge – the Pine-Cutting Sword. There is a slight smirk on Sister Miaozhu’s lips as she reads your attack easily and avoids it altogether. That’s what you guessed she’d do. You channel your internal strength as you land. The uncontrolled energy of your Yuanshi Hundun surges throughout your body. You sway the moment your feet hit the ground, allowing your instinct to act in concert with the chaotic qi. Your swaying allows you to dodge Miaozhu’s counterattack by a shave, and you then turn the momentum of your evasion into a spinning backhand. Your strike hits home, knocking the nun away.

As you regain your balance, you see the youngest nun flying right at you, her sword outstretched. Sister Yifang throws herself against you. You let yourself be driven back by her attacks, as she forces you out of the center of the Guihe Formation.

“Yifang, stop!” shouts out Sister Miaozhu.

She turns slightly, distracted by her superior’s call, and you take that chance to vanish. Crouching down low, you slip out of her vision and dart off behind a tree with a burst of speed. By the time she turns her eyes back, you’ve circled to her side. You rush at her before the senior nuns can come to her assistance. Upon seeing you leap out of the foliage, Yifang freezes up. She closes her eyes tightly, flinching as your hand rises up to strike. With a roar, you make a claw with your fingers and swoop it downwards to pat her on the head twice and gently pluck off her skull cap. You chuckle as you leap onto a low hanging branch and use it to clamber beyond their reach.

The young nun touches her shaved pate confusedly as she looks up at you twirling her skull cap in a carefree manner. When she arrives, Sister Miaozhu looks at you reproachfully, as if you are some wayward child that is too stubborn to accept instruction.

A gong is heard in the distance.

“Sorry, sisters,” you grin. “We’re short of time today. My master is calling.” Without waiting for a response, you disappear into the jungle that you know so well.

***

The Southern Maniac’s library does not have any shelves; the books are stacked up in towers two or three times taller than the average man. In the midst of this forest of books, Zhang Jue sits, awaiting your arrival. “It looks like you managed to get a souvenir this time, my apprentice,” says Zhang Jue as you walk into the library. “Truly, your perversion knows no bounds.”

“You did say for me to get an item off their body this time. Should I have ripped off their robes instead? It would be an interesting use for your Shouwang Claws,” you reply.

“I was expecting you to come back with a sword or two,” says Zhang, looking rather bored. “How did the session go?”

“The Guihe Formation is still too difficult for me to break in fair conditions,” you say honestly. “I could have defeated them today if I disregarded your restriction, but that was because one of their veterans had been replaced with an inexperienced girl. Still, here I am on familiar territory. On neutral ground I may not fare as well.”

“Do you feel that the restriction on killing the nuns is a burden?” he asks.

“Not at all, master,” you reply confidently. “I agree with you. Were you not the person who said that for a killer like me, learning not to kill will improve my abilities faster?”

“Only because if you kill off all your toys, you will have nothing left to play with. How will you learn then?” Zhang laughs in amusement before he changes the subject dismissively. “Now, you seem to have been training rather hard recently, so I think you deserve a vacation.” He pulls out a heavy-looking envelope from his tattered robes and tosses it to the floor in front of you; it makes a clattering noise.

“Within you will find a wooden crest. It is an invite to the Young Tigers Martial Arts Competition that is due to be held a few months from now.”

Picking up the envelope, you open it. Indeed, there is a crest within, with the face of a tiger carved into the wood. You sit down, waiting patiently for Master Zhang to continue.

“It is jointly organized by the Eight Major Sects. You know of them from your studies. The competition is by invitation only, and limited to participants under the age of twenty. Usually, the only places receiving the invites would be the major orthodox sects, with a small number of invitations up for grabs via smaller tournaments.”

“Who did you have to kill to get that invitation, Master Zhang? It looks like a rather orthodox competition. You shouldn’t be anywhere on that list.”

“It was sent here by their stupid committee. Oh, I do wish I could kill them, but I’m afraid they’ll just run and hide behind Taoist Wang’s garments when they see me.”

“So, you want me to kill them instead?”you say, half-jokingly.

“No. Not yet, at least,” replies Zhang. “I believe they sent this here because they know I have found an apprentice. They want to demonstrate that their superiority. What better way than to have the Southern Maniac’s apprentice lose terribly in the competition?”

“That sounds rather petty, Master Zhang. Do they care about your reputation that much?”

“Oh, I suppose they are entitled to some pettiness, given the way I crippled or killed some of their seniors back in the day,” grins Zhang fiercely.

You sigh. “I presume you are sending me to this competition?”

“Yes. I do not require victory, however.”

At this, you are surprised. You would have expected that Master Zhang would have demanded you demolish the opposition at all costs. Zhang laughs again. “Oh, that look on your face is precious. I fully expect that you are able to seize victory. I just don’t require that you do so. As I said, this is your vacation.”

“Is there something else you have planned, master?”

“Very astute of you. Good. The competition is just a sideshow. The prelude to the real test I have for you. Xu Jing, I order you to go to each of the eight major orthodox sects, and challenge the best of their young disciples. I have heard stories of how this generation – your generation – has the potential to be the best pugilists ever seen. I expect my disciple to be the greatest amongst them. Do anything you have to win, to show that you are the strongest. Maim them if you have to. Kill them if you need to.”

“I see,” you ponder, glossing over the incitement to murder that your master just casually threw out. “The competition will allow me to scout out my future opponents, and make myself known to them. Is that it?”

“Yes. Win if you want to. You can also lose, if you want to. Hell, if you don’t want to join, don’t do it! Show up and mock them from the sidelines, if that entertains you. All I require of you is to complete your challenge and win there. You would be a severe disappointment if you fail, Xu Jing.” You don’t need the Southern Maniac to clarify the consequences of your failure.

“How long do I have, master?”

“I will give you a year. That should be more than sufficient,” smiles Zhang. “You cannot call yourself my disciple if you cannot complete such a straightforward task in a year. Prepare yourself to leave the island; you will go alone. I will keep an ear out for your exploits, my apprentice.” Despite your misgivings, you are beginning to feel excited. This will be the first time you have set foot on the mainland in nearly a year and a half. You have been given a year to complete your challenge; that should leave you with plenty of time to adventure and finally get working on Shun’s mission.

***

The martial arts tournament for fighters under twenty may be a good chance for you to mingle with your peers and find out where you stand in relation with them. However, you might not want to attract attention by going there either.

A. You decide to join the Young Tigers Martial Arts Competition with the invitation you have been given. The potential knowledge, contacts and benefits you may accrue from participating are too tantalizing to give up.

B. You decide not to join the Young Tigers Martial Arts Competition with the invitation you have been given. Given your reputation, it is too risky. You would prefer to keep a lower profile before you begin your challenges to each of the sects so that they do not know your capabilities.

***

Whether you join the competition or not, there is time before it starts. As Master Zhang has advised that you only begin the challenge after it concludes, you have perhaps a month or so to do as you will. You use that time to:

A. Travel to Yuhua Hall to investigate the woman in black that attacked you so many years ago. Perhaps you may find out something.

B. Track down Master Yao and Cao’er – you would like to find out if they are okay. They might even join up with you again.
 

三 · Rumours of Qingcheng

Rumours of Qingcheng

After searching fruitlessly for a few days, you are forced to trade away a good amount of your rations to a beggar for news of Master Yao and Cao’er; the Southern Maniac was not the type to have money lying around for your perusal. The beggar, looking slightly put off at the dried gall bladders and jerky, decided to fulfil his part of the bargain anyway. You found out that he had last been spotted heading west, to Chengdu.

***

The sparse vegetation rustles. You hear shouts. Men, their voices coarse and mocking. You lightly run up a nearby tree, nimbly catching onto a branch and pulling yourself up to find a vantage point. You’ve heard from the traders that this route is infested with bandits. Perhaps this is one of those encounters.

A young nun backs out of the bushes; it’s the same rookie that you fought on Yinhu Island. She has replaced the skull cap you took from her. Three more thugs waving axes surround her, shouting and leering. The nun – Sister Yifang, you believe she was called – draws her sword and takes a stance. The bandits laugh at her. One of them steps forward, striking at her with the back of his axe – it seems that they plan on taking her alive.

The nun leans backwards to avoid the attack and cuts the man’s arm smoothly in one single motion. A thick red line appears across his hairy forearm. As the bandit shouts out in pain, his comrades lash out at the nun in retaliation. Her footwork is light and agile, carrying her away from the wild strikes of the bandits with ease. However, her counterattacks only manage to scratch the bandits, doing little else. From your perch, you quickly understand the nun’s problem. Although she is skilled for her age, she is afraid to hurt them. Her nervous slashes lack killing intent.

Slowly but surely, the bandits corner the nun. She backs into the tree that you are on, finding nowhere to run.

You leap off the branch without warning, landing knee-first on the face of one of the bandits.You feel his nose squash under your knee as you smash him to the ground. Rolling back to your feet, you immediately bring your heel down on the fallen man hard. There is the sound of cracking bone, though you do not bother looking at your handiwork. Instead, you take the measure of your remaining opponents. They are strong men but clearly untrained and unrefined.

The first attack comes, the axe’s head whistling through the air. Your arm sweeps out and intercepts his swing before it reaches its apex. With your left hand you dig into the man’s inner wrist; you tighten your grasp and rip your fingers away. Blood trails along with your fingers, your claws splitting his skin and tearing his tendons at the same time. The bandit’s hand seizes up painfully as he drops the axe. At the same time, you adopt the stance of the Chuzhan Fist. Breathing in deeply, you take a quick half step forward as you drive your vertical fist into his chest with all your might, unleashing your inner strength in an brief, explosive burst. The man is thrown backwards, crashing into a nearby tree. He flops to the ground and lies still, as leaves from the shaken tree fall all around him. When you turn around, the other bandit has turned his back to run. You crouch – from this distance you can reach him with a single pounce.

Before you can do so, a hand pulls at your sleeve. “No, Master Xu! Don’t do it! You must not kill and add to your bad karma!” You shake your arm free and turn around to frown at the nun.

“Well, I did not kill them. See, they’re still alive,” you say.

You go over to inspect the men that you had beaten. The first one has his nose entirely squashed, and from the way the entire front of his face is slightly caved in, even if he is not dead now he will not be waking in the next few days. The other man is not moving at all, blood trickling from his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. His eyes are blank and staring, and he doesn’t seem to be breathing.

“Well… it was an accident,” you say. You had spent a lot of time attacking the Southern Maniac with all of your strength, only for him to laugh it off. Evidently the bandits are not in the same league of durability as your master.

The nun begins praying fervently over the bodies, chanting a sutra over and over again. You scratch your head as you look around you awkwardly. She can probably find her own way from here. Turning around, you walk off. “Wait, Master Xu!” The nun shouts at you breathlessly as she catches up, having finished her prayers. “What is it now, sister?” You look around you, searching for paths through the woods which you can take to lose her.

She looks up at you with her clear dark eyes and frowns. “Master Xu, I was praying for your sin of murder to be cleansed and forgiven. It is not polite to walk off just like that.”

You laugh. “Thank you, sister. I will find an opportunity to repay you for your service.” As you turn away, she calls for you to stop again. With a sigh, you whirl back to face the nun. “What is it now?”

The nun begins to fidget. “Ah, it seems… you see… I’m not too familiar with forests.” So, she’s lost. You give her a pitying look. Leaving her stranded here would be cruel. She may be a Castration Nun out for the sword and your testicles, but you don’t really regard them as your mortal enemy. They are just doing their job after all. With a nod, you beckon at the nun to follow. Her face breaks out into a dazzling, grateful smile.

***

Three days after you saved the nun, you still have not managed to get rid of her. For three days and three nights she followed you, preaching Buddhist sutras in an effort to get you to abandon your evil ways. You feel like Monkey being pestered by the Xuanzang Monk. It has gotten to a point where you are half-tempted to send her off with the Yuchang Sword and face Zhang’s punishment instead.

“Why are you separated from Sister Miaozhu and the rest?” you ask. The question has been bothering you for a while – you see no sign of the other nuns, and you doubt they could catch you in an ambush nowadays.

“We were summoned back urgently by the Abbess. I am not privy to the knowledge; only Sister Miaozhu knows, but apparently it has something to do with Qingcheng. We got separated somewhere back when the bandits attacked. I don’t think they would look for me because we were needed to hurry back to Emei. In such a situation, they would have had to obey the orders and move on without me.”

“Such irresponsible nuns,” you grumble.

“I believe you are kind at heart, Master Xu. You would never have saved me if you weren’t. If you repent and turn over a new leaf, I am sure you will do much good in the world,” says Yifang very earnestly. You sigh and ask her a question before she can begin trying to convince you of the error of your ways again.

“I am curious, sister. How old were you when you were sent to Emei?”

“I am an orphan. I grew up in the care of the nuns,” she replies with a smile. “I owe all I have in my life to them and the Buddha’s teachings.”

Well, that explains part of her behaviour. Suddenly, you are reminded of one of the teachings you received back in the palace, from an old Buddhist monk. Perhaps this will work. “Sister,” you say sweetly and slyly, though she does not show any signs of suspecting the sudden change in your tone, “To save a person, you must know that person. You cannot save that which you do not know, for not even the Buddha will claim to know the hearts of all men. There is sin within, but to cleanse that sin on my behalf, you have to understand that sin. This is what I have heard from a master monk, many tens of years older than us. He said, before you wish for the salvation of a person, first ask yourself this question: who is this person?”

“Who… is this person?” she repeats.

“That is right,” you smile. “Who is this person that stands before you? Ponder upon that, learned sister.” With that, you stop the conversation, leaving her to puzzle over the question. That should shut her up for a while. If she is going to Emei, that is on your way – Emei is very close to Chengdu. You suppose you could let her tag along, loathe as you are to do so. The naïve girl wouldn’t survive a day on her own, you’re sure.

***

You manage to reach Chengdu in relative peace and quiet, as Yifang is preoccupied with your question. Wasting no time, you begin getting to work searching for rumours of Master Yao. Unfortunately, what you hear makes your heart sink.

According to word on the street, Master Yao has been captured just a week ago after fleeing from his assassination of the head of the Qingcheng Sect, Song Jiangke. The story goes that Yao was called to heal Song of an ailment, but the mad physician decided to kill his patient instead. As far as you can tell, Cao’er has been captured and imprisoned along with him. The new head of the sect, the previous leader’s daughter, Song Lingshu, plans to execute Master Yao in a few days for his murder of her father.

“That is horrible,” says Yifang, her hands put to her mouth. “I know of the Killer Physician, he used to pay frequent visits to the Abbess. I didn’t think he was the sort to do such a thing.”

“I don’t think he’s the sort to do such a thing,” you say quietly.

“I-I can help you, Master Xu,” says the nun nervously. “Emei and Qingcheng have been long-time allies because of their proximity. I might be able to get the Abbess to do something about this.”

“I don’t think I want to be in the favour of Emei when I still hold your precious sword,” you laugh. “It’s okay, I will figure out something on my own.”

“Stubbornness is one of your bad traits, Master Xu,” she says. “Help will be given to those who ask for it. That is one of the principles of Emei. If… if you’re unwilling to seek the sect’s aid, I could perhaps help talk to Qingcheng for you. I know Miss Song. We were childhood friends, so I could talk to her.”

“Why are you so keen to help me out?” you ask suspiciously.

“I’m not sure,” she bites her lip. “Is helping people a bad thing? I can’t stand by and do nothing when someone is in trouble.”

Truly, she is an earnest child that should have stayed cloistered on Mount Emei.

***

A. You do not need her help. Tonight you will head towards Mount Qingcheng, sneak into the compound by yourself and locate Master Yao and Cao’er. You are confident enough in your abilities to do so.

B. You will ask for her help in talking to Song Lingshu, daughter of the recently deceased. Of course, you will keep your identity a secret. You will then use that opportunity to scout the surrounding area, should negotiations fall apart and Yifang fail to convince the new head of Qingcheng.

C. You will request Emei’s help in saving Master Yao. It is not too far away; if it is true that the Abbess knows the Killer Physician, perhaps she will be willing to help out. They might demand for the sword in compensation, but you will cross that bridge when you get to it.

D. Since you are at Qingcheng, you might as well get started on Zhang’s challenge to save time. You will set Master Yao and Cao’er’s freedom as your price should you win; if you lose, they get to name whatever price they wish. You will have to think of a way to force them to accept the challenge, but you are sure you can come up with something.
 

四 · Shadow in the Green City

Shadow in the Green City

The cloudless sky does nothing to conceal the bright full moon. This is a night that will yield few shadows for you. You hear the sound of a small gong from inside the compound going off three times – once slow, twice fast. It is the third watch of the night, signifying that the time is now an hour past midnight. You had been lying in wait for half a day in the woods outside Qingcheng, carefully noting whatever movements of disciples you could see while awaiting night’s arrival. Now, it is time for you to act.

Four Qingcheng disciples stand guard at the main gates, but you are not going to walk up to them. The trees grow so closely to the walls that the branches hang over them. This would never be allowed in any of the Tang fortresses; when you had travelled along for inspections with Shun, you noticed that the soldiers would clear the surrounding area of foliage to ensure full visibility. Of course, you haven’t heard of any martial arts school being built like a fortress.

You make your way from tree to tree, keeping an eye out for the tell-tale glow of lanterns carried by patrolling disciples. At this hour of the night they will be less alert, but if you are caught out in the open that will jolt them awake rather quickly. Finding a suitable branch, you run along it and take a leap, landing on the roof of one of the buildings. Pressing yourself close to the roof’s surface, you crawl carefully into a shadowed area and survey the compound. It is far larger than you had expected. Finding the dungeon in this complex will be harder than you thought.

The patrols are not too difficult to avoid; most of the disciples on patrol are slack and unfocused. It is only to be expected; many of them wear the robes of fresh students, and they are not actually expecting any intruders. They do little more than walking from point to point while conversing with each other or singing to while away the time. You dart from shadow to shadow with ease, running silently across the paved stones. Peeking through windows and scouting the buildings slowly and cautiously, it takes another two hours until you finally locate what seems to be the entrance to the dungeon. The sound of the fourth watch rings throughout the compound. In two more watches dawn will come.

You make your way down the stairs. At the end of it, you find two disciples sitting around a table playing dice. There are four cells across from them; only one is occupied. You see Master Yao, dishevelled and gaunt. The closest disciple has his back to you. Cloaked in the shadows a mere arm’s length away from the disciple, you watch quietly as he throws the dice with a cheerful yell, and then groans in disappointment. Picking up the gourd of wine by his side, he takes a swig, before passing it to his friend who proceeds to do the same. They repeat the action twice more, throwing dice and drinking wine. They seem to be holding their liquor rather well; no point waiting to see if they’ll drink themselves under the table.

You palm the satchel of laxative powder in your hand. Deftly, you drop its entire contents into the open gourd. Then, you head up and out of the dungeon to lay in wait by the entrance.

As expected, it does not take long for the two disciples to abandon their post, heading for the nearest latrine with their agonized cries. You take the opportunity to slip back into the dungeon; you will have to act quickly before they stagger back here.

Master Yao’s eyes are closed; he is in meditation. You glance at the table; the keys are not here. The disciples must have brought them along when they ran out.

Approaching the cell, you pull down your mask and rap the wooden bars gently.

The old physician opens one eye and stares at you.

“So, you did die from the Southern Maniac’s training after all. I suppose my sins are such that I will be haunted till the end of my days by my failures. On the bright side, the end of my days approaches fast,” says Yao.

“I’m not a ghost, master,” you chuckle. “It’s been a while. You look older.”

“Hmph,” snorts Yao, “and here I was thinking that I have finally seen a real ghost. Do you know that I have an exorcist friend, yet I have never personally met any spirits of the deceased? You disappoint me by coming back as flesh and blood, Jing.” Despite his words, however, he is smiling faintly.

“I wish we could have met in better conditions, master, but time is short. Where is Cao’er?” Her absence in the dungeon is palpable; if she is not held together with Master Yao, then your problems have just compounded.

“She is being held in better conditions in the main living quarters,” replies Yao promptly. “Will that be harder for you to reach?” You give it some thought. “Perhaps. It depends on the layout, and how many people are in the main quarters.”

“I am afraid I do not have any idea about that,” says Yao. “I try not to spend too much time in Qingcheng. You can see why,” he smiles, as he raises his manacled arms.

“Master, what happened here?” you ask. “What went wrong with Song Jiangke?”

Yao just sighs, stroking his beard. “It is a long story. I had hoped that you would be here when Song finally called me back to Qingcheng, but as luck would have it, your destiny was someplace else. I would not have been caught otherwise. Very well, let me explain. It will be a rather long story.

I will start at the beginning. Five years ago, before we met, I was called to heal Qingcheng’s Song Lingshu from a terrible injury. There was a horse-riding accident, if I recall correctly. When I had finished with the treatment, I requested my price. That would be the father, Song Jiangke. Even then I could tell that he was afflicted by a fatal disease, though he did not know it yet. Song refused to pay the price. He is… was… an arrogant man. Throwing a bag of taels at me, he called upon his disciples to draw swords. At that time, I decided to leave. I knew that he would begin suffering from the symptoms in a few years... I knew that then he would call on me again. If he thought that he could scare me off once, he would think that he could do it a second time. And so, I bided my time and waited.

When the call came, I answered. I treated his disease. I cured it, in fact, after some tremendous work. Then, I demanded his daughter’s life. The daughter for the father, the father for the daughter. It is only fair, is it not? As I expected, Song refused to pay, even resorting to threatening me again, using the exact same tactics. I left, again. Then, I came back to assassinate the both of them.”

Yao smiles wanly. “As you have undoubtedly heard, I only succeeded in killing one of the Songs. In the process he managed to raise the alarm and deal me a serious injury. I severely underestimated his prowess. Thanks to my quick thinking I managed to flee the compound, but they eventually tracked me back to the hut. There, Cao’er and I were captured. Miss Song has turned out rather upset about her father’s death. It is a pity... were you here with me, we might have succeeded in killing the both of them and escaping.”

Your nails bite into your palms as you clench your fists tightly. “Master Yao,” you whisper angrily. “Are you telling me you purposely put yourself and Cao’er at risk because you wanted to take your payment in a hurry?”

“I have waited five years,” says Yao calmly. “That is much more than I give most people. I will not let Qingcheng think they can push me around and treat me like their personal physician by abusing their greater strength.”

“But you could have waited a bit longer. There was no point in doing things so recklessly just because of your principles!“

“Then why are you here, running around Qingcheng without permission in the middle of the night? If you are caught you would put Cao'er in further danger. Xu Jing, do not presume to lecture me about recklessness,” replies Yao in that same quiet tone. You feel as if you had been doused in icy water. With a shamed bow, you lower your head as you calm down slightly. “I am sorry, master. I spoke out of hand.”

Yao sighs wearily. “I know that you are concerned over Cao’er’s safety, and mine. I have made mistakes and erred in my judgment over the many years I have lived. At my age I am well aware of my faults and my sins. I will admit as much; I killed Song Jiangke over my pride, and nothing else. I should not have done so – I should have thought of Cao’er’s wellbeing.”

“A price is a price, master. It had to be paid.”

“If that is so, will you claim the remaining price for me? Will you balance the world?” says Yao, staring at you.

“If you order me to kill Song Lingshu, I will,” you say quietly.

“It is not an order. I am asking if you are willing to perform my duties for me.”

“I am perfectly willing to, master, but first I must get you and Cao’er out of here. It would be foolish to assassinate her while the both of you are still in Qingcheng’s custody.”

Yao laughs softly. “Your time spent with the Maniac hasn’t left you untouched. Jing, it is impossible to get both Cao’er and I out of here.”

“I may seek Emei’s help, since they have offered. Failing that, I will just return the next night to free the both of you.”

Yao’s steady gaze wavers for just a moment. “Emei? You have spoken to Abbess Miecao?”

You shake your head. “No, I spoke with one of their junior nuns.”

Yao leans back, stroking his beard. “I see. Jing, I am giving you my last request as your master. Kill Song Lingshu tonight, and bring Cao’er with you when you leave. The former is optional, but I will beg you to do at least the latter.”

“What is your reason for asking that this be done tonight?” you ask. “Can this not wait?”

“Can you be sure that your infiltration will go as smoothly tomorrow? Or the day after?” retorts Master Yao. “You have made it this far, but there is no certainty that things will not go wrong the next time before you even step foot into the compound. No, I want you to capitalize on your current advantage and get Cao’er out of here.”

“At least let me find a way to unlock your cage-“

“Do not bother,” snaps Yao. He stretches his legs, showing you his ankles. “They cut my tendons to stop me from using my inner strength to escape. It will take at least two more days for me to heal them. By then the Emei nuns will come for me. I will leave with them.”

You blink, surprised at his words. “Are you saying that Emei will come to rescue you?”

“If you get Cao’er out of here and keep it a secret from the nuns, they will likely rescue me instead.” Seeing that you are about to open your mouth and ask for more information on this strange turn of events, Yao grumbles. “I have no time to explain all of my dealings, boy! Now, will you do it, or will you not? If you are not going to rescue your senior, I will shout for help immediately.”

You take a step backwards. Has the old man gone insane? “Look, perhaps you are not thinking clearly, master. If I kill Song Lingshu and rescue Cao’er, it is going to create a big uproar when they discover the deed tomorrow. You’ll be lucky if they don’t kill you outright. They might even increase the patrols. How would the nuns help you then?”

“I have a plan, but that is something for the elderly to pull off. Any reckless meddling on your part would only make things worse. It is none of your concern. Your main concern lies with Cao’er. That is what I am tasking you with. I had hoped that you take care of her for life, but if you cannot do that, at least take her away from this place. Now, go. If you do not, I will call for help.”

***

A. You pretend to agree with Master Yao, but in actuality perform a hasty retreat. He must have gone mad from imprisonment. You'll need to approach this differently.

1. You head towards Emei with the knowledge that you have, seeking their help now that Yao has said that they would come to aid him. They should be more willing to help you out since they're already planning to do something that seems to aid you.

2. Yifang should still be in Chengdu; you will find her and ask her to take you to Song Lingshu. Perhaps you can blackmail the new head of Qingcheng or otherwise sway her position with what you’ve learnt tonight. Sparing Master Yao from execution seems to be a hard deal to make, but you will try your best.

3. You will perform Master Zhang’s challenge, utilizing his reputation to force a confrontation. That seems to be a more direct and bloody way of solving things. A good fight is all you want and need.

***

B. You do as Master Yao says, and proceed to the main living quarters. There you will find Cao’er and get her out of Qingcheng, but before you do that, you may want to deal with Song Lingshu.

1. You will kill her, as Master Yao suggested. She would not be expecting a second assassin now that Yao and his apprentice are imprisoned. It should be trivial, particularly at this time of the night. She’ll never see it coming.

2. You will sneak into her chambers and instead proceed with a mixture of intimidation and negotiation, masked anonymously. Even if she’s the head, she’s still a sheltered girl of your age. This way you have the psychological advantage, instead of seeking an audience with her from a position of weakness tomorrow.

3. You ignore Song Lingshu and merely concentrate on getting Cao’er out, not out of any fear of failure, but because you do not want to antagonize Qingcheng any more than is necessary. They will not be grateful to you for not antagonizing them since they would never know, but it’s the thought that counts.
 

五 · Cao'er and Miecao

Cao’er and Miecao

The main quarters of the sect is easy to find; a brick and wood two-storey structure that lies near the center of the compound. From what Yao has said, Cao’er should be held on the second floor. You notice that only one room is still lit. A loud, exaggerated yawn and the sound of chatter comes from your side – there is a patrol coming. Wasting no time, you step onto the vertical pillars, using them as a foothold to reach the ledge of the second floor. You pull yourself up with ease. Holding onto the edges, you quickly move over to the window of the lit room. Staying close to the wall, you crane your neck and peer inside.

There is a girl lying belly-down on the floor, apparently reading a book. You quietly pull the window open and clamber in. As your feet touch the floor, she springs up suddenly to face your intrusion, her hand blurred in a throwing movement. You feel a sharp sting – looking down, you see two needles embedded near your pressure points. At those locations, it would cause swift paralysis… if you still had pressure points. You pluck out the needles, pulling down the cloth mask that covers your lower face as you do so.

“Your throwing has improved, Cao’er.” you wince. You hear a strange, choking noise in her throat.

She’s grown rapidly in the year and a half since you last saw her. You didn’t expect that short, stubby girl to grow into a lanky lass only half a head shorter than you are. Her rags, which once swaddled her almost entirely, now barely cover her knees and elbows. She appears to have added new clothes to that confusing collection of torn cloth, however, showing as islands of colour in a sea of faded tones. Her hair, however, still serves as a curtain that hides as much of her face as possible, though it appears slightly less messy and more silky nowadays.

“Cao’er?” you ask again, as she stands there frozen, as still as a statue. Her breathing intensifies quickly as her knees give way and she sinks to the floor. You rush to her side. “Are you okay?” you ask, checking her pulse. She looks at you and nods wordlessly, making a gesture that indicates she needs some time to calm down.

After some time, she manages to speak. The first word out of her mouth is your name. “Jing! Why are you…” Her croaking has grown slightly deeper and changed in tone, giving it a more husky effect that is not as unpleasant to the ear.

“I’m here to get you out,” you say simply.

“…what about the master? He’s in the prison… are we going to get him out?” She seems to have improved at speaking, thankfully.

“Not to worry, I’ve spoken with him. I’m to take you away first. That’s an order.”

“…ok. We’ll go… just, I was worried.” Cao’er stumbles over the words in a slight panic. You clap her shoulder twice, reassuringly. You need to flee now before your luck runs out. “So, how good are you at running nowadays?” you ask with a grin. She shakes her head, looking down at the floor. “…not sure.”

You sigh. “Luckily, I can run for the both of us. Is there anything you need to take from this room?”

She shakes her head again. Well, it’s time to begin, then.

You scoop her up in your arms – she’s only slightly heavier than she once was. She makes a startled look for just a second before she quickly puts her arms around your neck and clings on tightly. Stepping out onto the ledge, you look around. There are no patrols in the vicinity. You leap off the second floor. Cao’er’s extra weight causes your landing to make more sound than you would have liked, but no one appears to notice.

You make your run to the edge of the compound.

Suddenly, a patrol appears in front of you. Without stopping you change your direction, dashing behind a nearby building. You catch your breath, backing up against the wall. You can feel Cao’er’s warm breath tickling your neck, and you shift slightly so that it won’t disrupt your concentration.

“Did you guys see anything? I thought there was something ahead of us,” says one of the disciples. You move slowly towards the other side of the building.

“Must’ve been some cat or monkey.”

“Looked kinda big, though, like a human.”

“Maybe it’s the Shadow Wolf. I hear he’s been spotted in the region.”

“All the way out west, here? I heard he was last seen in Yangzhou.”

As the disciples gossip, you circle around the building, finding yourself a clear path to the wall. You’re almost at the finish line. When you reach the wall, you give Cao’er a boost. You use your hands as a foothold, pushing her up so that her jump reaches the top of the wall. After she has made it across, you back up a bit. Taking a running start, you manage three steps up before you leap, barely grabbing the edge of the wall with the tips of your fingers. You pull yourself up and over, landing on the other side where Cao’er is waiting for you. The night sky is turning light as the day slowly begins its encroachment. Grabbing her hand, you make your way down the mountain, to safety.

***

You find a place near the outskirts of Qingcheng where you can hide out with Cao’er. Exhausted from your exertions throughout the night, you fall asleep almost as soon as you hit the bed. When you awaken, it is already night time again. You find Cao’er looking down at you, stroking the white streaks in your hair. “…you’re slightly different now,” she murmurs. “...but it’s okay. Jing is still Jing.”

“I’m awake, you know,” you say, laughing. Her hand jerks back suddenly as she apologizes.

“Nothing to apologize for.” You pat her head. It’s a nostalgic feeling, and this time around her hair isn’t nearly anywhere as greasy as it was before.

There are things for you to do – Master Yao had said that he would be fine, but you are not so sure. He had said that the Emei nuns would come for him. You are not certain about leaving Cao’er alone, but she tells you that if you have things to do, she can take care of herself. You head down to Chengdu.

There, you find that Yifang is no longer around; she may have returned to Emei. You do not fancy walking up to them by yourself; if you get captured for any reason they can think of, that would be bad.

There are a few dozen Qingcheng disciples in the city, wandering about asking if any of them have seen a messy girl in rags. You walk into one of them, bumping your shoulder into his. “I’m sorry!” you say.

“Be more careful next time,” scowls the disciple as he massages his bruised shoulder.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It won’t happen the next time. By the way, sir, why are you looking for a girl?”

“Are you new in town? She is an apprentice of the Killer Physician, who murdered our old master. She somehow escaped last night.”

“I see, I see. What will you do with her when you catch her? Will she be put to death?”

“That’s up to the mistress,” snorts the disciple. “Her master will be executed for his crimes in two days, though. You can come up to the public square in Qingcheng if you want to watch.” You bow to him respectfully. “Of course, sir. I will be there, sir.”

As you make your way back to the hut, you begin thinking up plans to break out Yao should you get no news of his escape. You could strike tomorrow night, or perhaps plan something on the day of the execution itself…

***

The next day, you decide to begin preparations for your next move. When you leave the hut, however, you see a very strange sight.

Master Yao stands in front of you, his head shaved. He is dressed in the orange robes of a monk.

“…Master Yao?”

“My name is no longer Yao Shunshi. Call me by my Buddhist name, Fayi, kind sir,” he intones.

“Are you serious?”

Yao frowns and snaps at you. “Of course not. But I’ll have to be this way until things settle down with Qingcheng or I die of old age, whichever comes first.”

“That is not the way a monk should be speaking, Shunshi.” A stern voice calls out. Looking behind Master Yao, you see an old nun carrying herself with dignity and grace. She is tall and thin, almost as tall as Yao himself – from her features, she would have been quite the looker back in the day.

“Spare me the lectures, Lihua,” Yao grumbles.

“My name is Miecao now. And sooner or later, I will be calling you Fayi. Do get used to it; after all, you promised to do so in order to be rescued,” says the nun as she approaches you.

“You are Xu Jing, apprentice to this old fool and disciple of the Southern Maniac, are you not?”

“Yes, I am. Sister Miecao… Abbess Miecao of Emei? It is an honour that you have come all the way out here to my humble shack.” You give the leader of Emei Sect the respect that a person of her standing deserves, bowing with your hands placed together in salute.

She nods approvingly. “At least you have learnt manners. Although I have heard from Miaozhu that your manners are merely a way for you to catch people off guard.”

“Her praise is too kind. I do not think I have ever caught her truly off guard,” you say. A hint of a smile rises at the Abbess’s lips. “It is good that you know some restraint, and did not commit any foolish deeds at the behest of that silly old man. It could have complicated matters tremendously. Well, I suppose there are things you wish to ask me. I have some questions on my own too. Let us talk further inside the hut.”

As the three of you walk into the hut, Cao’er gives a nervous greeting. Abbess Miecao looks over the girl, and just for a brief instance the harsh look in her eyes soften. After all of you have taken your seats, she speaks.

“Let us first start with what will happen to Yao from now on. I have freed him from the prison without the knowledge of Qingcheng’s Miss Song, against my better judgement. To be fair, he has taken a life and should have paid for it. Still, since I made my way there, and did not find what I was looking for..." She pauses in embarrassment as Yao sniggers. It seems that he has managed to get one over the Abbess, and negotiated his own rescue. "Well, though it is not the right thing for me to do, by all rights Miss Song should have handed Yao over to the collective judgement of the Eight Sects, and not act on her own whim. For now, Yao will join a nearby monastery, Shizu Temple, and live as a monk to repent for his countless sins over the years.”

Yao snorts loudly. “Just because you chose to do that…” The Abbess glares at him until he looks away.

“When the time is right and emotions do not run as high, I will request that the elders of the Eight Sects convene to pass judgement on this matter. At that time I may request the both of you to attend as witnesses.”

You give her a quick nod. “We’ll be there if we can.”

“Very good. Now, we need to discuss the matter of Cao’er. I will take her in. She will learn the ways of the Buddha and the teachings of Emei. There, she will be safe.”

You feel Cao’er draw closer to you, clinging onto your sleeve just like she always did. She seems reluctant. Yao laughs loudly. “See? I told you, Lihua! She will not go with you. Being cooped up on a mountain with you nuns will just stifle her potential. She is meant to travel and learn about the world. That is the only way she can blossom.”

Miecao grits her teeth. “Shunshi, I agreed to split up the girls because you told me that you would keep her safe. And what did you do? You got her dragged into your own mess!” As she argues with Yao, her speech grows coarser.

“Yes, that’s my mistake,” grumbles Yao, “but there’s no need to drag her off to the mountain because of this. Besides, you already have one to take care of.”

“That is not the point, you horrible man,” grimaces the Abbess. Suddenly she turns to you. “That does remind me,” she says bitterly, “I do need to thank you for escorting Yifang to Chengdu safely. That girl is a real handful. She could have contacted Miaozhu after they got separated and told them to come for her, but instead she sends a message telling them she’s with you and attempting to save you from the cycle of karma, and that she would meet them at Chengdu. I will punish that girl for her recklessness. And Miaozhu’s team, for being too lenient on her.” The old nun pauses for a while, before glaring at you suspiciously. “You did not do anything ungentlemanly towards her, did you?”

Raising your hands, you back away. “Of course not! Perish the thought, Abbess! Defiling a nun would be the last thing on my mind!” Besides you, you hear Cao’er murmur quietly, slightly sulkily, “…Jing is a lecher… but it’s okay. I don’t mind being second… or third.” You suddenly remember that you have never corrected her misconception of you as a womanizer before getting dragged off by Master Zhang.

Yao’s loud laughter interrupts your thoughts.

“Lihua, the boy is too confused to take this all in. Perhaps you should explain it to them.”

She squints at the Killer Physician. “Can we trust him?”

“I’d trust him with my life.”

The Abbess clears her throat. “Cao’er, I have something to tell you. You are our granddaughter. Mine and Shunshi’s.”

You eye the window. Suddenly, jumping out of it looks like a very appealing option. You have read about these plots in two-penny novels bought on the street, but you had never imagined you would encounter such a generic twist in real life.

“You also have a twin sister,” says Yao. “She’s a nun at Emei, by the name of Yifang.”

“Well, I think it might be better if I allowed you three a happy family reunion,” you say suddenly with an awkward laugh as you stand up. This is too much for you to take in all at once. “I will be outside if you need me.

“Oh, you are as good as family, Jing,” grins Yao slyly. You do not like that grin. “I was going to betroth Cao’er to you after all.” The girl in question makes a strangled noise and turns entirely red, like a cat hacking up a furball.

“I was not told about this, Shunshi,” says Miecao menacingly.

“Well, it’s up to the young ones anyway. I’m just making a suggestion,” he cackles.

“Xu Jing, it is rude to leave after we have agreed to confide in you. Sit down,” says the Abbess coldly. You do so dutifully. She may not be one of the Five Great Pugilists, but her reputation is mentioned in the same breath. You can tell that she has the power to back up her leadership of one of the most powerful of the Eight Major Sects. With a great sigh, you resign yourself to their exposition, though it is told more for Cao’er’s benefit than yours.

It is a simple story.

When the Abbess was young, she was a powerful bandit queen and an adventuress. One day, her gang turned on her, betraying her as such scum are wont to do when they sense weakness. A young Yao, fresh from his studies, found her injured in the woods. He nursed her to health, and they inevitably fell in love.

At this part you had to stop them and beg politely that they skip the courting scenes.

Soon afterwards, the Abbess, then known as Lihua, became pregnant. They had a child, a daughter. However, Lihua’s past sins caught up to her. With the authorities and her enemies suddenly after her, they decided they had no choice but to send the child away for fostering. After an argument in which swords were drawn, Lihua became a nun to repent for her misdeeds, taking on the Buddhist name of Miecao. A bitter Yao, on the other hand, went on to cultivate his reputation as the Killer Physician.

They continued to keep a careful watch over their daughter whenever they could, however. She grew up, fell in love with a man of her own, a pugilist from a long family of pugilists, and eventually married him.

“Alright, could we stop?” you ask wearily. Yao snorts. “What, have you no patience?”

“No,” you sigh. “I just know where this is going. Your daughter gives birth to two girls, Cao’er and Yifang. Something happens to her and her husband; presumably killed or otherwise indisposed. Then, master, you picked up the girls and brought them to the Abbess. You decided to share guardianship of the children. Master, you recognized Cao’er’s potential, and took her with you. And so now here we are. Am I right?”

“The boy is smart,” murmurs Yao, impressed.

“No, I’ve just read many books with a similar storyline before,” you groan, rubbing your temples. “I just can’t believe… look, am I being messed with?”

“Are you saying our life experiences are a joke to you?” says the Abbess. Her eyes are sharp enough to dig a hole in your heart. You shake your head quickly. “No, of course not. Please continue.”

“There is not much left to say.” Miecao looks at Cao’er. “I just want her to know, so that she will come with her grandmother to Emei where I will keep her safe. Her useless grandfather here will be kept in a monastery for a while, so there is nowhere else for her to go anyway.”

“There’s no need for that,” says Yao quickly. “Jing can keep her safe, can’t you?”

“You cannot expect me to trust Zhang Jue’s disciple-“

“She just isn’t suited for life in a convent-“

As the two old people begin to argue, you look at Cao’er. She seems to be considering everything they have just said and revealed. Her face is furrowed, deep in thought; you cannot tell what she is thinking. “Well? Jing, what do you say?” asks Yao suddenly. "I think Cao'er will be more likely to listen to you."

You look at the Killer Physician and the Abbess of Emei.

***

A. Cao’er should go to Emei. She will be safer there than she is with you on the road; this is the only consideration you should think of.

B. Cao’er should come with you. You will look out for each other, and you cannot see her being comfortable with the nuns, to be honest.

C. You let Cao’er decide. It’s her life after all – what you should do is support her decision the best you can.
 

六 · To the Tournament

To the Tournament

You decide to allow Cao’er to give her own opinion about the matter. With a gentle shove, you push her to the front, encouraging her to say what she wants. She nods at you gratefully.

“...I want to see the world like Grandfather says…” says Cao’er. Yao gives a loud, satisfied “Hah!”.

“…but I also want to see what it’s like at Emei with Grandmother…” she continues. Miecao grins at Yao triumphantly.

“…but I don’t want to be a nun, because…” Cao’er says, giving you a shy glance.

The Abbess frowns at her granddaughter. “What is it that you want, then?”

“…can I just stay at Emei for a while? I have things I want to learn from you, Grandmother, but there are also things I can learn by wandering the jianghu…”

“The girl makes sense. She would be safer if she could learn Emei techniques for women in addition to the skills I have already taught her. Can we do anything about her request, Lihua?” Yao asks. Abbess Miecao just sighs, casting him a reproachful eye. “I blame you for this, Shunshi. Well, I suppose I shouldn’t judge too much. After all, Cao’er would never have been born if I wasn’t something of a adventuress myself. I would be a hypocrite to say that there wasn’t a certain charm to being unburdened by duties and obligations.”

“You could always retire and run away with me,” says Yao with a chuckle.

“The problem with you is that you are too free,” snaps the Abbess, smiling despite herself. “I swear, you used to be the level-headed one who had to hold me back! Anyway, Cao’er?”

“…yes!” The girl goes rigid as she looks at her grandparents nervously.

“I could take you in as a guest of Emei. It is not an uncommon practice for the convent, but what we can impart to you will be limited. There are many techniques that we only teach to the nuns. Perhaps in time you may find you like life at Emei, and join us officially. At that time you need only ask. Is this alright?”

“…yes!” goes Cao’er again. Then, she looks at me. “… could I ask you a favour, Jing?”

“Since you’re being uncharacteristically chatty today, go ahead,” you smile.

“Would you be willing to journey with me? Not today, no… perhaps in three months or so? It should not take me that long to learn what I need… I think?”

The Abbess looks scandalized that Cao’er thinks that she will be able to master what she has to teach in three months. Yao only laughs confidently. “She is a fast learner, Lihua. In her fifteen years of life she has learnt what it took me more than fifty years to know.”

“I can’t promise you that,” you say honestly. “I might be somewhere I cannot leave, or I might be crippled or dead by that time. My journey isn’t a safe one. But I promise you that if I am able, I will come to Emei in three months’ time. If you still want to leave with me then, I will bring you along.” Besides, you do plan to visit the mountain anyway. You’ll just have to schedule it ahead of some of the other sects.

“…that is fine.” Cao’er makes a satisfied sigh. “…if you don’t appear, I’ll come find you…” A slight chill runs down your back, but you do not know why.

And with that, the issue is settled.

“I suppose this is where we part ways, Xu Jing,” says the Abbess as the four of you leave the hut. Yao takes Cao’er aside and begins giving her some last instructions. “I will be bringing Shunshi and Cao’er with me to settle them down. There are many preparations I need to make before heading to Luoyang for the Young Tigers Martial Arts Tournament, so I will need to take my leave now.”

“The tournament, eh?” you respond absent-mindedly before realizing what you just blurted out. Miecao looks at you with slight surprise. “Are you going too? Did you win one of the qualifying competitions for a crest? I suppose Zhang Jue would like to show off his disciple once in a while…”

You look back at her, deciding whether or not to lie. Still, it is strange that she would assume you had won one of the competitions, instead of using the crest that had been sent to you. You decide to tell the truth about your invite and trust her. After all, they did confide in you about Cao’er and Yifang’s true identities. If news gets out that the Abbess of Emei is raising her granddaughters on the mountain, it would be a great scandal for the sect; she would be seen as partial and unfit to lead. Besides, even if you didn’t tell her the truth now, she would definitely recognize you during the tournament. You doubt you could hide from the Abbess.

“Actually, Master Zhang received an invite from the committee.” You take out the crest and letter, handing it over to her. If Miecao doesn’t know, it could be a fake. Better to get her to check it here, lest it turn out to be some form of trap. “Is it the real thing?” you ask. She looks at it, turning it over with her thin fingers.

“It does not appear to be an imitation. The seal on the letter is also genuine. I doubt it is forged,” she concludes. “None of the leaders of the sect are on the committee, and we do not decide who to invite. They are made up of senior disciples from all Eight Sects. Still, they had not told us of their intentions to invite the disciple of the Southern Maniac. This is not usual.”

The Abbess hands it back to you. “I will not tell you if you should participate or not. That is entirely your choice. If you do, however, be careful about it. Luoyang is under our protection, and besides me, Grand Taoist Zhengchong of Wudang, Abbot Fangzhang of Shaolin and Taoist Cuishan of Kunlun will be there. I dare say that you should be safe, but there are no certainties in life. As a contestant we are obliged to protect you, but as the Maniac’s apprentice there will be those that hate and fear you.”

“That is a given,” you say. “My master does not have the best of reputations.”

“Indeed, he doesn’t. He is a brutal and savage man, and has killed many fighters – he deserves the reputation he has. You are not a naïve boy, so I will not order you around like one of my nuns, or preach to you like silly Yifang did. But still, a grandmother must look out for her granddaughter, even if it is not proper thoughts for a nun to hold. So, boy, take care of yourself. If anything happens to you my granddaughter will be sad, foolish girl that she is.”

You give her a respectful bow, grateful for her advice. It changes little; you have always known that the tournament would carry some risk. “Thank you, Abbess Miecao. I will take your words to heart. If I may, could I ask that you keep my identity a secret to those who do not know it, should you see me in Luoyang? I would prefer to introduce myself on my own terms.”

“Do not worry. I am a nun, not a gossip.” There is a twinkle in her eye. “Now, about the Yuchang Sword…”

***

You rub your bruises on the caravan, having hitched a ride to Chang’an from Chengdu. Before you had parted ways with Yao’s family, the Abbess had made you fight her. It did not take you long to realize the gap in power between you and the masters of the Eight Sects – with her graceful and intelligent movements, the Abbess had replicated the six-man Guihe Formation just by herself. According to her, this was possible against a lone enemy for a true master, and in a duel it would appear to the opponent as if he was fighting six people at once. You ended up not being able to land a single hit, while she gave you some rather punishing smacks with her horsewhip.

You came close, however, desperately performing a move that broke the Guihe Formation. Even then, in your hastiness you ended up landing head first as Miecao countered with ease. The Abbess had stopped the duel with a nod of approval while you were still groaning on the ground. She left you with the words, “A fish hiding in water is closer than it looks,” asking you to reflect upon that and the final move you executed that had almost hit her. That is something you plan to analyse and practice when you have time. She had let you leave with the sword, stating slyly that it will give Sister Miaozhu and her team something to do in their old age – it’s the most excitement they have had in years.

Afterwards, Yao had gave you some tattered notes as a parting gift. It was a brief collection of notes from when he was younger; nothing too advanced, but still enlightening – they were still writings of the Killer Physician. The notes were mainly regarding acupuncture, with a slight sprinkling of herbalism. You would be able to improve your medical skills further if you studied this. He told you to keep your chin up and remember that craftiness will get you out of more trouble than relying on brute strength.

Cao’er gave you nothing but a great big hug, causing Abbess Miecao to frown with great displeasure.

***

You can only watch the Imperial Palace from afar in Chang’an. You wonder if Shun is there. You have heard troubling rumours when you reached the capital; apparently the army has been sent out to pacify the northwest border. You were sure that your visit to the Ashina was to prevent anything like this from happening. Still, you had no time to linger in Chang’an to find out more – you had to catch the next boat down the Grand Canal to reach Luoyang in time for the tournament. Unfortunately the caravan had overturned halfway, forcing you to hike the remainder of the journey. At least there were no bandits this time.

You have time to visit one of the Imperial retreats on the outskirts of the city before you left, however. Once upon a time, Shun and you would come here every year. In the absence of the Imperial family, the place is lightly guarded. Even in the day-time you found it easy to sneak over the walls. You make your way to the back of a familiar old building.

As expected, you find Shun’s messages carved into a wooden pillar in your mutual secret code. You have been away for more than two years now, going on three. There were two messages, one for each year he visited.

After translation, the first one read that everything was fine at the palace, and that he hoped you were fine too. Choosing to wander off was a choice that worried him, as he would not know how you ended up. He carved this as a means to settle his mind as he can only hope you would come across it some day. He regretted agreeing to let you run off instead of insisting you go to a proper, safe school.

The second one read almost the same, though he added that he had heard some vague rumours of a person with your name from some wandering pugilists. He hoped that it was truly you, though he dared not wish for too much lest your jinx is doubled. The message is rather weathered, so you expect that Shun will come here soon to carve his third.

Taking out your dagger, you leave a reply in code.

Your faithful servant is still alive. When we meet again, I’ll kick your ass with all my powerful techniques for being such a worrywart and not having faith in me.

That is the last thing you had to do in Chang’an. Your next stop is Luoyang, and the Young Tigers Martial Arts Tournament.

***

On your journey to Luoyang, you choose to practice or learn some non-combat skills that you are not particularly good at. You only have time to practice two.

I. Artistic skill

II. Sleight of hand

III. Traps

IV. Drinking

***

You have dyed your hair black, and also coated the Yuchang Sword in paint to obscure its identity, following Miecao’s advice. Registering for the tournament aside, there is still the matter of how you want to present yourself while in the city…

A. You do not hide your identity. There is no need to. Revealing yourself will more easily lure out those that mean to do you harm, if they exist. Besides, it is easier to let them have the false impression that you are arrogant like your Master, rather than give them the idea that you are sly and cautious when they inevitably find out about your presence here.

B. You conceal your identity when about town, taking on the persona of a young merchant’s son interested in martial arts. Better safe than sorry; you prefer to put as many layers between yourself and any lurking elements in the competition if possible.

(These choices have no bearing on the registration for the tournament itself, just how you go about the city. You can still sneak about at night to spy or steal calling yourself the Real Shadow Wolf or something. Besides you can always pretend to be someone hired to pretend that he is the disciple of the Southern Maniac who is pretending not to be said disciple, if that is how you fancy things.)
 

七 · Luoyang City

Luoyang City

Luoyang is one of the largest cities in the lands ruled by the great Tang, and has been a capital for the countless dynasties that preceded it. You had been here only once or twice before – along with Chang’an, Hangzhou and Yangzhou, it was one of the few cities that could boast of more than a million citizens living within and around its walls.

You arrive by boat, travelling along the Grand Canal, the great project of the Sui Dynasty that linked Chang’an to Beijing in the northeast and also flowed down south, connecting to Yangzhou and Hangzhou. The city appears to be in a lively mood due to the upcoming tournament. Pugilists from all over the land throng the streets, publicly carrying weapons without fear. The city’s guard are an insignificant presence. They could not be counted upon to keep the peace; order was maintained by the mere word of the Eight Sects, such was their influence.

And all this, in the second largest capital of the Empire.

The classics had taught you that order was established by mandate from Heaven, and that the Emperor of the day was the only figure in the entire world that has received that mandate. Although the Eight Sects paid homage to His Imperial Majesty’s rule, you get the feeling that it may not be more than lip service. You begin to understand why Shun had been concerned about the pugilists. Though, to be fair, from your observations thus far the government has been rather ineffectual in establishing any semblance of order far from the cities – the central officials only cared if taxes were paid and grain was collected. At least the orthodox sects protected the communities close to them from bandits and other miscreants.

You are not here today to write a political treatise, however.

“Hello, dear innkeeper,” you bow slightly obsequiously. “Would you have a room available? I have been asking all along the street and it seems that I just haven’t had any luck.” Due to the tournament, every single inn in the city appears to be packed full of visitors. You had visited nearly twenty six establishments, and none of them had any room for you.

“Sorry, son,” smiles the proprietor. “No luck for you here either. I don’t think you’ll be finding any rooms at this time of the month, not with the competition about to start.”

You give him a polite nod and back out of the inn. If you had arrived earlier things could be different, but that unfortunate caravan accident had been a source of major delay. You just might have to spend the nights in some back street somewhere, where the vagrants and beggars slept. Alternatively you could look for cheaper lodgings near the brothels, where the uptight orthodox sects may be less keen to travel. As you head down the street, trying to keep an eye out for any inn around, you spot a group of young nuns coming towards you, dressed in the costume of Emei. The heavens just won’t give you a break.

The preachy nun is with them. There is also another girl, with long hair unlike the nuns, looking as striking as her sister now that she’s been forced to clean up. And to think you had just parted ways two weeks ago.

You dart into the nearest alley, almost tripping over a drunk beggar as you do so. With a quick word of apology, you wait within the shadows as Cao’er and Yifang pass by. Cao’er, at least, seems to be looking around for something - or someone – as her eyes keep darting around shyly as if hoping for some rendezvous of destiny. You did tell the Abbess that you might be here before you left the girl.

You shrink back even more, knowing how good her eyesight is. Then, you hear someone behind you whisper in a sultry, low voice, “Master Xu.”

You whip around instinctively, prepared to strike. How could you not have noticed her presence?

A pretty girl dressed in a Miao outfit backs away with her hands put up, smiling sweetly. “Ah, I knew it was you. It has been a long time.”

The heavens truly won’t give you a break. Running away from her would just make things worse.

“Do I know you, miss?” You force a grin onto your face as you confront Chi Qilin yet again. Her hair is tied innocently into two braids this time around, doing nothing to offset her mischievous eyes.

“Ah, that is how it is!” she giggles, her bracelets tinkling. “I’m sorry, I must have gotten the wrong person. I thought you were an old friend of mine. He was a rather memorable person.”

“This old friend of yours must be a rather dashing fellow, if you are in the habit of sneaking up on him like a lover.”

“Oh, he is dashing, all right. Probably dashed his head against the wall as a child.”

“A blockhead like that would never in his life gain fellowship of an esteemed scholars’ institution. What a pity, don’t you think?”

She laughs. “I agree. My old friend is definitely a blockhead. You do not appear to be one, so you cannot be him. So, how do I address you then, the one who seems to look like an old friend of mine, but is actually a stranger?”

“I am Guan Shide, son of the merchant Guan Meng, recently come from Chang’an. It is a pleasure to meet you. How may I have the honour of addressing you?”

“Oh, you may call me Mistress Chi, merchant’s son. I presume you are here to participate in the tournament?”

“Perhaps. My father managed to procure an invite for me, and he thought it would do me some good to experience this event. What is your story, Mistress Chi?”

“The same, actually. My father decided this would be a good test of my abilities since I disappointed him in a previous test,” she shrugs. “So, I’ve actually been following you from inn to inn for a while now. Having trouble finding a place to stay?”

It seems that though you know a lot about hiding and sneaking in the wilderness, being able to detect someone tracking you in a crowded city is another matter. You will have to improve on that aspect starting from today – it would be good to take advantage of Luoyang’s crowdedness.

“Yes, there does not seem to be many places left,” you reply.

“Coincidentally, I have a spare room. My uncle was to come with me, but urgent matters of business dictated that he give this tournament a miss at the last minute. It is already paid for and the stupid innkeeper said he would take the room back but not refund it, so I decided to leave it as it is.”

She smiles slyly. “You definitely wouldn’t be interested in that room, I’m sure.”

“Of course. There is no such thing as a free lunch,” you say.

“My family’s first motto is, ‘profit determines allies’. We don’t do anything for free, and everyone knows it. Money will do fine.” She peers at you. “You are a rich merchant’s son, are you not?” You have made some money on your way here from dispensing herbs and selling cheap medicines, so you were not exactly impoverished.

“I would prefer searching on my own for a little while longer, Mistress Chi,” you say. You would like to stay away from her if you could. Who knows what manner of snakes she has hidden in the room as a pleasant surprise for you? Though truth be told, snake gall bladders have proven to be good for your inner strength, and you are running low on stock…

“Suit yourself. I’m at the Tanxiang Inn. You’ll know where to find me,” she smiles.

***

After your unfortunate encounter with Chi Qilin, you proceed to the red lantern district. While searching for a place to stay, you pass by a group of extremely confused and uncomfortable young Shaolin monks who seem to have wandered in and gotten lost in the maze of narrow streets and waving courtesans.

A. You help them find a way out. Their predicament might be funny, but you are not without sympathy.

B. You ignore them. You do not want to interact with anyone more than is necessary.

***

In the end, even the cheap inns near the brothels are full. It looks like your options are between the street, or seeking out Chi Qilin.

A. You stay in the street, bunking down with the homeless. You are sure to begin to stink, but you would prefer to tough it out on your own, and it still affords you some measure of anonymity. It should not be harsher than living in the jungle. On the downside, your attempted disguise as a merchant’s son would have to be changed to a wandering vagrant boy while hoping no one in the city recognizes you asking after inns. No son of a merchant would slum with the homeless.

B. You rent the room from Chi Qilin. She definitely knows who you are, and it might be more pragmatic to work with her on this where you can keep an eye on her, rather than allow her to cook up tricks behind your back. She is no orthodox pugilist, that much you are sure from the way she does not declare her affiliation like any good orthodox disciple would do. Besides, you might be able to pick up some tips from her about sneaking around a city.
 

八 · Registration

Registration

Sucking up your pride, you head over to meet Qilin at the Tanxiang Inn. It is a reputable place, not too expensive and not too cheap; the sort of lodgings that do not attract much attention. The inn is packed with pugilists, drinking and revelling in the main hall. The two of you make your way up the stairs, where you find that your rooms are opposite each other.

You endure her smugness when passing over your money. At the price she charges, at the end of the tournament you would have barely anything left. “A pleasure doing business with you, Young Master Guan,” she smiles. She opens the door to your room. As you step forward, her arm shoots out, barring your way. “Hold on. I need to disable the traps,” she says with a serious face. You raise an eyebrow and step back, allowing her to do so. She checks the corners of the door frame carefully and removes several strings. Then, she heads further into the room and starts poking around the table and the bed. After a few minutes, she nods in satisfaction and beckons you in.

Slightly wary, you enter the room.

“Don’t be nervous,” laughs Qilin. “You’re a customer now. I don’t kill my customers. It’d be bad for my reputation.” She skips over to the door and closes it shut before slowly turning to face you. “Now that we’re alone, Xu Jing, tell me your true reason for being here.”

“I’m here to compete,” you say flatly. “Aren’t you worried about having your competition stay across from you?”

“Who said I was competing with you?” Her eyes twinkle. “You do have an inkling about where I’m from, right?” You nod. “Guizhou is the base of the Wudu Cult. Is your father the Scarlet Scorpion and sub-leader of the Cult, Chi Tianxie?” Qilin grins widely. “It looks like you’ve been doing some studying. Where did you find that out?”

You had heard Master Zhang mention the Scarlet Scorpion in passing once, and immediately made the connection. “Oh, I keep an ear out for people who might want to poison me in the street.” Qilin pouts. “It was just that one time! Anyway, if you know that much, you should know that winning an orthodox tournament is rather low on the list of priorities for a respected member of the cult like I am.”

“Ah, so it’s that, then?” you say.

“Of course it’s that. This is a good place for a practical test, with so many different experts running around. The competitors will be a good sample for my experiment on how different poisons interact with different types of inner strength.”

You clear your throat. “I hope it’s not of the… lethal variety?”

Qilin looks offended, her nostrils flaring in a snort. “Please, do you think I would do something like that for a test? It’s a waste of good poison. A smart girl like me can extrapolate the effects of a poison based on its mildest symptoms and the dosage I used. It won’t even affect their performance at all. I am an expert, you know.”

“You do know I could just go to the committee and tell them everything you just told me.”

“You can try,” smiles the girl sweetly. “Do you know the second motto of the Wudu Cult?”

“The first one was that profit determines your allies, right?”

“That is correct. The second is this: ‘Anyone who crosses us will die gruesomely’. The Wudu Cult has never failed to make good on that promise. We are masters of poison. I dare say that our training allows us to infiltrate anyplace in the world. Perhaps not overnight, but we can always get our eyes and ears and fingers where they are needed, given time. The only thing stopping us from poisoning, say, the Emperor, or the heads of all the Eight Sects, is because there is no profit in it for us. Everyone knows that.”

“Which means you would do it If there was a profit.”

“Perhaps, but I doubt it. My father says that the balance of things as they are right now benefits the cult perfectly, and there should be no need to break it. In that case I don’t think there is any price high enough to entice us to do such a thing.”

“But it would be rather easy to get me poisoned for ratting you out?”

“Oh, yes. But don’t worry about it, I’m only sharing the information so that you don’t start suspecting your landlady of dubious practices and try to interfere under some misguided assumptions. If you’re staying across from me, I am sure you will have the urge to peek,” grins Qilin impishly. “Anyway, if you don’t interfere with my purpose here, I won’t interfere with yours. You just want to compete, right? Let me know and I won’t do a little test on the person you’re up against… or perhaps I will, if you’re looking for that little edge.” She winks at you, though you just sigh.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” you say, scratching your head. “It would be rather bad luck if you miscalculated your work…”

Qilin scowls at you. “Don’t jinx it. I’m being very careful with the dosage already.”

After an exchange of insults, the conversation veers into skills and the two of you end up spending a bit more time exchanging pointers – she can be charming enough as it is, but you have the advantage in noble etiquette, while you are a good sneak in deserted areas, but require more knowledge about how to blend into a crowd and make your way around the packed structures of a city.

***

The registration for the tournament begins the next day. Surprisingly, your sleep was uninterrupted by any snakes, spiders, scorpions, centipedes or toads. You leave early, without encountering Qilin. Making your way to the registration area, you see that it is already crowded with young pugilists and their caretakers. The age of contestants seems to range from about fourteen to twenty. With your dyed hair you could almost pass for your age; without it you would probably look just shy of twenty.

“Young Master Guan! What a pleasure to see you here!” shouts out a monk as he hurries over. He bows at you with his palms placed together and you return the gesture. The monk is Xuzhan; you had helped him and his friends exit the maze of brothels and gambling dens yesterday. “I didn’t know you were participating!”

“Perhaps. I am not sure if I will. My meagre skill at martial arts managed to win a crest, and convince my father to let me come, but looking at the level of competition here I am afraid I will not be able to get anywhere,” you say nervously. In truth, what you have seen so far does not impress you one bit. The monk smiles and nods. “Yes, it is a rather tough crowd this year. They are saying this will be the most tightly fought competition in ages. We have the disciple of the Sword Saint Shangguan Chuji, the Twin Flowers of Huashan and Taishan’s Seven Heroic Youths, amongst so many other notable contestants!”

You give him a bemused stare. “My friend, you seem rather knowledgeable and excited about this for a monk. I thought you were not to be concerned with secular affairs?”

Xuzhan blushes slightly, stammering. “W-well, I happen to be very interested in matters of the jianghu. Keep it a secret from my superiors, Young Master Guan. But how can one walk the path of a pugilist and not take an interest in who are the best fighters?”

“I suppose you know who are the best fighters, then?” you ask leadingly.

Xuzhan begins racking his head. “Well, there is some dispute as to which pugilists are the best. Ask ten different people and you will get ten different answers, but I think everyone here will have their own opinion on who is the best. It is common knowledge. But of course, you wouldn’t know, Young Master Guan. Sorry. I forget that you are rather new to all this.” He bows deeply in apology, hoping that he hasn’t caused you offense.

“That is alright. I would love to learn more about the front-runners, if you will be so gracious as to share with me what you know.”

Xuzhan proves to be rather talkative. Soon he drags in some of his Shaolin friends, who in turn drag in friends from other sects, and they begin debating who is the best and why. You stand aside quietly, listening to what they have to say.

By the end of it, you surmise that there are a few names to look out for at the competition, young pugilists who have made their names by performing great deeds despite their youth.

Taishan’s Seven Heroic Youths, said to be the best young fighters of the school. You do not remember their names, as they tend to be referred to as a group. Even the monks do not recall their names.

The Twin Flowers of Huashan; Nie Mudan and Nie Shuixian, who are adopted daughters of the sect leader Nie Wuxing.

Murong Yandi, the disciple of the man said to be the best swordsman in the world, Shangguan Chuji.

Su Liaojing of Kunlun, a youth that is said to have the potential to become the next head of the sect.

The Three Brothers of Wudang, Wu Jin, Wu Yin and Wu Tong, are seen as a major force in the competition.

Of Emei, they think the nun Yiling will prove to be an obstacle – she had a close run for champion the last year. When the conversation turns to Shaolin, Xuzhan says embarrassedly that he is considered one of the front-runners for his temple, along with his brothers-in-monkhood, Xuzheng and Xuzhu.

The Beggars have sent a few representatives, but there does not seem to be any fighters of renown amongst them.

There are a few other strange competitors, including someone in a tiger’s mask who put himself down as Nameless, but no one expects anything from these weirdos – they appear every year and disappear just as quickly.

From the hectic discussion, you also gather that they would treat all of the competitors just named as more or less equals in the pugilistic arts, though arguments can be made for each competitor for superiority in certain aspects. This year is also seen as a tight competition for another reason. For the past seven years, the tournament has been dominated by Bai Jiutian of Huashan – a peerless, elegant pugilist whose skill has brought him victory match after match. This year he is ineligible to participate due to his age, though he is still widely considered the best pugilist of your generation.

“Then,” Xuzhan begins with a hushed whisper, “they say that the Southern Maniac’s disciple is participating this year. No one knows who he is, or if he is even here, but everyone is nervous.”

“How do you know he’s participating?” you ask. Abbess Miecao hadn’t known of the invitation.

“It’s just some rumours circulating amongst us young people. I’m not sure where it started, but everyone believes it by now. They say he was sent a special invitation to come and showcase his prowess.”

“Do you believe it?”

“Maybe. I mean, people are already pointing at newcomers as possibly being the Young Maniac in disguise, since he hasn’t revealed himself. Of course, you can’t be him, right, Young Master Guan?” He chuckles nervously.

“Do I look like a maniac?” you laugh, expressing your mock offense.

“No, of course you aren’t. You don’t look the part at all, Young Master Guan,” says Xuzhan. “But there is one person who does.” His voice drops into an even lower whisper. The other monks and pugilists nod amongst themselves nervously, as if they know who he is talking about.

“We think he is it. That boy over there.” Xuzhan points towards a hulking figure sitting alone in the center of the registration hall. His fists are callused and his muscular build is intimidating. A girl in peasant dress is sitting by him. Every other competitor is giving him a wide berth, reminding you of the time you met Zhang Jue himself. Even from here, however, you can tell that the large boy is nothing like Master Zhang. He lacks that sharp, menacing aura that emanates from the man as easily as he breathes – the same aura that Master Zhang says you already possess, should you decide not to hide it. He is not a killer. Perhaps it takes one to recognize one – you doubt most of the youths in this hall have ever killed another person, let alone ten or a hundred.

“Who is he?” you ask quietly.

“Well, no one dares to get close enough to find out, just in case he turns out to be the real thing. I mean, it’s not much consolation for the sects to punish him if you’re already dead,” says Xuzhan, still nervous. “But I think he registered his name as Guo Fu. I’m not sure if that’s his real name, but it could be.”

“I’m sure he’s not that bad,” you say cheerily. As you get up and walk over, the young pugilists look at you in horror.

“Someone pull him back! Hey!”

“You do it!”

“Ah, this is why I hate newbies who don’t know a thing about the pugilistic world!”

Some familiar shouts come from behind you as you approach the boy. Up close, you can see he is perhaps a year or two older than you. He is tall, probably as tall as Master Zhang, even at his age, and well built. You don’t doubt that he could lift an ox.

“Hello,” you say politely, with your best charming smile. “My name is Guan Shide. I am a humble merchant’s son, and I was wondering if I could talk to you for a second?”

The boy turns to look at you. You can see the wheels turning in his head as he ponders your sudden appearance. Then, he nods, smiling faintly. “Of course. I think I would like nothing better.” The girl by his side, a mousy-looking peasant, jabs him. “Manners, Fu! Introduce yourself.” She turns to you and bows. “My name is Pu’er. This is my husband, Guo Fu. Why do we have the pleasure of your presence?”

You sit down besides the couple. “I am just a humble merchant’s son, as I said. Your husband’s dignified presence drew my curiosity. By the way, you are married?”

Guo Fu smiles as he places a large hand on his wife’s shoulder as she blushes. “Yes, for a few months now. We were betrothed from birth.” Pu’er nods and continues her husband’s statement. “There were some circumstances that stopped us from getting married earlier.”

“Congratulations to the both of you!” you say earnestly. “I wish you matrimonial bliss even unto your white-haired days.” The two blush deeply as they thank you in return, their hands tightly held together. It is something you have never experienced, you muse, and for just an instant you feel slightly envious. Then, you continue, “So, Young Master Guo, what brings you here to the tournament? Should you not be working to support your pretty new wife?”

The boy’s wide face settles into a frown. “That is a long story, sir. I cannot give you the full details, but I was once a farmer’s child. We lost our land. My parents died. I wandered around and only found Pu’er again recently. But these days it is hard for an orphan to find land of his own to work. So I decided to join a school where they could take me on as an apprentice to do odd jobs, while Pu’er could work as a maid. But again it is hard, they didn’t even talk to me most of the time. I heard of the tournament and decided to join. I thought if I fought hard enough here they would notice me. I mean, if I am a member of a school, I will be more liked, and Pu’er could be more safe.”

As he finishes his tale in halting sentences, you listen intently, nodding. He could make his way with just physical labour, but you understand why he doesn’t, even if he does not say it out loud. In terms of short-term results it may not be much different, but in terms of a long-term career, it is a rather significant difference. This is his dream – not to work long hours hauling cargo while his wife washes dishes at a nearby restaurant, but to eventually become a respected pugilist so that he may protect her, and she may be proud of him. Of course, looking at her gaze, you can tell that she is already proud to be his wife.

You nod and pat him on the shoulder. “You are a remarkable man, Guo Fu. I could only wish that I had even half of your drive and responsible nature.”

“Thank you,” he rumbles. “This is the first time anyone has spoken to us since we came here. For some reason, everyone is afraid of us. I do not know why. You are a kind man, Master Guan. I am happy that I met at least one kind man here.”

Smiling at Guo Fu and Pu’er, you bow and take your leave; being labelled as the disciple of Zhang Jue will probably bring him trouble later on, but it is not really any business of yours, is it? At any rate, it is time for you to register in the tournament.

***

A. You register publicly as Zhang Jue’s apprentice. People may or may not believe you, but doing so will definitely send an uproar throughout the entire competition.

B. You register as Guan Shide, humble merchant’s son. You believe you can still keep up the act even if you are competing.

C. You run out and try to purchase a mask, but you find that the tiger and wolf masks are all gone. All that is left is a pig’s mask. You register under the pseudonym:
Pick one-
Wild Pig
Beautiful Pig
Tiger Pig
Man Tiger Pig
Dancing Pig
Zhang Jue
Rong Zhiyu
Nameless the Second
Shu Ji

***

Once rumours begin, they are almost impossible to stop – people are convinced that the Southern Maniac’s apprentice is here. However, they can be easy to encourage. You could try to incite more people to believe that Guo Fu is the Southern Maniac’s apprentice, to draw attention away from you.

1. You inflame the rumours, pretending to be terrified by your brief encounter with him and spreading word that Guo Fu is truly the Maniac’s disciple.

2. You do not do anything about the rumours. Your method of registration will have the desired effect by itself.
 

九 · Man Tiger Pig

Man Tiger Pig

The official in charge of the registration stares at you as you walk up to him. “Not another one…” he mutters under his breath. Despite his misgivings, the process goes off without a hitch. You put down your name as Man Tiger Pig, and hand over the crest to complete your registration. As you walk away from the table, the Shaolin monk Xuzhan spots you. He looks at you with a slightly curious expression and comes over.

“Sir, might you be-“

You nod quickly and gesture at him to follow you to a more secluded area. Once the two of you are there, he scratches his bald head.

“Might you be Young Master Guan?” he asks in a whisper. You see no need to keep up the pretense, and nod.

“My father let me come, but he doesn’t want me shaming the family name, you see. My merchant family isn't too fond of martial arts,” you explain quickly. “He would only let me participate on the condition that I appear masked. I’m sorry to ask this of you, sir monk, but could you help me keep this secret?”

“Sure,” he says without hesitation. “I mean, it’s the Young Tigers tournament! I wouldn’t want you to miss the chance to compete! Don’t worry, we’ll understand why you have the mask on, and we’ll make sure no one else knows it’s actually you underneath. For a minute there I thought talking to the boy who seems to be the Southern Maniac’s apprentice had scared you out of your wits!” You had expected a monk to be more conflicted about lying, but in this case it seems that Xuzhan is more excited about the tournament than about his vows. You thank him profusely. When you return to his group of friends, he gives them a quick, quiet summary of what has just happened, and they give you knowing nods and encouraging smiles. Now that all of you are registered, you begin discussing the tournament in further detail.

According to them, the Eight Sects’ favoured format is the team competition, where most of their disciples would be participating. Their teamwork and discipline gives them the advantage for that format, compared to impromptu teams cobbled together from lesser schools. It is also not uncommon for Eight Sects’ teams to consist of the better members from different sects as they attempt to get their superior disciples into the finals. The Eight Sects’ disciples usually work together to eliminate as many of the riff-raff as possible, whether in the team matches or in the battle royales. In the last three competitions, all of the thirty two participants in the finals were from the Eight Sects.

The preliminary matches would be conducted tomorrow. Participants who were interested in forming a team could do so today. Those who did not would automatically be enrolled into the battle royale. The young Shaolin monks and their friends had already come here with their teams assigned; you would not be able to join them even if you wanted to. If you wanted to make a team, you would have to search on your own. Bidding goodbye to them, you begin wandering about the great hall. The number of people seems to have lessened, as the participants begin leaving the place after completing their registration.

A plain girl steps in front of you, giving you a challenging look. You look back at her from behind the mask.

“Xu Jing,” she whispers softly enough that only you can hear. “That is a very stupid disguise. Who do you think you’re fooling?”

You fight back the sudden panic and stare at her face. It is very plain and average. Forgettable – no one you’ve seen before. You have not met this girl before, you’re sure. On the other hand, there is really only one person in this city who knows your true identity and would speak to you like that.

“Is this how you really look, Qilin? No wonder you only appear before me with your face made up,” you whisper back.

“Now, that’s rude! It’s an acupuncture technique, of course I don't look like this!” she hisses vainly. “Anyway, out here I’m called Xiaoxiang. Are you using Guan Shide, or…”

“Man Tiger Pig.”

She spends the next minute laughing, unable to form any coherent words.

“Oh, alright,” she says, after she recovers, “anyway, have you heard about the preliminary matches?”

You nod. “Battle royale or team, right? Which are you going for?”

“I had thought about going for the battle royale, but someone unexpected approached me to team up. Murong Yandi, the Sword Saint’s disciple.” Her eyes are gleaming with sly interest. “He’s looking for anyone he can get. Something about his master advising him to learn cooperation, I think. It works out for me if I can piggy-back on the stronger fighters of the competition, so I'm not complaining.”

“Shouldn’t he have no problem finding teammates? I don’t see why he’d pick a plain girl like you.”

“I may be plain but I have my charms,” she says, sticking her tongue out at you. “To be precise, when he approached me his words were, ‘Join my team and help me recruit two other people’. I get the feeling he might have been too lazy to look for teammates and decided to ask the first person he saw for help. Lucky me! So, what are you going for?”

“I haven’t made a decision,” you admit.

“Why don’t you join my team? Then I can have you do all the work.”

“You really are shameless, aren’t you?”

“An adult knows no shame.”

“I’m not sure that’s an actual saying.”

“Who cares? I won't be lectured by some boy in a pig's mask. I still need to find one more person if you join, anyway, so decide quickly.”

You consider her offer. If you join the team matches, you would be facing the better orthodox students, and would likely face at least one of the Eight Sects’ elites before even meeting in the finals. The battle royale would offer you better odds of sneaking through without too much of a fight. You would be able to keep your prowess relatively concealed in the melee. On the other hand, it may be a good opportunity for you to get to know the Sword Saint’s disciple. His master is one of the wielders of the Ten Great Swords – this may prove to be a useful contact in the future. Besides that, you are certain that the farmer boy would not be fighting in a team. You could do him a favour by putting him in the team, helping him advance as far as possible.

***

A. You join Qilin’s team and leave it up to her to recruit the last member.

B. You join Qilin’s team and recruit Guo Fu as the last member of your team.

C. You do not join the team, and attempt to form your own team instead, seeking out whoever you can get.

D. You do not join the team, preferring to participate in the battle royale and win qualification that way.
 

十 · Heroes of Taishan

Heroes of Taishan

Qilin laughs, looking at the group that you have been entered into. “Just our luck,” she grins. “We’re facing four of the Taishan Seven Heroic Youths in the first match.” You look at the other teams in the group – one consists of second-string Kunlun participants, and the other is an impromptu collection of participants much like your own. “Does anyone know anything about them?” you ask.

Guo Fu shakes his head slowly. He still hasn’t seem to caught on to the fact that you have met him before putting on the mask. The young farmer boy had been very grateful when you approached him to team up yesterday, to the extent of trying to buy a roasted pig’s thigh for you in gratitude. You had to turn it down; he and his wife would probably need the food more than you do. You could always just steal Qilin’s snakes in a pinch if you were starving. The disciple of the Sword Saint looks away when you turn your eyes to him. Well-groomed and dashing in his blue clothes, the boy nevertheless seems uncomfortable around the three of you, even though he had been the first to moot the idea of a team.

“If I’m not mistaken, they specialize in the Qixing Beitou Formation (北斗七星陣,Big Dipper Formation). I’ve not seen it in action before, but I’ve heard that it is intricate and everchanging. Taishan is also famous for the Qixing Luokong (七星落空,Seven Stars Fall Empty), a sword technique that attacks the seven main pressure points of the body with qi,” says Qilin. “I don’t have any further details; I don’t know much about them.”

“Well, at least we know they’ll be fighting mainly with swords. That means it’s a job for our swordsman over there,” you say. “W-what?” says Murong Yandi, surprised to be brought into the conversation. “Isn’t this a team fight?”

“It is, but you’re also the disciple of the Sword Saint, aren’t you?” you explain. “You should be good enough with a sword to beat them handily.”

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything.” A frown creases his brow as he ponders your masked head.

“Well, I’m just getting you ready for the very high possibility that all four of them will be coming for you from the start,” you say. Murong falls silent, his eyes twitching with a nervous tic. “I-I’ll handle that when it happens. Just fight as best as you can.”

A tournament official calls out the names of your team before he can say anything else. Elsewhere, some teams have already begun their matches. You pay them no attention, however – your first hurdle in this tournament is just ahead of you.

When your team arrives on the small stage, the Taishan disciples are already present. First you are expected to introduce yourselves to each other. You do so, giving your pseudonym and eliciting a chuckle from the opposing side. They seem relaxed and confident. They give their names in return, but in your mind you have already begun labelling them Taishan One, Two, Three and Four, like what the young Shaolin monks called them in private. You can tell that they are rather strong, but nothing about them really makes much of an impression on you, although your sense for danger – never a very strong sense – may have been spoiled by Zhang’s training.

The signal to fight is given.

Instantly, all four of them head towards Murong Yandi, attempting to take who they deem to be the strongest enemy out of the match at the start. His face freezes in fright as his pre-fight bravado finally gives way. As they swing their swords at him, Murong Yandi suddenly gives out a loud, panicked yell. Drawing his sword, he parries their attacks almost instantaneously, giving himself enough space to step back. Despite his frantic swings, you can tell that he was in control of his movements – defending against four at once is no mean feat, as you have found out yourself.

“Hey, hey,” you call out, “you’re ruining your cool image.”

“If you aren’t going to help me, stand back while I take care of them all myself,” he retorts, deftly parrying another flurry of attacks from the four Taishan disciples.

“Someone’s already gone to help,” you say cheerfully. Guo Fu rushes at the Taishan disciples from the side. His bull charge scatters them, forcing them to pull away from Murong Yandi. Two of the disciples – the ones you have labelled Three and Four, get around Guo Fu and continue going after the swordsman, who curses. Even so, he continues to defend instead of going on the attack.

One and Two continue to battle Guo Fu. He is surpisingly nimble for his size, and what he can’t dodge he blocks. Since the weapons given for the tournament are blunted, he stops the swords against his bare arms without any problems. He does not aim his attacks well, however, and the Taishan disciples manage to dance away from his blows without taking any damage. “It looks like they want to defeat the better fighters and leave the weaker ones for later,” you say. “Yes, we’re probably being left for later, but they’re attempting to force Guo Fu out of the ring,” says Qilin. You can see that the big fighter is gradually being pushed towards the edge of the arena, just as she said. “They can’t beat him down any other way.”

“Aren’t you going to join in, then?” you ask.

“Aren’t you? You’re supposed to be the strongest one here," says Qilin slyly.

Well, if she puts it that way…

You head towards Guo Fu first – Murong Yandi seems to be defending himself against two opponents with no problems. Placing one hand on his broad shoulders, you vault over his head and introduce your knee to his opponent’s face. Taishan One staggers back, clutching his nose. You tilt your head to one side, putting your hands on your hips, and bend over slightly to look at him in mock, wordless concern.

Grim determination flashing in his eyes, he settles into a stance, his sword raised high above his head, and charges at you. After a second of deliberation, you keep your sword tucked into your waist-sash, deciding to fight him unarmed. Taishan One swings his sword down, attempting to decide the fight with a single blow to the neck. It misses. You step to the side, avoiding his attack entirely. As you deliberate on the type of counterattack to use, Taishan One spins and sends his foot flying towards your face. You duck down on instinct. He follows without hesitation, sweeping his sword upwards to catch you as you crouch. Exhaling, you move a bit faster, just fast enough that the blade doesn’t even catch the tip of your nose.

Taishan One looks at you with mild disbelief, finding it hard to accept that some joker in a pig’s mask has avoided his moves. After that initial assault you can tell that he is technically skilled, but…

You take a basic stance, fists held up. You’ll step up your game a bit more. As Taishan One settles back into his sword stance, you act first. Lunging forward, you throw a punch at his face. He jerks to the side, surprised at your sudden speed. Bending your outstretched arm, you drive your elbow into the side of his face before he can react – perhaps a bit too lightly, as he staggers to the side instead of being knocked down like you hoped. You take a step back, allowing Taishan One to retreat. Raising an open hand, you make a beckoning gesture, daring him to come.

With a growl, he charges at you. The both of you exchange a few more blows, with none of his landing properly, before a strike from your palm pushes him away again. It looks like for all his skill, he cannot compensate for your superior speed.

“Erfu, Sanzhu, Shiwan, to me!” he shouts, as he backs away from you hurriedly. The other Taishan disciples break away from their respective fights and get into position around Taishan One in a formation of some sorts.

You look over at Guo Fu and Murong Yandi. Both of them are unscathed, and Murong Yandi seems to not even have broken a sweat, though he doesn’t seem to have gone on the attack against the Taishan disciples either.

“Beitou Qixing Formation!” shouts the Taishan disciples in unison, as they make a dramatic pose. You wonder if you should test out the formation alone – judging from the name, it is meant for seven people; its true potential should only be seen with all seven members of the Taishan Seven Heroic Youths. A four man formation would have its weaknesses.

Murong Yandi seems to be in a bad mood as he comes to your side. “Could you let me take them all down, Man Tiger Pig? The two of them were saying some rather rude things to me just now.”

***

A. Insist to go at it alone. You survived the nuns’ six-man formation, a crippled four-man formation shouldn’t be any problem for you, especially since none of the other disciples seem to match you in speed and strength. Beating four of them by yourself would be good bragging rights.

B. Let Murong Yandi handle the formation alone. He seems confident, and this could be a chance to see what he can really do. You might meet him in the elimination stages, and if he wants to show off you can benefit from seeing his techniques.

C. Offer to team up with Murong Yandi for the fight. The formation might be more than either of you are expecting, since none of you have actually experienced it before, and it would be safer this way.

D. Everyone is going to fight. You get Guo Fu and Qilin to help you and Murong Yandi. Qilin is not getting out of this match without even lifting a smug little finger. It is a team fight after all. You don’t want to take too much of the spotlight right now.
 

十一 · The Sword Saint's Disciple

The Sword Saint’s Disciple

“Feel free.” You give a wide gesture at the Taishan disciples, inviting Murong Yandi to help himself. With a sombre nod and a word of thanks, he steps forward as you retreat. “Can he handle it?” asks Guo Fu concernedly, rubbing his neck. “If he can’t, we’ll go to his aid,” you reply. “Xiaoxiang, did the tournament officials issue you with any throwing weapons?”

Qilin shakes her head. “No, but they gave me some pebbles when I asked.”

“You could have used it to help us out just now.”

“Oh, the two of you were handling yourselves pretty well. I didn’t see the need to interfere.”

“If Murong doesn’t beat them, I’ll need you to back us up. Guo Fu will make the initial charge, you will keep them distracted with the pebbles, and I’ll pick them off,” you say quickly. “It’s a simple tactic, I think we can pull it off.”

“Yes, sir,” says Guo, while Qilin only smiles at you.

You turn your attention back to Murong Yandi, who is confronting the Taishan formation. His sword is tucked at his waist. He is standing with his arms held to his side, his pose calm and sturdy. The Taishan disciples move as one, surging forward as their feet patter in complex movements.

Murong Yandi is faster. In a flash he has drawn his sword, raising it up high and gripping the hilt with both hands. As he brings it down hard, well before the Taishan fighters have reached him, you can see a faint ripple trailing along the sword’s movement in the air.

Sword qi. He is channeling his inner strength into the sword, using it as a conduit to extend his reach. A tangible, barely visible pressure emanates from his blade like a visible gust of shimmering wind. It roars forward and hits Taishan Two and Three before they can get out of the way. They are thrown backwards by the force, knocking them clear out of the ring. You had heard that skilled swordsmen could cut their targets without touching them physically with a sword, but this was the first time you had seen sword qi in action. The remaining two pause in shock.

Murong Yandi does not stop. He closes the distance, as swift as a snake, and thrusts his sword into Taishan Four’s abdomen. Although the blade does not pierce flesh, a ragged hole is torn in Taishan Four’s clothes where he struck, as Murong Yandi channels his sword qi to augment his thrust. Taishan Four falls to him, and he turns to take on Taishan One. Before you know it, the match is over, with Taishan One kneeling in surrender.

For some reason, you can feel your fingers twitching in anticipation. The swordsman is fast, true enough, but you think you might just be a little faster. Pitting your skills against him should teach you some interesting tricks - you are already beginning to wonder how you can overcome his sword energy.

The tournament official, slightly flabbergasted at Murong’s swift victory, declares your team the winner of the match. The Taishan disciples hobble off, looking fearfully at the Sword Saint’s disciple as they leave.

You whistle as Murong comes back to the team. “Those were some really fancy moves. What did they say to get you so angry?” He scowls slightly, shaking his head. “I am still nothing compared to my master, and I would prefer not to gossip about their rude behaviour.”

“Fair enough, Young Master Murong. By the way, if you can beat four of the Taishan Seven Heroic Youths so easily, why haven’t you won the tournament before this?” you ask.

To your surprise, Murong Yandi flushes slightly. “I-It’s my first time participating in a public tournament. I only joined this year because I desired to fight the famous Bai Jiutian, but to my disappointment he did not participate.”

You suppose he harbours some slight feelings of rivalry towards the Huashan swordsman said to be the best of your generation. As the disciple of the swordsman who is the best of his generation – indeed, the best of any current living generation – he would definitely have to surpass Bai Jiutian to be acknowledged as a pupil worthy of his master.

The remaining two matches go by extremely quickly. After Murong Yandi’s display of power, a dejected despair set itself in the remaining competitors in your group. The two matches were solved by merely having Guo Fu toss them out of the ring. Taishan also beat the other two schools, but by the end of the day the result was clear: you would be advancing into the elimination finals.

The winners of the preliminary stages are called into the main hall to draw the lots for the tournament brackets. Each contestant’s name would be called out, and a number would be drawn to determine their position in the bracket. Looking around, you can see a few familiar faces. Xuzhan and three of his monk friends are present. So are Yifang and the Emei nuns, though Cao’er is not around. You note the Three Wudang Brothers have made it, standing with dignity in their Taoist robes. A sole young beggar is scratching his behind shamelessly at the back of the hall. Interestingly, there are also three other participants besides you in animal masks – a tiger, a wolf and a cock.

As the drawing begins, Qilin stands on the tip of her toes and whispers sweetly in your ear, “Don’t drink the water from tomorrow onwards.”

The contestants’ names are called out one by one, and strips of cloth bearing their name are pinned on the great wooden board as they receive their numbers. One by one, the first matches for tomorrow are filled up.

“Hm, I’m facing the beggar,” mutters Qilin. “He should be able to take something stronger.”

Your name is called. Then, your number is drawn. They pin your cloth on the board, next to Yiling of Emei – the nun that had come in second in last year’s tournament.

“Ooh, good luck,” giggles Qilin. You sigh underneath the mask.

When the drawing is complete, you peer at the board, taking note of the people you know.

***

You exit the tournament area separately from the others. Finding a quiet, deserted alley, you quickly remove the mask and shove it into your garments. The sun is setting and soon the streets will be dark, though the city is lively at all times of the day. Suddenly, you hear a loud cry from behind you.

Turning around, you see a person garbed entirely in black, even though it’s still light. They raise their hand to strike at you. You instinctively parry their attack, knocking their arm aside. You can see slight surprise in the person’s uncovered eyes that you deflected their blow so easily.

“Somebody stop that bastard!” shouts someone else. As a man garbed in the yellow Kunlun uniform rush in, the person-in-black laughs. You cannot tell whether it is a man or a woman. In a thin, reedy voice, they proclaim, “Foolish do-gooders. I am the disciple of Zhang Jue! You will never capture me so easily!” You hold back an urge to declare that you’re his disciple. “You attacked me,” shouts the man. “You’re not getting off that easily, regardless of who you are to the Southern Maniac!”

With another laugh, the person-in-black leaps up a nearby building and runs. The Kunlun disciple attempts to give chase, but collapses from his injuries. You are about to go and help him, but a group of orthodox sect members are already coming to his aid.

What a troublesome encounter. You had actually planned to secretly drop by where the Emei was staying and get into contact with Cao’er so that you could prepare for your match with the nun Yiling tomorrow. She should know a thing or two. Unfortunately, you also feel like you should go after this strange impostor immediately before you get framed for worse matters. This could be related to the invite that Master Zhang received - as the Abbess had said, it was unusual for the tournament committee to do so. You’re afraid that if you give chase, however, you will run out of time to dredge up information about your next opponent, and would have to rely on what you can find out tomorrow morning before the match.

***

A. Go after the impostor and attempt to find out what is going on.

B. Meet up with Cao’er to discuss Yiling - your match is more important.
 

十二 · Tournament Preparations

Tournament Preparations

You bound up a nearby crate and onto the rooftops, deciding to go after the person-in-black. Spotting the figure receding into the distance, gliding over large gaps between the buildings with their qinggong, you give chase. Running atop a solid roof is far easier than running along shaky tree branches. Although you can’t soar through the air like your target, your stride is faster. As you hop and vault over obstacles and gaps, you begin to close the distance. You seem to be headed into the poorer districts of the city, where people tend to keep their heads down.

The figure turns their head, looking back at you. Suddenly, they stop in their tracks and reverse direction. Their hostile intent is clear.

“Decided to fight instead of running?” you call out. “That suits me just fine.”

The person-in-black strikes just as your feet touch the roof that they are on. A palm comes whistling through the air, aimed right for your head. You dive forward, throwing yourself down low before it hits. Pressing your outstretched hands against the roof tiles, you push yourself forward. You can feel the tiles crack slightly underneath your fingers as you fly past the person-in-black. With a quick flip you get back to your feet.

The person-in-black turns around, but too late. You throw a quick jab at them. Unable to avoid, they cross their arms to block. The force of your blow drives them staggering backwards until their heels are hanging out over thin air. As the mysterious person teeters on the verge of falling, you reach out to grab them. Their eyes are squeezed tightly closed. Before your fingers reach the person, they whistle loudly.

Suddenly, three other black-clad figures arrive, surrounding you. You had been too hasty in chasing your target. “Isn’t this a bit unfair-“ Your words are cut off as they descend upon you with a flurry of blows. You parry their punches swiftly; none of them are anywhere near as fast as Master Zhang, or even Sister Miaozhu and her nuns, but the sheer amount of strikes manages to force you back. Still, you are not too keen on using your full strength here – you don’t want to make things too messy if you can help it.

Knocking aside a kick, you grab the outstretched leg, pulling it towards you and smashing the back of your fist into your assailant’s side. As they are sent crashing to the floor, you spin around and smoothly segue into the only move of the Xianglong Palms that you know, attacking with a quick surge of your inner strength. Your palm zips forward like a striking snake, throwing another of the shady figures backwards with the briefest contact. With that same arm, you turn and grab the last of the three newcomers by the neck.

Your grip is strong – you could rip their throat out easily. Your fingers begin to dig in as the figure struggles helplessly. “Look,” you sigh, offering them a way out, “can’t we just talk about this?”

The first person-in-black you chased leaps at you with a battlecry. Now there is no mistaking it; it is a girl. You turn to hurl her partner at her, but instead something is thrown at you. Something round. It explodes in your face, releasing a thick cloud of smoke. As you choke and sputter, a palm slams into your chest. Caught by surprise, you release your grip on your hostage.

Then, there is a familiar, exceedingly unpleasant feeling. That of thorns worming their way inside you, inflicting pain and agony. You have felt this once before. The woman in black. It is not as strong, however, though you do not know if it is due to your growth, or because this practitioner is not as skilled.

They are the enemy. They are Shun’s enemy. They are definitely your enemy.

After three years, you have finally found someone who may lead you to the woman in black.

This is unmistakeably the Yuhua Duqing Palm.

It is different this time, however. You are not who you once were.

Excitement boils within you. Your qi stirs in response.

Like a rising tide of formless mud, Yuanshi Hundun rises up to meet the agonizing qi, swallowing it whole. The strike is still enough to leave you breathless, but you are otherwise unharmed. There was too little inner strength behind that blow to overcome your neigong.

As you expected, the people-in-black are gone when the smoke clears. You cluck your tongue in slight disappointment.

Looking around, you find no trace of where they have gone. No matter. They are, for some reason, running around trying to link themselves to Zhang Jue. From the time you spent with him you understand that he is probably the last person who would be linked to this sort of organization – they are simply too clandestine for his tastes. These mysterious people should be here until the tournament ends, at least; your invitation was probably no coincidence.

Luckily, they seem to have no idea who you really are, though your little attack will have put them on guard. They should think you are nothing more than some noble young do-gooder - plenty of those in town during the tournament period - who passed by and decided to stick his nose into matters not of his business. This just means that you will have to be a bit more thoughtful regarding these people from now on so that you may devise a plan to lure them out.

Then, you will have the pleasure of interrogating them… those that survive, at least.

***

You arrive late the next morning – though you had thought you were unaffected by the Yuhua Duqing Palm, it seems that it had some lingering side-effects. You feel slightly dizzy, though it should not affect your performance too much. You approach the tournament hall with your mask already on. There are many fighters milling about the place. Before entering the hall proper, you look around for any signs of the Emei nuns.

You spot Cao’er together with Yifang and her friends. Perfect. This is the first thing you will do.

With a measured gait, you walk past Cao’er, heading off to a more secluded area.

Turning the corner, you count the seconds.

She pokes her head from behind the wall after ten seconds. Lifting your mask slightly so that she can see your face, you grin.

“…knew it was you!” she squeaks, as she walks up to you excitedly. You make a hushing gesture.

“Does anyone else know?”

“…no, don’t think so,” she shakes her head. “They don’t seem to have noticed.”

“Good. You look much better if your hair isn’t covering all of your face, by the way.”

With a croak, she fiddles with her hair embarrassedly. You begin to engage her in small talk, asking about her life at Emei. She seems to be doing fine, but says that life at the monastery does not suit her. There are too many rules for her to follow, and she feels awkward around the other nuns. When you ask if she wants to go off with you after the tournament, however, she declines, saying that there is still quite a lot more that she has to learn, and that she will stick to the agreement.

“…no matter how much I want to elope with you…” she sighs. You try to ignore a rather strange word that she used in that sentence, and move on to your opponent for today, the nun Yiling.

“She is skilled,” says Cao’er. “Not as skilful as my sister though…”

You are surprised. You had fought Yifang before this, and seen her rather dismal performance against the bandits. Either Yiling is not very good, in which case you should be able to handle everyone in the competition easily – Murong Yandi aside – or Yifang is a lot better than you had thought her to be.

“I suppose… Yifang is bad in a real fight, but she is really good in sparring when she is less nervous,” says Cao’er after deliberating for a while. “She told me this is the first time she participated in the tournament. She never dared to before.”

“Why is that?” you ask.

Cao’er stares at you rather coldly. “…your fault. You said something about understanding you. She found out you were invited… so she thought she could understand you better by participating… I suppose it is okay because she is my sister and sisters share…” She begins to mumble some words that make less sense to you the more you think about it.

“Well, I’m sorry I said it,” you apologize. It looks like that nun may be a source of future headaches due to your careless words. For that you really are sorry. “Is there anything more you can tell me about Yiling?”

“…you aren’t interested in her also, right? No, I guess not, it’s for the fight,” nods Cao’er. “I have to think on it. I remember some of her sparring matches… I will tell you later… Anyway, have you gotten the schedule for your match?”

You had almost forgotten. Feeling embarrassed that you had to be reminded by Cao’er of all people, you head to check out the schedule.

***

The first round of the tournament was divided into two sessions, with one taking place after the other. The matches in each session would take place simultaneously.

The matches in the first session are as follows:

Xumao vs Faceless

Yiqing vs Nie Shuixian

Wu Tong vs Mo Liuye

Su Liaojing vs Xuzheng

Zhou Xiaowu vs Gan Maqi

Gu Dipeng vs Yifang

Xuzhan vs Ma Youxuan

Xuzhu vs Yixing

The remainder of the matches are in the second session.

Nameless vs Shapeless

Zhu Cangxu vs Lantu

Xu Wanke vs Wu Yin

Xiaoxiang vs Gao Xiaoma

Li Mao vs Murong Yandi

Wu Jin vs Guo Fu

Yiling vs Man Tiger Pig

Jixuan Wuni vs Nie Mudan

You could check out one of the matches in the first session yourself. You would be fighting in the second session, so you could have to ask Cao’er to watch one of those matches for you, although she would also be free to observe a single match in the first session.

Of the participants, there are a few surprising entrees besides the disciples of the Eight Sects – they are saying that this is the first time there has been so many independent finalists in twenty years.

The most interesting of that lot are the trio of Nameless, Faceless and Shapeless, who are appearing in a tiger, wolf and cock mask respectively. They participated in the battle royale and swept to victory – in fact, they could be said to be the reason there were a few other independent finalists, as the three had purposely targeted Eight Sects’ disciples in each of their battle royales, proving skilled enough to knock out a few promising participants, allowing the independent participants to sneak into the last four standing. As a result, Qingcheng had been utterly eliminated from the competition, though their best young fighter, the new head of the sect, Song Lingshu was in mourning and did not participate, deciding to be a spectator instead. Ma Youxuan and Xu Wanke seem to be rather average pugilists from average schools, but Jixuan Wuni and Lantu are foreigners; Tibetan and Tujue, respectively.

You also found a grinning beggar offering to take bets on the matches. For this first round you simply do not know enough to place any of your meagre pittance on any of the other contestants; but you could opt to have Cao’er help you bet on your own match…

***

Choice of matches to watch:

You may pick one match from the first session to spectate personally.

You may pick one match from the first session and one match for the second session for Cao’er to observe.

***

A. You bet on Yiling winning.

B. You bet on yourself winning.
 

十三 · Match One: Yiling

Match One: Yiling

The crowd roars with laughter when you are introduced. You step onto the stage with your mask firmly in place, casually waving both your hands in the air. The Emei nun, Yiling, is scowling at you, her sword at the ready. From what you have heard, she is a couple of years older than you and this could be her last youth tournament. Yiling will be taking this match seriously – she is out to win it.

The tournament official raises his flag, signalling for the fighters to get ready. The both of you settle into a stance – she keeps her sword close to her body but pointed upwards, in the typical Emei fashion. You leave your sword tucked into the sash again, deciding to adopt a basic fighting stance; fists balled and raised.

“Are you underestimating me?’ asks the nun, slightly perturbed that you don’t seem to take her seriously enough to adopt a proper stance. You shake your head vigorously but say nothing in return, causing her to frown.

The flag falls, and the gong is sounded.

The nun begins stepping sideways warily as she tries to find a weakness in your position. You turn to follow her, keeping her within your field of vision at all times. The mask limits your view, and you will have to be more careful when fighting with it on.

Cao’er has said that this particular nun is not as skilled as Yifang, but that means little to you. You had watched Yifang’s match with Gu Dipeng of Kunlun. Her moves were precise and executed without hesitation, a far cry from her fearful performance against the bandits. However, you did not realize what it truly meant until Cao’er told you that Yifang’s skill in the Emei swordplay, the Qingcheng Stab (倾城刺, Alluring Stab) was perfect. Apparently, she does every move flawlessly, unerringly, purely as it is supposed to be; speaking solely in terms of that particular technique she has reached the level of a master. The Emei swordplay is comprehensive enough to provide a basic solution for most situations – in a tournament setting such as this, the relatively inexperienced fighters that make up most of the participants would get their defenses pried open and defeated in just a few moves. The Kunlun disciple had fallen within three minutes.

You understand what it will take for you to beat Yifang, should you advance that far. You would have to think of a way to defeat the Qingcheng Stab. The Emei swordplay will be your real enemy, not its wielder. Cao’er had noted that Yifang executes all the moves by rote, with no variation of her own.

This match against Yifang’s senior will be a good way to test it.

You graciously allow Yiling to make the first move.

With a single bounce the nun closes the distance, demonstrating her skill with Emei’s qinggong. The jabs and stabs come rapidly from all angles; Yiling appears to be a more forceful fighter than Yifang, putting more strength behind her blows. You duck and evade her attacks with sheer speed, but find no opening to retaliate without using your techniques. Just when you think you can strike back, Yiling would twist her body around gracefully and follow up with a thrust that keeps you off balance. Rather than swordplay, it would be more fitting for an onlooker to call it a sword dance.

You can do nothing but step back for the moment. A few more seconds of this and you would be stepping off the stage. The nun’s face is still serious, determined not to let her guard down until you have lost. You can hear the crowd continuing to laugh. It looks like you are living down to their expectations.

“Stop running, pig!” shouts a heckler.

“Stay still and get stuck!” laughs another man.

You tilt your head from side-to-side, wiggling the floppy pig’s ears in acknowledgement and eliciting another round of raucous laughter.

There’s nothing left to do but to take a riskier approach. The tournament swords are blunted; they won’t cut you apart, but a strong attack will still hurt. Stepping into the path of the nun’s strikes, you lunge forward. The sword scrapes your side painfully – that is going to leave a mark – but you surprise Yiling long enough to land a light kick in her abdomen.

The crowd gasps as she staggers back. You take a stance again, while Yiling looks at the tournament official and the panel of observers from the Eight Sects – you see Miecao amongst them. The official shakes his head; that would not have been a lethal hit even if it had been a real sword. You are still allowed to fight.

Yiling closes her eyes, muttering some prayers. When she turns back to you, she is calmer, falling back into the standard Emei stance. In a split second she resumes the match, stabbing at you faster than before. You begin to perceive slips in her technique, as she begins to get hasty. Leaping over a low thrust from the nun, you throw a quick jab at an opening. She is forced to block it – you can see her wince as your fist hits her arm. You land with both feet on her sword while she is distracted, forcing it from her grasp. With a sweeping backhand you force the nun away, long enough for you to kick up her sword, grab it, and point it at her.

The crowd is shouting in disbelief now, as angry punters begin screaming at the heavens. With a scowl, Yiling pounces at you, attempting to retrieve her sword. Moving quickly, you keep it from her grasp, shifting the sword from hand to hand in between defending against her attacks. Seeing no way to grab it from you, she steps on your foot hard, pinning it to the ground. Then, she makes to reach for her sword again. You toss it in the air, over her head.

To your surprise, she ignores it, going after the sword tucked at your waist. Your hand intercepts her just as her fingers close around the hilt. Grabbing the nun by the wrist, you spin her about before she can draw your sword. Yiling makes use of the opening to withdraw, twirling back to where her sword has fallen and picking it back up in one fluid movement.

You put one hand on your piggy chin, posing in a thinking position. The crowd is silent, waiting with bated breath to see what you will do next.

After exchanging blows with Yiling, and with your experience facing Emei techniques, you think you might be able to overcome the Qingcheng Stab, though it would definitely require you to use your own techniques to have a chance of succeeding.

***

A. You utilize the Shouwang Claws. Instead of using your fingers to rend flesh, you will use it to grasp weapons and wrest them from the enemy. You would have to devise a new form of movement to intercept the Qingcheng Stab successfully, but as the weapon is blunted at least you won’t be losing your fingers if you fail.

B. You perform the Chuzhan Fist, changing your target to hit the opponent’s hands and arms instead of their body, as the technique was originally meant to do. You would have to control your strength to avoid breaking her limbs as your aim is to attack with just enough force that their hands will be numbed by your attack, leaving them unable to grasp a sword or even form a fist.

C. You had almost broken the Emei’s Guihe Formation with your sword; Abbess Miecao had left behind a sentence of advice for you then. A fish hiding in water is closer than it looks. You think you can apply that saying to this situation, developing a sword technique of your own that draws in an opponent and counters their attack.

D. You give up and surrender. You don’t want to attract any more attention than you already have or reveal any of your techniques.
 

十四 · Tournament Interlude

Tournament Interlude

The nun springs to the attack before you are ready. It looks like she wants to win the match rather badly. You take a few hurried steps back, drawing your sword to block her strike. The blunted metal blades meet with a dull clang. With a graceful spin, Yiling crouches low to the floor and angles her sword for an upwards thrust. Her attack is swiftly parried, but she follows up with another flurry of stabs, mixing in quick jabs and powerful lunges.

Raising your own blade, you bat her sword away again and again. Without a sword you would have been forced to retreat if put on the defensive – her Qingcheng Stab cuts off passage to the sides with well-timed jabs, attempting to force the opponent into a narrow corridor dictated by the user of the technique. You use your own sword’s movement as cover to evade to the side. Your sudden movement catches her off-guard. As she turns to follow, you bring your sword down in a hard slash. Yiling retreats, leaping back a fair distance in the blink of an eye. Just what you wanted.

You take a step forward with your right foot, pointing your sword parallel to the ground. Crouching slightly, you kick off from the ground, rushing forward in a powerful lunge. Your Pine-Cutting Sword curves in a deadly arc towards the nun - Her eyes widen in surprise at the speed of your attack. With a shout, Yiling springs away before she is hit by your slash. She lands close to the edge of the ring, her skillful qinggong doing her more harm than good in this case. You stalk towards her, your sword held in a menacing fashion while you bob your masked face from side-to-side.

The nun is as good as you thought her to be – she judged in an instant that she did not have enough strength to block your strike outright, nor did she have enough speed to evade and stab you. Her only option was to run, and she did that without hesitation.

If she can think that far, she would also be able to identify the weak point of your technique. The Pine-Cutting Sword, like the Songfeng move it was created from, is simple and easy to see coming. Against lesser opponents the pure strength and speed behind the move would be enough to succeed, but against a skilled fighter it would not be hard for them to dodge and counter. If you tried the move again, Yiling would have a reply for it.

Stopping a dozen steps away from the nun, you point your sword forwards again. You see a hint of a smirk raised on her lips – you know that this time she will be ready.

You lunge.

She steps forward, crouching.

Her sword flies forward in a swift stab, faster than your slash. She is aiming right for your head – with the force she’s putting into her blow, if it hits you would be knocked out for certain.

The stab falls short, as you land a couple of paces away from where she predicted you would be.

An expression of surprise crosses her face, but she recovers quickly. Now is the deciding moment. The first step is to draw the opponent into a failed attack that leaves the both of you in close proximity.

With a sudden burst of speed, you sprint forward just as you touch the ground, throwing a stab at her. Your speed and proximity forces her to move to parry your stab, her sword flashing into position. Twirling the hilt of your sword in your hand, you grasp it in a reverse-grip, holding the blade folded parallel to your arm. The second step is to execute the feint.

Her parry meets empty air. Your fist follows through, slipping in between her guard to strike her on the jaw with the sword’s hilt. As she staggers back, you flip your sword back into position to deal the third step – the finishing blow – a quick stab to the chest before the enemy can recover their balance.

At least, you try to. The sword spins out of control as you twirl the hilt again. With a lighter, shorter sword you would have no problem, but the shoddily-made tournament-issue blunted swords don’t exactly have the best balance for this technique, and you don’t have the skill to compensate. Your fingers fumble as the sword flies from your grasp and hits Yiling in the forehead hilt-first.

She stumbles back but doesn’t fall off the stage – another step and she would have been out of the ring. It would be lucky for you if she did, but alas, you have only managed to lose your sword and anger her. The nun raises her sword. You can tell that she is going to finish you off as fast as she can.

You raise your hands in apparent surrender as she stares at you, her sword about to strike.

“What is this? Are you mocking me?” she asks furiously.

You shake your head sadly, the paper ears flopping around comically.

“Actually, I…” you begin. It is the first time you have spoken since coming on stage, and even the nun can’t help but pause for a while, slightly curious.

Then, you exert your inner strength. The primordial chaos within you bursts forth, feeding you strength.

Moving faster than she has ever seen you move throughout the match, you dart forward, catching her entirely off-guard.

Your hands, still raised in surrender, clap down on Yiling’s shoulders.

You give her a light shove, sending the nun out of the ring.

The gong is sounded.

You have won.

You raise both your hands and wave at the stunned audience. Abbess Miecao is – surprisingly – smiling faintly. You thought she would have been more upset at her student’s defeat. The crowd roars and groans simultaneously as you are declared the victor, the onlookers excitement mixed with the punters’ despair. An upset in the first round of the finals was not what anyone had expected.

It’s a good thing you made that bet.

***

In the aftermatch of the match, Cao’er comes to you with a bag of taels. After making sure you have given her a reasonable share, you hide it quickly before anyone – like Qilin – spots it. There is enough money here to buy you a few good meals, perhaps even some nice clothes. You ask Cao'er to continue betting on you - you have money to spare now, though your odds won't be as lucrative as they were against Yiling. Then, you listen to her report on the match between the mask-wearing Nameless and Shapeless.

Apparently there was no match at all. The both of them had gone up on stage, and Shapeless had surrendered immediately, to loud boos from the audience. You suppose Nameless is probably the leader of the trio. Besides that, Cao’er also tells you something interesting – she is certain that they are not Han. She cannot identify their exact ethnicity, but she has come to that conclusion from their words and body language.

There is not much time for you to rest – it looks like the next round should begin fairly soon. It would also be divided into two sessions, as with the previous round.

The first session would have:

Faceless vs Nie Shuixian

Wu Tong vs Su Liaojing

Zhou Xiaowu vs Yifang

Xuzhan vs Xuzhu

While the second session would be:

Nameless vs Zhu Cangxu

Wu Yin vs Xiaoxiang

Murong Yandi vs Guo Fu

Man Tiger Pig vs Nie Mudan

Cao’er has been summoned by the Abbess for some errands and thus won’t be free to help you out for this round. You could opt to watch any of the matches in the first session, or you could use the time to talk to find and talk to some of the other contestants that have lost their first match, and thus will be made to leave the participants’ area soon.

***

A. You watch the matches.
1. Faceless vs Nie Shuixian
2. Wu Tong vs Su Liaojing
3. Zhou Xiaowu vs Yifang
4. Xuzhan vs Xuzhu

B. You talk to some of the other contestants.
1. The Ashina fighter Lantu.
2. The Tibetan fighter Jixuan Wuni.
3. The oldest of the Wudang Brothers, Wu Jin.
4. The cock-masked fighter, Shapeless.
 

十五 · Match Two: Nie Mudan

Match Two: Nie Mudan

The match between the wolf-masked fighter and the Huashan swordswoman turns out to be a rather close call. Both contestants seem to be equally matched, though the masked fighter is employing a style that you have never seen before. At the very least, they don’t appear to be from any of the orthodox schools. Nie Shuixian, on the other hand, has opted to use a spear in this fight. She is wielding the spear expertly, keeping her opponent at bay and controlling the stage with its reach. However, she seems unable to capitalize on her advantage, as Faceless is equally adept at self-defense.

“What thoughts do you have about the Huashan technique so far?” A cultured voice interrupts your observations. Turning, you see a handsome young gentleman dressed in elegant white robes. He is smiling at you. “I hope you have found something to help you, Young Master Guan… if that is indeed your name.”

“I am indeed Guan Shide,” you say carefully. From his posture, you can tell that the gentleman is also a practitioner of martial arts. “Pardon me, but who might you be?”

“Ah, forgive my oversight. I am Bai Jiutian of Huashan. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“The pleasure is mine, Young Master Bai.” You respond respectfully to the unexpected encounter. This is the Huashan disciple who had won the past tournaments with ease. You wonder how he knows of you. As if seeing the question on your face, he says, “After the fight against Yiling, Man Tiger Pig has become one of the hot topics amongst the disciples of the Eight Sects. You are a… friend of his, no? I was talking to Shaolin’s Xuzhan, and after some questioning he let slip that much. Of course, it is not his fault; I was rudely persistent, and I hope I have not offended.”

“No offense taken. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you much,” you say. “Man Tiger Pig is mysterious in his ways. He comes and goes like the wind, sometimes as a man, at other times a pig, even occasionally a tiger. I cannot call him a friend of mine. What of it?”

“Oh, nothing much. I just found him interesting and hoped that you would be able to tell me more,” replies Bai Jiutian. “I can say confidently that he has the potential to progress far in this tournament. It is a pity that I am not participating this year. I would relish pitting my skills against him.”

“His victory over Emei seemed more like a fluke to me,” you say. “I doubt he will amount to anything.”

“Even so, his style is fascinating. Do you know who he trained under? His moves seem to be extremely basic, but I know of no one self-taught who has that sort of power.” Bai Jiutian looks at you keenly as he asks his question.

You laugh. “I am merely an amateur in martial arts, Young Master Bai. I would not know how to differentiate one school from another. Why, I can barely tell Taishan and Kunlun apart! You are asking the wrong person, I fear. I do not see why a person could not train by themselves and attain that level of skill, however.”

“This is a youth tournament. It is improbable that anyone without a master can become that strong at such a young age,” he explains. “He would have to be a true prodigy.”

“Improbable, but not impossible,” you say simply. “The best way for you to find out would be to ask Man Tiger Pig personally.”

Bai Jiutian’s smile wavers slightly, though it remains on his charming face. “I suppose you are right.” The gong sounds – a winner has been decided. Nie Shuixian is the winner, but you had not seen how she won; you had been too distracted by Bai Jiutian.

“I shall take my leave now, Young Master Guan,” says Bai Jiutian with a slightly satisfied air about him. “I will need to congratulate my junior on her victory. Hopefully I shall be able to congratulate Mudan in her upcoming match too.”

***

The crowd cheers more loudly for you the second time you take the stage. You give them a comical bow of gratitude, soaking in their adoration. Opposite you, Nie Mudan is scowling, just as Yiling was. This is familiar; you don’t appear to have much luck with women, it seems. The pretty flower of Huashan is wielding a sabre, with a spear strapped to her back and a sword tucked through her waist sash. It looks like she will be holding nothing back. Still, judging from what you’ve seen of the fight between her twin and the masked fighter, you should be able to beat her. The flag rises and falls, signalling the start of the match.

“I don’t know who you are,” she says as she raises her sabre, “but I will not be defeated by some rogue that does not even dare show his face. If you are a real man, why don’t you fight without that silly mask?” You cock your head to one side, miming her yapping mouth with your hand near your piggy ears. Then, you effect a yawn and beckon at her to come with one finger.

Nie Mudan bristles at her failed taunt and throws no more words at you. She throws her sabre instead.

The curved weapon spins towards you. Drawing your sword, you deflect it, sending it circling up into the air. With a soaring jump, Nie Mudan grabs the sabre and chops downwards at you in one fluid movement. You parry her attack just in time, but the girl uses the force of your strike to leap away without her feet even touching the ground.

Behind you. You turn and block, but even as the blades clash she is already twirling away, moving around you for another attack.

The sabre slashes come fast and furious, never from the same position twice. Nie Mudan circles you with each attack. As you move to the side to get into position for defense, attempting to circle her in return, the two of you whirl across the ring, crossing blades constantly.

Nie Mudan’s sabre technique is quick and powerful; you continue to find few flaws to exploit, and the spinning is starting to make you dizzy. You come to a sudden stop. Grabbing the hilt of your sword with both hands, you swing wildly. The amateurish, unrefined move is easy for her to predict and parry, but she has underestimated your strength. You hit hard enough to knock the sabre from her hand, sending it clattering across the ground.

She recovers quickly. With a twirl, she draws the spear and sends it hurtling towards you. The precision of her strike is stunning – the spearhead hits the guard of your sword, wrenching it from your hand. Nie Mudan does not give you any time to pick up your fallen weapon, as she launches into a quick series of consecutive thrusts. You barely manage to evade her attacks by the skin of your teeth.

Feinting to the left, you step aside to the right to close in, but Nie Mudan casually swings her spear sideways. The shaft slams into your side, sending you stumbling.

Your opponent retracts the spear and follows through with alarming speed. The blunted spearhead is aimed straight for the center of your body. You find your footing quickly and sidestep again. The spear drags at your clothes, passing a hair’s breadth away from your skin.

This is your chance. Before she can pull the spear back, you clamp it under your arm. Clenching your fist, you bring it down hard on the wooden shaft, breaking the spear. To Nie Mudan’s credit, she does not waste any time. Even as she drops the broken spear, she has already drawn her sword and leapt towards you in a lunging stab. You grab hold of the spear head and defend yourself.

Her sword is much faster than her sabre, though it has less strength behind it. The quick moves are familiar – you remember Rong Zhiyu utilizing something similar in your deathmatch against him. Unlike his wild slashes, however, Nie Mudan’s swordplay is more refined and controlled even in its ferocity. She allows you little room to maneuver. Parrying a blow with the spearhead, you put some more distance between yourself and the Huashan swordswoman.

“Ha, are you scared?” she taunts, slightly out of breath. Her clothes have gotten slightly loose and dishevelled from her quick attacks. Your head is beginning to buzz slightly too – you wonder if is due to the Yuhua Duqing Palm – but perhaps outlasting her could be a good tactic, as long as you manage to continue evading. At any rate, you have not used any of your techniques either. Making use of your qinggong now would definitely take her by surprise.

***

A. You play keep away and go on the defensive, trying to make Nie Mudan tire herself out. You have no plans to show off your qinggong right now to anyone who might be watching. Even if you lose, you think it will be better for you to keep your trump cards a secret.

B. You use your Kuanglang Step and go on the offensive. All you need to do is succeed in a surprise attack to disarm her. Once she is without her sword your victory is assured. Winning is more important here than hiding your techniques.

C. This calls for devious cunning instead of brute force. You go for the strip – her dangling waist sash is an easy target. Stripping your opponent is not explicitly allowed by tournament rules, but it is not disallowed either. In fact, they don’t mention it at all. She’ll never see it coming.
 

十六 · Second Night of the Tournament

Second Night of the Tournament

As you slowly back away from Nie Mudan, her confidence grows. Seeing weakness, she eagerly springs at you. You duck under her attack and retaliate with a strike of your palm. She dodges to one side, her sash trailing…

Your fingers close around the silken fabric.

Then, you tug at it.

It comes undone easily enough. As Nie Mudan raises her sword to slash at you, her robes fall open, no longer held together by the scarlet sash that is now in your hand. Her eyes widen as you are afforded a glimpse of her undergarments. With a shrill, girlish shriek, she drops her sword to pull her robes together, hiding her pale, soft skin from your view. Nie Mudan crouches down, her face flush with embarrassment and anger.

You hold the sash up, looking at it and back at her, before giving her a mock bow of apology. Much of the crowd is laughing and whistling, but there are also shouts of outrage and indignation from the Huashan disciples. Standing a safe distance away from Nie Mudan, you relax into a casual stance. “I can’t fight like this, you scoundrel!” she mutters, her eyes brimming with tears as she clutches her clothes even more tightly. She knows your intentions. “Fine, I surrender! I give up!” shouts Nie Mudan indignantly.

The gong is sounded – it looks like the judges have decided to award you with the win despite your rather unorthodox way of claiming victory. You walk over to Nie Mudan, preparing to hand her the sash.

Suddenly, a hand snatches it from your grasp.

Bai Jiutian plucks the sash from you with ease as he glides towards his upset junior, having leapt towards the stage with his qinggong. The very picture of elegance and gentility, he gives her the sash before draping his outer robes over her to cover her shame. The crowd breaks out into loud cheers for him as he does so. There are screams of delight from many of the female audience members. His name is being chanted repeatedly, and there are occasional shouts for him to kick your ass. In an instant, he’s gained their adulation, reminding them that he is their former champion.

He does look the part of a dashing hero far more than you ever will, you must admit.

As the Huashan disciple turns towards you, you see that he appears to be upset.

“Perverted Man Tiger Pig,” he calls out. “The committee has deemed your method to be permissible, but in my personal standing as a senior disciple of Huashan and former champion of the tournament, I must register my disapproval with your tactics. I would have you apologize to my junior for your rudeness, but this tournament is greater than any personal grudge. I merely hope that in the future, if you still have any enmity towards Huashan, you do not take it out on my innocent juniors in such perverted ways.” With that, he scoops up the blushing Nie Mudan in his arms and exits the stage to the cheers of the crowd.

***

“So, remind me again… what is this all about?” you sigh. You had spent some time wandering about the city after the match to seek news of the people-in-black. Though you had not been able to meet them again, you have heard that they were continuing to attack people under the name of Zhang Jue’s disciple. When you returned to your room you had found a small banquet going on without you.

“I’m renting it out to you. I can do whatever I want,” grins Qilin. She had invited Cao’er, Yifang, Murong Yandi, Guo Fu and his wife to come over under her real identity, claiming to be a friend of Guan Shide’s. The tricky Miao girl has continued to keep her disguise as Xiaoxiang secret while progressing in the competition – you have heard that her Wudang opponent bowed out due to a touch of mild sickness that seems to have started spreading amongst some of the pugilists.

“Impure… you are impure…” mutters Yifang as she begins praying upon seeing your face. Cao’er, on the other hand, is looking at you like a snake would a rat. Her fingers float up to her waist sash, toying with the knot.

“Young Master Guan, we do not mean to intrude,” says Murong Yandi, “but my master came to me after the competition and had harsh words for me. He suggested that if I had made more friends, I would not have looked like such a fool out there. Coincidentally, Miss Chi came along afterwards, though when she made her invitation I was under the impression that it was your idea.”

You glare at Qilin, who sticks out her tongue at you. Giving in, you sigh loudly and take your seat. Guo Fu greets you heartily, happy to see you. His wife, Pu’er, bows politely, as she hands you a bowl of rice. You look at the rice suspiciously, wondering if Qilin had added anything to it.

Interestingly, Guo Fu had beat Murong Yandi. The swordsman had broken his sword against Guo Fu’s body, and in the end had tired himself out in a long match in which he could not find a way to knock out the big man. Guo Fu was not shy about revealing his technique – it was the famous Jinzhongzhao (金钟罩, Golden Bell Vest), a Shaolin neigong that could grant its user near invulnerability. He had learnt it from a mysterious wandering monk who had helped him save Pu’er from the clutches of a corrupt official collaborating with bandits.

Thus, instead of fighting Murong Yandi tomorrow, as you had expected, you would be facing Guo Fu.

For his part, Murong Yandi did not seem too upset about his loss, only that his teacher had berated him for his one-man performance against Taishan.

Qilin suddenly gets up. Walking behind you, she places her fingers gently under your chin. “What are you doing?” you growl.

“Were you hit by something poisonous?” she asks, frowning. “There’s something off about your complexion.”

“Well…” You had been hit by the Yuhua Duqing Palm, but you are not sure if you should tell her. You had originally planned to head out again at night to track down the people-in-black, but this could be difficult with a bunch of acquaintances in the way. You would have to wait until they were gone, or…

***

A. You share your knowledge with them and attempt to discuss the current situation with them to see if they have any insight.

B. You do not say anything. You will head out alone to seek out more information about the people-in-black after they have left the room.

C. You do not say anything. After they have left, you take the time to recuperate and instead prepare for tomorrow’s battles.

D. You do not say anything for now. You will approach Qilin later and consult her about this situation you find yourself in.
 

十七 · Day of the Tournament Semifinals

Day of the Tournament Semifinals

“I was attacked by someone claiming to be Zhang Jue’s disciple,” you say. “I must have been poisoned then. Haven’t you heard of the attacks?”

Qilin shrugs. “I have, but they are really none of my concern.”

“It wasn’t my husband,” says Pu’er quickly, anxious to clear Guo Fu’s name. She must be sensitive about the allegations thrown at him. “You know that, right?”

You give the pair a reassuring nod. “Of course. If it had been him I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. I know that you have been inconvenienced by the rumours of Zhang Jue’s apprentice. Have you noticed anything strange recently, Madam Guo?” She seems unwilling to talk, but surprisingly it is Guo Fu that speaks up in his calm, slow manner. “We were attacked by people last night claiming to be from an orthodox sect.”

“That can’t be,” interrupts Yifang in surprise. “Anyone fighting would be cast out of their sect. No one would risk it! Do you know which sect they were from?”

Guo Fu shakes his head. “I don’t know which. They did not say. Still, I managed to fight them off. That is partially why we are here tonight. It is safer for Pu’er.”

You briefly wonder if Qilin knew about this when she invited the two, but quickly discard the idea. She wouldn’t be that kind, would she? “You can stay here for the night if you want,” you offer, glancing at the one you are renting the room from. She doesn’t seem perturbed by the idea. “After all, I’m already paying for the room. Two more people won’t matter.”

“No, we can’t.” Pu’er shakes her head. “That would be too much hospitality from you, Young Master Guan. Besides, it might get you into trouble.”

“I’m already in trouble,” you laugh. “A bit more won’t matter.”

“Let us accept their kindness, Pu’er,” says Guo Fu. “Just for tonight.”

“But you are fighting Young Master Guan tomorrow!” argues his wife fervently. “What if-“ Too late, she realizes the insinuation of her words. She looks at you, horrified and shamed. “I am sorry! I didn’t mean to imply any untrustworthiness on your part!”

“Don’t worry about it,” you say, waving off her concerns. “It’s expected.”

“I must apologize on my wife’s behalf.” Guo Fu bows his head. “It is my fault for being too gullible. She has had to keep an eye out for me all this while, so she is rather sensitive about such matters.”

“I said not to worry about it,” you grin cheerfully while slapping the big guy on the back. “

“If… if it is a concern,” Murong Yandi speaks up, “perhaps I may be of help. Let me watch over Guo Fu and his wife. It is not like I have anything else to do. They can continue staying at their place. I think this is what my Master would want me to do…”

“That is great,” you say, “I’ll help you out and we can take turns.” If there is an attack tonight, it could be a chance for you to capture one of the assailants and interrogate them, no matter if they are connected to the mysterious people-in-black, or if they truly are orthodox sect pugilists.

“Oh, you won’t be doing that,” says Qilin airily. “You’ll be staying right here. You want to get rid of the poison, right?”

“Is it going to take that long? I think Cao’er already knows how to remove it.” You turn to Cao’er. “I think it was the Yuhua Duqing Palm. You’ve seen it before, right?” She peers at you closely, and then shakes her head.

“…it’s similar, but different. Not the same attack Granddad healed you from… the qi is crueller… more persistent.” She doesn’t seem to be able to articulate what exactly is different, but you will have to accept her diagnosis that it isn’t the Yuhua Duqing Palm.

“Yuhua Duqing…” mutters Qilin, blushing slightly. “I didn’t know you were the sort to eat, shoot and leave without paying. How scandalous.”

“I’ve never even been there,” you sigh. “But enough about that. I need to find these black-clothed weirdos. Don’t tell me you aren’t curious.”

“I am, but…” Qilin pauses and thinks. “No, we won’t accomplish anything by running around at night trying to find them.”

“Why not?”

“Luoyang is too big and there are too many possible targets for them to attack. They could be anywhere. Even with a hundred of us, you would have to get lucky to encounter them again. You are better off resting tonight.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a plan.”

“It’s advice. Sound advice, coming from an adult such as myself who thinks more clearly,” she grins. “Besides, why do you care if they start spoiling Zhang Jue’s disciple’s name?”

“Perhaps you should care too, seeing as you are fighting a mysterious masked fighter in the next round,” you retort. “With luck, they could turn out to be related, and you could end up in trouble too.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” says Qilin dismissively. “I don’t really plan to go up against her seriously anyway... it would be more trouble than it is worth. I’ve already completed my mission successfully and gathered enough information to work with.”

“Her?”

“Oh, a woman can sniff out another woman easily. My nose is particularly sensitive. Besides, I already spied on them fighting during the preliminaries – they are definitely foreign-trained. I’m not sure why they are here, of course, or why they’re hiding themselves.” It looks like Qilin has come to the same conclusion that Cao’er has from her own experience.

“How do you know that?” asks Murong Yandi.

“In my family business we encounter all sorts of people,” says Qilin unabashedly. “I’ve seen their style before… it is Persian. Really, all of you should get out and see more of the world. Whatever it is, I doubt they’re connected to Yuhua Hall of all places.”

After a while, Guo Fu and Pu’er take their leave – the girl appears to be getting tired after a long day. Murong Yandi goes with them, making good on his word to guard them. You are left in the room with Qilin, Cao’er and Yifang, having finally convinced the Miao girl to help you keep an eye on Nameless.

“So, aren’t you leaving?” you say impatiently.

“We still have to treat the poison in your body,” says Qilin.

“How do you plan on doing that?”

“You must be feeling numb right about now, aren’t you?”

You are.

“Don’t worry,” smiles Qilin nastily. “I took special care with your bowl. It wouldn’t have been mixed up with theirs. Of course, I had to up the dose to make sure you weren’t going to secretly run out on us to don your silly mask and prowl the rooftops after you started talking about mysterious criminals. Didn’t notice, did you?”

“Why… do you need… to paralyze me… for treatment?” You force out the words, resigned to your fate.

“Well, I didn’t originally plan it for treatment.” Qilin gives Cao’er a slight nod. “I owed her a favour. But I think we can do that another day, can’t we?”

Cao’er nods in return. “…Jing won’t be in good condition if he is poisoned. I’ll wait till he is recovered.”

“What are the two of you doing?” says Yifang fearfully.

“Right!” says Qilin cheerfully, energetic despite the hours growing late. “Little nun,” she calls out, “you might want to look away if you don’t want to break your vows.” Qilin and Cao’er begin stripping your paralyzed body, peeling away the layers of garments you have on you. The both of them are clumsy about it, though Cao’er is giving off some rather concerning giggles as she does so. Yifang begins chanting a sutra loudly, her eyes shut tight against the impure activities taking place in front of her.

As you are rendered topless, Qilin gives a whistle of appreciation. “Looks like someone has been keeping himself in shape… and what’s with these scars?” She runs her fingers lightly across your scarred back in wonder. “Did you get it while training with Zhang Jue?”

“…no, it was already like that when I first met Jing…” says Cao’er. You certainly can’t reply anymore.

“Interesting,” muses Qilin. She flicks your back hard. “Now, Cao’er, shall we begin?”

***

Surprisingly, you feel much better on the day of the semifinals. Qilin and Cao’er’s less than tender ministrations were strangely effective, though it seemed to tire them out rather quickly. They had spent the rest of the night in Qilin’s room, dragging Yifang along with them – the poor nun seemed rather dazed after your treatment was over, probably having succumbed to temptation and sneaking some peeks at the procedure.

When you arrive, Qilin is already in her Xiaoxiang disguise and has blended into the crowd smoothly. She claims to have a plan in place to unmask Nameless, but isn’t telling you anything about it for now. You wonder if you should seek her out and offer any help you can. Murong Yandi and Guo Fu haven’t arrived either – they could just be late, but you are slightly concerned that they may have run into trouble.

Before you can decide what to do, however, Yifang walks up to you, her face blushing furiously as she remembers the events of last night.

“I-I bring word from the Abbess. She, Grand Taoist Zhengchong, and Abbot Fangzhang have summoned you. It’s about what you said last night.”

“You told them?” You stare at her. All of them had agreed to keep it a secret last night, including Yifang.

“Of course I told them. It is only right that we refer to their wisdom in such matters,” replies Yifang.

“You promised,” you point out, grinning slightly.

“W-well, I… anyway, I told and that was it! I’m sorry!” She looks even more similar to Cao’er when she pouts, finding no way to reconcile breaking her promise and her duties to the Eight Sects. It is not too much of a problem for you – you had expected her to inform the Abbess, at least, but Miecao bringing in the heads of Wudang and Shaolin is something you had not predicted. Still, you wonder if you should heed the summons.

***

A. You head off to try and help Qilin with her plan against Nameless before their fight. You are intrigued by this Persian fighter, and would like to see what you can uncover. They must have a reason for appearing in masks.

B. You are slightly concerned that Murong and Guo are still not here. You head out to find them, hoping that they have not gotten into trouble. The people harassing Guo Fu cannot be ruled out as being connected to the ones in black.

C. You heed the summons of the Abbess. This is not something you can turn down lightly, and an excellent opportunity for you to finally meet the two strongest martial artists in person. They might know something you don't.
 

十八 · Meeting with the Masters

Meeting with the Masters

At the inn where the sect’s masters are staying, you knock on the door to announce your presence. The Abbess’s voice comes from within, giving you permission to enter. You do so. Inside the room, Abbess Miecao is sitting together with an old Taoist and an elderly monk – they look to be roughly her age. To your surprise, the Beggar Sect’s Chief is also there, his ever-present gourd in his hand. You give them a deep bow, your hands placed together in a respectful salute. “Xu Jing, disciple of Zhang Jue, pays his respects to his venerable elders.” You doubt that they would not know of your real identity.

The monk – Abbot Fangzhang – frowns. “Wait, what’s this? That kid actually produced such a polite apprentice?”

Miecao nods. “Yes. It was rather surprising. I suppose he was born polite and Zhang Jue couldn’t beat it out of him, though he uses it well enough as a weapon.”

The Grand Taoist Wang Zhengchong eyes you for a moment, and then chuckles. “I don’t buy that. You are only polite to those you think will react better to politeness, aren’t you? I doubt you are naturally polite.”

“Isn’t it the proper way to communicate with people as they wish to be communicated with? A bit of politeness goes a long way,” you respond. “Exactly right,” grins Qi Liuwu, who seems to be very slightly drunk already even if it is only morning. He tosses the gourd at you, which you catch nimbly. “Which is why you should drink that. This is not a place to stand on ceremony.”

“I’m not sure what you mea-“ You begin, but the grandmaster of Wudang cuts you off with a laugh. “It means if you don’t take a good gulp you’ll be disrespecting us. This is not a place to stand on ceremony.” You stare at him and shrug, before taking a good swig from the gourd. It is rather good. You wonder how a beggar affords such good wine. Then, you heed his words and sit down without being invited to. The old men grin approvingly, though Abbess Miecao just sighs.

“So, what’s this all about?” you ask.

“Nothing much, really,” says Wang. “We were just curious as to how Jue’s disciple would turn out.”

“That’s all?” You don’t believe that they’d have called you in just to take a look at you.

“Of course not,” snaps Miecao. “There’s that matter of the people pretending to be you, going around attacking people in the streets.”

“That is a rather silly thing to do,” sighs Qi Liuwu. “If it was a show targeted at us, it was a bit ignorant.”

“Of course it was,” grunts Abbot Fangzhang in annoyance. “Zhang Jue wouldn’t have his disciple assault random, no-name disciples on the street. I know the kid well, he’d be a bit more arrogant about it, like sending his disciple out to beat down all of our best students at once. That’s more his style. Idiots might buy it but I certainly wouldn’t.” You attempt to change the topic. “I am curious – it doesn’t sound like you have much bad blood with my master, from the way you talk about him. I would have thought that the orthodox sects would hate him.”

Wang Zhengchong replies solemnly. “Your master is a killer and a dangerous man, there is no doubt about that, but there is not one of us here who has not taken a life in the past. It is not our place to judge his way of martial arts. As far as I know, he only uses his power on those already involved in the pugilistic world. When you step into the jianghu, you must be ready to risk your life whether you walk the orthodox or unorthodox path. Of course, in the orthodox sects we try to minimize that risk and avoid pointless loss of life, but the danger is still present. His methods are cruel but not entirely out of place. Besides, as his former masters we cannot lay the blame entirely on him… but that is not a story that concerns us today.”

“What the longwinded old fart means,” interrupts Qi, “is that everyone has their own path and we won't judge them outright without looking at the circumstances. I mean, take a look at me. I’m a beggar, but before this I was a prince. You have read about the civil war thirty years ago, right? It was before your time, but that war brought the current Emperor to power.” It is not spoken of much nowadays, as the Emperor had been keen to make his rule appear more legitimate by suppressing talk of him having seized power from his siblings by force, but you know of the war. You nod.

“Lots of my brothers died back then. I was a minor prince, never in contention for the throne, but I saw enough to walk away from it all. Now, the point I’m trying to make is, in the pugilistic world we should never try to judge a book by its cover, whether we are orthodox or unorthodox. There are always factors to consider.”

“But the orthodox sects tend to act self-righteous and lord it over those not in a sect,” you point out bluntly. They did say that you should not stand on ceremony.

Wang Zhengchong sighs. “Yes, that is a problem I have started to see recently. Those of us who fought against the Tujue in the war forty years ago, and in the subsequent civil war ten years later – we know what happens when ideals try to shape reality, or when pragmatism goes too far. We’ve tried to find a balance since then by guarding the country as best as we can, but I am unsure if it is working out well.”

“Yes, I am slightly ashamed to say this,” grumbles Fangzhang, “but even as the sect heads we cannot reach everyone. You can only teach those willing to learn.”

“Shouldn’t you lead by example?” you ask.

“Tried that,” shrugs Wang. “Sure, they listened for a while, but once my back is turned they begin acting up again. For example, that business with Shunshi.” The old Taoist frowns. “Never liked that hypocrite Song Jiangke. He tried to stiff me once when he lost a bet.”

“You know Master Yao?” You aren’t too surprised by this, seeing that the Abbess seems to be on good terms with them, and that Master Yao already has an acquaintance with Qi Liuwu.

“Yes, we met during the war. All of us did,” says the Abbot. “That sneaky little bastard Song Jiangke deserved what was coming to him. He knew Shunshi had his price.” He is being surprisingly bloodthirsty for a monk.

“It’s a good thing I’m a beggar and don’t need to bother with all of these silly hang-ups about reputation,” laughs Qi Liuwu. “Maybe you guys should resign your positions. Then you could go about beating up those hypocritical gentlemen running your sects.”

“That would just cause more troubles, but don’t think for a second I haven’t been tempted to knock some sense into them in the past ten years, Liuwu,” grumbles Wang. “Unfortunately the generation after ours is lost. They have reached that age where they think they are wiser than their elders and more experienced than their juniors. We need to let the younger generation take the lead here. Besides, cleaning house now would mean all the burden of running the sect falls on us again, and possibly disastrous to the other members of the Eight Sects where they don’t have leaders ready to step up. I mean, I don’t want to have to end up running their sects for them too.”

“Wait, you mean in the end you aren’t doing it because you’re lazy?”

“W-well- not exactly. As I said, I do not judge the path that people take. Persuading people by force is not really my way.“ the Grand Taoist falters as he gives his excuse. After this meeting, you think the dignity and reputation of the Eight Sects’ grandmasters will never be the same in your eyes again.

“Ha! The boy got you there, Zhengchong,” grins Fangzhang. “I run a tighter ship at the temple, but perhaps you should begin paying more attention to things going on around you, my dear Taoist friend. Still, we are all only human. Boy, please forgive us our weaknesses and sins.” He takes a long good drink of wine, certainly breaking the monastic prohibition against alcohol without shame.

“If Xuzhan saw this…” you murmur to yourself.

“Yes, I heard that someone fitting your description led them out of the red-lantern district. Now why did you do that, after I had painstakingly given them the directions there in the first place?” says the venerable Abbot of Shaolin.

“You mean… they weren’t lost?”

“Oh, sure,” snorts Fangzhang. “They think they were lost because the great grand Abbot would never give them directions to a den of lustful sin. I say that a monk must seek out temptations and fight them. Cloistering yourself in a monastery makes you weak.”

“As I recall,” muses Wang, “back in the day you never even made an effort to beat temptation after shaving your head. What was that the girls at Yuhua Hall used to call you? Iron Shaft? I distinctly remember you showing off the Jinzhongzhao by having them attack your-“

“Shut up, damn Taoist bastard,” snarls the Abbot, “you weren’t much better, what with your Taiji F-.”

Abbess Miecao slams her palm on the table, cracking it. “That is very much enough out of you idiots,” she says coldly. “Can we get to the actual topic of discussion now and stop shaming yourselves in front of those who are supposed to look up to you?” You think it is a little too late now for them to regain any form of dignity.

“Right,” coughs Wang Zhengchong. “About Yuhua Hall… I believe that has something to do with the current situation?”

“Yes,” nods Miecao. “Yifang told me that Xu Jing seems to have been hit by something similar, and it was not the first time.”

“I doubt they are actually involved,” says Wang. “The Madame of Yuhua Hall is a personal friend of ours. They do not get involved in matters of the pugilistic world, as a rule. I suspect if there is any connection, it is via a rogue courtesan, but of course we have not had much contact with her recently.”

“We could change that,” says the Abbot, slightly too eagerly.

“I think,” you say slowly, “that having the Shaolin Abbot walk into a brothel might really shock certain people.”

“The boy speaks sense,” says Miecao, “so stop acting like fools for a while and be serious. We can deal with Yuhua Hall later. Now, why do you think they used Zhang Jue’s name in attacking our people?”

“Rather simple in my opinion,” says Qi, “they merely wanted to unite the orthodox sects against him. I suspect that we have someone in our ranks working with these mysterious assailants. Xu Jing obtaining that invite was not a matter of coincidence.”

“I agree,” says the Grand Taoist, turning to you. “They wanted you here. As the Southern Maniac’s disciple they had expected you to act like your master, walking in brazenly and possibly maiming one or two arrogant fools who decide to bite off more than they can chew. They were probably prepared to provoke you into doing something foolish.”

“But when you didn’t appear,” he continues, stroking his beard, “they decided to fall back on another plan. I hear someone else is rumoured to be Zhang Jue’s disciple – a rather promising lad by the name of Guo Fu. Of course, the boy looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly, not on purpose at least, but with the right triggers he could be made to serve their purpose. At the very least, they are trying to stoke outrage against Jue. And if they succeed…”

“There would be people seeking to band together and bring him down by force of numbers, citing him as a threat to the pugilistic community?” you say.

“Exactly that,” beams Qi Liuwu. “But what would happen if they attacked Zhang? How do you think your master would react?”

“He’d slaughter most of them. No offense, elders, but besides the people here in this room, I doubt there are many that could defeat him. My master is strong.”

“That he is,” says Fangzhang. “That kid has always been a brutal fighter. He has absolutely no understanding of the concept of holding back.”

“And when that happens,” says Miecao, “the leaders of the Eight Sects would be forced to act. After all, we are the only ones that can bring him down, but I am afraid at that point they would ask for his head… I see. This could be what they are aiming for.”

“But why do that?” you ask. “What is the purpose of it all?

“Unfortunately I’m not sure about that,” says Wang. “They could have some deeper motive for doing so, but it is out of my calculations for now. When it comes to that point, it would be impossible for us to talk them down, not even with our influence, but I would not wish to kill Jue over something I know that was ultimately not his fault. I think it is more important that we do not let things progress to that stage.”

“I agree,” says Qi. “For now I will have my beggars gather any information they can. Do you have anything else that can help us, Jing?” You wonder if you should reveal the initial encounter with the woman-in-black, and the attempt on Shun’s life, but decide against it. You are not yet willing to reveal any part of your connection to the Imperial Palace – that might drastically change their behaviour towards you. You shake your head, and the beggar chief nods. “Then that’ll be it for now.”

“We might need you to reveal your identity during the tournament, if things get to the point where we feel they may begin rounding up people for an assault on your master. We will vouch for you if necessary,” says Wang abruptly.

“Are you sure that is okay?” you ask.

“Oh, I am sure you can think up a suitably theatrical way to do so.” His eyes twinkle with amusement. “You’ve brought the most fun to the tournament in years. I am glad I decided to visit this time around. Usually we don’t bother. Too many years of that insufferably uptight Huashan prig winning. I swear, he and his master are cut from the same cloth.”

“They are upright men, are they not?”

“There’s such a thing as being too upright,” says the Grand Taoist. Then, he adds darkly, “When upright men push their righteousness too far, they tend to get people killed for their own ideals, from my experience.”

“Do you suspect something about them?” you probe.

The Abbot laughs when he hears your question. “Never trust a guy so clean that his clothes shine. We don't get to live to our age without learning that. Unfortunately, we can’t interfere directly with other sects, or I’d give that Bai Jiutian a spanking to loosen his spine a bit.”

“Perhaps I can give it on your behalf,” you offer with a sly grin.

“Oh?” Fangzhang’s eyes gleam. “Now that would be interesting to watch.” There is a similar glint of interest in Wang Zhengchong’s eyes. “Yes, I do remember something about your match against Emei’s Yiling,” says the Taoist suddenly. “Are you actually using Zhang Jue’s neigong, the Wushuang Bawang Skill (無雙霸王功, Peerless Conqueror Skill)? I don’t think so, right? It felt different.”

You hesitate to tell the Grand Taoist, but with a blur of his hand he hurls a cup at you. You instinctively reach to grab it before it smashes, but as your fingers close around the cup, you find that Wang Zhengchong’s hand has gripped your wrist. You feel him pouring energy into you, probing the depths of your inner strength. Unlike Master Zhang’s qi, the Grand Taoist’s is calm and still, almost imperceptible in its flow despite its vastness.

Your Yuanshi Hundun rises uncontrollably, attempting to repel the intruding qi. Wang Zhengchong’s eyes widen as he lets go of your wrist. Then, he laughs loudly. “Of all the things to discover today, this is the best! I have been meditating for the past ten years for an answer as to whether anything lies beyond the Way, and today it has appeared in front of me.”

The other old people in the room stare at him. “Well, no stopping him once he gets like that,” mutters Fangzhang.

“Xu Jing,” says Wang Zhengchong excitedly, “do you have any idea what you possess?”

“Uh,” you reply nervously, “a heresy to the Way? That is what Master Zhang said.”

“Hah, that is what he would say. No, this is an answer to my prayers. The heavens smile upon me. This is something I have been seeking for decades, something to push the boundaries of knowledge in our universe!”

“And… what does that mean, exactly?” you ask.

“I have absolutely no idea,” says the Grand Taoist with a straight face, “I need to meditate for a few more years to grasp the magnitude of this discovery.”

“Wait,“ begins Miecao, “You can’t be-“

“I’ll be leaving things in your hands, my friends,” says Wang Zhengchong as he gets up. “I’ll be returning to Mount Wudang to meditate in seclusion. Farewell!”

In the blink of an eye, the Grand Taoist is gone, leaving behind an open window.

“Oh no, not again,” grumbles Miecao. “The last time he did that he didn’t come out for ten years. Anyway, it looks like this meeting is over, since the supposed leader of the pugilistic world has left the building. We’ll update you if anything important turns up, Xu Jing.”

She gets up and leaves the room. The Abbot leaves next, but not before giving you a smile of approval and whispering, “Good job with the stripping, lad.” Finally, Qi Liuwu comes to you. “Have you been practicing the Xianglong Palms that I taught you?”

You give him a non-committal gesture. “It’s only one move, Master Qi, though it is a useful one.”

He looks puzzled. “But I showed you the full set!”

“Unfortunately,” you say humbly, “I’m not smart or perceptive enough to pick up the entire set in just one glimpse.”

“That is a shame,” sighs the beggar chief. He looks around him furtively, then throws you a grin. “Well, there is no one around right now, kiddo, so…”
 

十九 · Tournament Quarterfinals: Guo Fu

Tournament Quarterfinals: Guo Fu

By the time you make your way back to the tournament area, Qilin’s match is over.

“Feeling alright?” you ask.

“Oh, you are being concerned about me?” Qilin flutters her eyelashes, though the effect is much lessened in her plain disguise. “Amazing. The stupid boy has a heart after all. This is a day to be remembered!” She had lost her match rather quickly, whatever plan she had failing to work out.

“It’s not like I feel bad about it or anything. I didn’t beg you to help. You could have turned me down,” you say quickly. “I only want to make sure I won’t get hit by whatever it is that beat you.” Qilin chuckles softly, before telling you what you came here to find out. “Well, she was beyond my ability to fight in a proper duel, after my initial trap failed. I underestimated her agility and she was cunning enough not to fall for most of my tricks. That, and the tournament frowns on using snakes in a fight. The girl is good, though if you give me a week to prepare I could probably plan a proper plot to drug her and leave her nicely bound up in your bed. In terms of technical ability, I would put her close to Yifang’s level. What is more problematic, however, is her neigong.”

She scratches her chest, where she had apparently been hit. Qilin had been downed with one good strike a few minutes into the match. “I said her style was Persian, but now I can be a bit more specific. Her martial arts hail from a particular group… a Zoroastrian fire cult. They have been making inroads into the Central Plains for a while, but the Eight Sects probably don’t know about them just yet. My uncle has had dealings with this particular cult in the past. That’s all I can tell you about. The rest are family secrets,” she winks. “At any rate, in a contest of neigong she could possibly beat most people here except for that big dumb ox. I doubt any of the young pugilists around have enough skill to neutralize her particular technique. Her qi is fiery and burns. In fact, I’m still feeling a bit hot.” As if to illustrate her point, she loosens the front of her vest and flaps it modestly enough not to reveal anything, yet open just enough to allow you a good view of her low neckline. Her eyes are daring you to look.

“You are just a perverted exhibitionist, aren’t you,” you say.

“You’re the one that was going around shirtless last night,” she replies sweetly.

“Should I empty this gourd of water over your head?” you reply.

“I prefer to fight fire with fire. When I feel hot, I want something to hug to warm me up and comfort me.”

“Get your snakes and toads to do that.”

“They’re cold-blooded, stupid boy.”

“I’m leaving the water here. Cao’er mixed some cooling powder into it,” you say as you put down the gourd by her bed and leave the grinning girl hurriedly before she can taunt you further.

***

Yifang’s match with Xuzhan had ended in a rather anticlimatic way. The young monk had found himself utterly unable to strike a girl, let alone a very beautiful one. He had frozen up in the opening seconds of the fight and found himself sitting outside the ring before he could say anything. You suppose that Abbot Fangzhang does have a point in monks needing to train to fight off temptation instead of avoiding it. On the other hand, you think that if Xuzhan was anything like the Abbot, Emei would be feuding with Shaolin over this match before the week was out.

Murong Yandi and Guo Fu had arrived during your talk with Qilin. As it turned out, Guo Fu had been attacked. Thankfully the Sword Saint’s disciple was there and fended them off with ease while Guo concentrated on protecting his wife. Between the two, and the Emei nuns that arrived in search of them, they made it to the tournament area without any further problems. Things may have gone a lot worse if Murong Yandi had not been there. He was extremely embarrassed when you thanked him for his help, but stated that you still shouldn’t let your guard down. They may still attack after this. You would probably have to get more help from the heads of the sects to protect Guo Fu – but you can discuss that after today’s matches. The conspirators don’t seem to have tried anything within the tournament area so far.

Right before your match, Qi Liuwu appears. The head of the Beggars’ Sect walks up to you with a serious face. He places his hands on your shoulders firmly, his eyes gazing at you sombrely.

“The Abbot and I just made a bet for a lot of money. Do not fail me.”

“You are a beggar, and he is a monk. What money are you talking about?”

“Money is where you find it,” replies Qi, “Thus goes one of the Beggar Sect’s creeds... I think. Now, remember, don’t lose.” He gives you a very urgent look before walking off.

***

Finally, it is time to face off against Guo Fu. Entering the ring with your customary pig’s mask to the cheers of the crowd, you wave at them. There are a few more hecklers asking you to strip Guo Fu down to his bare butt. You turn to your opponent, the hulking lad who looks like he could rip you with the barest effort. He gives you a kind smile, bowing. You return the favour.

As the match begins, you carefully keep your distance. Guo Fu squares off into a stable stance, awaiting you to attack. You have not had the opportunity to analyze any of his matches, but you know that he has high stamina and defensive ability, and that his strength likely rivals – if not surpasses – yours. Getting caught would be a problem.

Guo Fu continues to wait for you, steady as a mountain. Tapping your foot twice, you shake your doubts away and spring into action. He blocks your first blow easily, raising his arm to block your punch. The counterblow comes quickly – a kick. Leaping aside, you continue to press your attack. Guo is faster than you expected, but it is nothing you can’t handle. Your strikes, however, do nothing. He takes your hits straight on without even flinching. You are not fighting at full strength yet, of course.

After a few exchanges, you draw back. Guo Fu still has not budged a step from his position, all through your flurry of attacks. You decide to put a bit more power behind your blows. Closing the distance again, you slide under his punch and strike him in the belly. His muscular abdomen flexes as it absorbs your blow, and Guo Fu’s torso jerks back just slightly. He felt that one. Ducking an elbow, you strike again, but this time it does nothing. However, Guo Fu visibly concentrated and clenched his body right before you hit. Another direct hit confirms your suspicions. It seems that his Jinzhongzhao needs longer periods of preparation to summon the inner strength required to take greater hits. If you strike fast enough, hard enough…

You throw your entire body behind your next blow, sending a punch slamming straight into his abdomen. You feel Guo’s body lift slightly into the air. He stumbles back. The crowd roars, seeing the immovable mountain budge for the first time. Your opponent is still unharmed, however. He looks at you with a smile. “You’re really powerful, Man Tiger Pig. I am glad to be able to fight you.” Raising himself up to his full height, he stretches his muscular arms and takes a different stance. It looks like he will be going all out now.

“You’re a real monster, Guo Fu,” you mutter, smiling under your mask. He goes on the offense for the first time, rushing towards you. His attacks are slightly quicker this time, and more coordinated. Your first impression of his clumsiness seems to have been sorely mistaken. His fist techniques don’t seem to be self-taught or anything basic, but you cannot identify the school that it is from. The punches are straight and powerful, yet his footwork travels in a circular, sliding motion.

As you continue to exchange blows to no avail, your concentration begins to waver. You could do this dance all day and tire yourself out without hurting Guo Fu. Is there a way around it? You try to focus and think of a plan.

Your foot slips, unluckily.

Your distraction costs you.

A massive fist is hurtling towards you when you snap your eyes back to Guo Fu. Unable to evade, you raise one arm to block. With your other, you lash out with your Chuzhan Fist. You’ll only make it in time if you use your neigong. There’s no other choice. An agonizing pain radiates from your left forearm as the punch hits home. At the same time, your right fist smashes into Guo Fu’s chest with all your strength, both inner and outer. The both of you are thrown away from each other. You come to a halt nearly ten paces away from where you were, while Guo Fu is knocked off his feet – again, something that has happened for the first time in the competition. The crowd begins to cheer even more loudly.

As Guo Fu stands back up, you lower your left arm. It twinges in pain – from the sensation, the bones in your forearm are probably cracked from that hit – they may even be broken. Guo Fu gets up and resumes his stance, though his breathing is slightly more disordered now. He definitely felt that blow. He still seems rather happy to be fighting you, however. You think you can understand the attraction behind going all out, without the need to hold back.

Still…

The tournament official is holding his flag up, calling a pause to the match. Looking at you, he shouts, “Are you alright, Man Tiger Pig?” He is probably referring to the blow you took – it looks like he has rather sharp eyes.

***

A. You claim to be alright. It’s time to take this seriously. This is a good chance to go all out in a fight for once, in a fight against an opponent that can bring you down with a single blow. Guo Fu can take anything you can throw at him, and you should be able to improve your fighting skills if you do so. You can beat him. Besides, Cao’er can treat you. Probably. (Sword +1, Unarmed +1)

B. You claim victory by disqualifying Guo Fu for breaking your arm. You would like to advance to the finals and battle Nameless, the Persian fighter. It would be hard for you to do that if you lost now. It is unfortunate, but rules are rules and he just broke it. It would teach him the importance of holding back too.

C. You hide the injury and surrender the match to Guo Fu. This is as far as you go, sadly.
 

二十 · Tournament Semifinals: Yifang

Tournament Semifinals: Yifang

You nod at the tournament official to signal that you are fine, and turn your gaze back towards Guo Fu. He is patiently awaiting you, his hands held up in an open palm stance. You take a crouching stance in response, your back hunched over and your fingers curling into claws. Your left arm is still hurting you, but that doesn’t seem to matter so much now. You can’t help but grin under your mask as your fingers twitch in anticipation. Breathing in deeply, you allow your chaotic qi to flow through you freely. A turbulent warmth rushes forward from the center of your body and floods your extremities. You lean forward just slightly and kick off the ground without warning.

Guo Fu’s eyes widen as you cross ten paces in the blink of an eye. His massive arm shoots out in defense, but your approach is too low for him to hit. He misses the back of your head by a hair’s breadth. Your Shouwang Claws sweep towards his leg, hitting the side of his calf. It is as if you are attempting to dig into rock. A less sturdier opponent would have been thrown off his feet by the force of your blow, but Guo remains unmoved. You tumble aside as a fist thuds into the boards that make up the stage floor. There is a crack as the wood splinters. That blow would have ended the fight if it landed. Regaining your posture before he does, you pounce to the attack again.

Your claw arcs from the top and strikes him square on the shoulder, forcing one of his knees to buckle under the strength of your attack. In the next instant, however, Guo Fu throws you off with a shout. He is quick enough to follow up with a jab to your chest. That is trivial enough for you to evade, sliding under the punch. You retaliate with a Chuzhan Fist. It barrels into his abdomen, your tempestuous qi throwing off your aim. This time, however, Guo Fu is more prepared. Instead of being knocked down, you merely manage to force him to take two steps back.

You press your advantage, stepping forward and continuing to perform the first style of the Chuzhan Fist. Your blow strikes home again, forcing him another step back. As you throw your third punch, Guo suddenly leans forward, taking your fist right in his chest. You see him visibly wince; you may have cracked a couple of his ribs with that blow.

Even so, his goal is achieved. He grabs your right arm before you can retract it. With his other hand, he prepares to deliver a knockout blow.

You try to tug your way out of his grasp, but he is too strong, and no amateur at grappling either. His grip is firm. His fist drives towards you. There is no more time to evade.

With your left hand, you draw your sword in a reverse grip. Guo Fu’s punch strikes the blade of the sword, pressing it hard against your injured forearm. You fancy that you can hear your bones creaking even further, the cracks widening. Still, your block is successful. Flipping the sword around, you strike at his wrist with the sword’s hilt. The sudden attack forces him to let go. You toss your sword to your right hand and go on the offense.

Within a few blows, you start to understand how frustrated Murong Yandi must have been in his fight. You are not sure whether Guo Fu is equally impervious to an actual sharp blade, but he must have immense inner strength reserves to utilize his neigong to such an extent. More frighteningly, the more you attack, the less effect it seems to have on him as he draws upon more and more of his qi – and he doesn’t seem to be running out any time soon. Thankfully, your unpredictable and speedy movements means that he is entirely unable to mount a proper offense as long as he doesn’t catch you like he just did.

That isn’t going to win you the match, however. You are just going to tire yourself out like Murong Yandi did.

After putting some distance between you and him, you lunge forward with the Pine-Cutting Sword. Guo Fu’s gaze sharpens as he steadies himself and hardens his body. He shouts as your sword hits his neck. The blade breaks – it was shoddily made anyway and you saw it coming – but you take that chance to stop your momentum and instead swing away, striking Guo Fu on the cheek with the flat of the broken blade, stunning him for just a while.

You let go of the hilt and launch an all-out attack.

With just your right hand, you rain down wild claws on Guo Fu from all sides as you give yourself entirely over to your neigong, sacrificing precision for speed. Every time you strike, you change your clawed fingers into a gentle palm and follow up by executing the first move of the Xianglong Palms. That way, you find that you are able to control the direction and power of your subsequent claw strikes better despite your chaotic neigong. Given no time to recover, Guo Fu is slowly but steadily forced towards the edge of the ring, his own attacks meeting nothing but thin air as you bob and weave in between blows. His breath grows more and more ragged as your ceaseless attacks begin to disrupt his focus.

Suddenly, your erratic qi slows down for just a second. You miss a step. Guo Fu does not miss the opportunity. You find yourself again in the path of his powerful fist.

You will not be able to block it again. Your only option is to meet his blow with one of your own – the only move you can perform in time is to throw your most powerful attack, the Bloody Diamond Horn, with the left arm that you had been trying not to favour.

Your open hand meets his closed fist with bone-shattering force. Indeed, you do imagine you can feel the bones of your arm shatter as you do so. The pain is excruciating, but on the other hand Guo Fu is thrown back, lifted into the air by the force of your blow.

You jump immediately, going after him before he can regain his balance. Drawing your right palm back, you channel all the qi you can muster and smash it down into Guo Fu’s huge body. He slams into the floor, cracking the wood, and tumbles backwards in a noisy flurry of heavy limbs. When he comes to a stop, he has landed just outside the ring area. You drop to your knees as the gong is sounded, watching Guo Fu get to his knees looking extremely battered from your blows. His eyes seem to be shining with respect.

…You think you are going to need to have words with him about his stupid strength afterwards.

The crowd, which had been watching in tense silence till now, breaks out into a loud roar at your victory. The sound of their exhilaration echoes around the tournament area.

Then, you pass out.

***

When you come to, you are in the treatment area. Your broken arm has been bandaged and secured tightly. No one seems to be around. Well, no one, except for that perpetual annoyance Chi Qilin, who is still lounging around despite probably having recovered from her injuries. She grins at you, her face uncomfortably close.

“You missed a lot of things while you were sleeping,” she says.

“I missed a lot of things, but not you. What are you still doing here?”

She pouts and pokes you hard in the broken arm. “I’m still recovering, you idiot. Anyway, I’m sure you wanted to see Cao’er. She was here just a moment ago, treating your injuries. She says that arm is not going to heal completely by tomorrow, but she will make an effort to render it usable tonight. For now, you are not to move it at all.”

“My next opponent is Yifang,” you chuckle. “I don’t think I will need to.”

“What do you mean? Are you going to forfeit? Or do you have a plan?” She looks anxious all of a sudden.

“Maybe,” you say liltingly. “What’s the matter, did you bet money on me?”

“Don’t be such a tease!” she fumes. “Especially when it comes to money. What are you going to do next?”

“Why don’t you watch and find out? By the way, who removed my mask?”

She sighs as you change the subject. “Cao’er did. Interestingly, when the tournament officials were carrying you off, the Huashan and Taishan disciples were jeering for you to be unmasked. Of course, when they did that there were louder calls for the mask to stay on by the rest of the crowd. Luckily for you, the tournament officials seemed more concerned with getting you to the treatment area. Cao’er took over rather quickly. I’ve never seen that girl so worried or so bossy before. She managed to glare the tournament officials out of the room in five seconds flat.”

“Well, I’m just surprised that she didn’t wait around for me to wake up,” you say.

“…of course I am around, Jing,” whispers a voice from behind you. You can’t help but freeze up.

“But-“ -you look accusingly at Qilin- “-you said she wasn’t here!”

“Oh, not my fault you only have eyes for me and didn’t notice your dear little physician standing on the other side of the bed,” giggles Qilin.

“…it’s okay. You can have his eyes. I’ll take… something else…” mumbles Cao’er.

You spend the rest of your recuperating time being toyed with again by Cao’er and Qilin.

***

Right before the semifinal match, Qi Liuwu appears again, grinning widely. “Performed just as I expected. Excellent work, kiddo.”

You raise your broken arm slightly in protest. “I do get a part of the winnings, right? Master Qi?”

“Ah… about that…” he looks away guiltily.

“I’m the one putting my body on the line out there, Master Qi.”

“Fair enough, fair enough,” he sighs. “The problem is, I put all our winnings into your next match.”

“Great. Did you bet with Abbess Miecao this time?” you groan.

“Oh, no. She wouldn’t take a bet nowadays, and she said that even if she did, she would be crazy to bet on Yifang against you. Apparently it’s not a matter of skill, but she thinks you are just naturally the worst match-up for that girl.”

“So, the Abbot again?”

“Yes. He’s really the only one who’ll bet with me now that Wang ran off to meditate. I’m going to clean that old baldie up to make up for all the other bets over the years. So… please don’t lose.”

***

The crowd cheers louder than ever for you when you arrive on stage with your bandaged arm. You give them a wave of acknowledgement, sending them into a frenzy.

This time, you are facing Yifang in the semifinals. The stage has been repaired in the downtime between matches. The pretty nun stands a fair distance away from you, her guard up. She seems calm and focused. Her gaze and stance are steady, a far cry from how she usually is, though she appears to be mumbling sutras continuously. You can tell that she would give you a good fight even when you are in perfect condition. With your broken arm and dwindling stamina, however, taking her on will be extremely difficult even if you do have a counter for her Qingcheng Stab.

It is probably for times like this that you kept that with you…

***

A. Use Item: Yifang’s Skull Cap

B. You think you would rather fight fairly. Surely she deserves better?

C. You decide to forfeit the match, citing your poor condition.
 

二十一 · A Challenger Arrives

A Challenger Arrives

Neither you nor Yifang make a move. Her sword is held steady as she keeps her focus pinned on you. The nun takes one step forward. You hold up a hand, stopping her in her tracks. As she looks on in puzzlement, you rummage around your garments. After a while, you whip out a folded, grey piece of cloth, which you hold out to her in an unmistakeably apologetic manner. Her eyes widen.

“I am sorry. I should not have stolen this,” you say, soft enough that the crowd cannot hear you clearly. “Your serious and earnest aura just now convinced me that I have erred in my ways. I see the light now.”

She relaxes almost instantly, a smile lighting up her face. “That is wonderful! I am glad you have repented. Let me teach you later about the wonders of the Buddha’s teachings!” Yifang comes towards you to take the skull cap back, but you stop her again once she is close enough. “Wait,” you say. “There is one last thing I would like to do.” Yifang looks at you with a puzzled, innocent smile. “Yes?”

Putting the skull cap to the pig’s nose of your mask, you inhale very, very deeply before letting out a satisfied sigh. The crowd begins whistling and jeering you in good humour, laughing at your antics. Yifang’s face turns red instantly. “G-g-g-give that back right now, you impure pervert!” she stammers, running towards you. You flee from her, holding the skull cap over your head.

The two of you begin running in circles around the ring as she attempts to snatch back the skull cap. “Why do you always act like this?” she moans, clearly frustrated with your recalcitrance. “Don’t you take anything seriously?”

“Let me guess,” you chuckle as you duck her grasping arms, “you thought that if you really beat me in a fight, I would listen to you?”

“Yes! You are arrogant and boastful and perverted. I wanted to show you that-“ –she attempts to grab the skull cap with a wide swing, but fails– “-that there is always someone better, so that you would be humbled and listen. If I beat you today… if I just beat you today…”

She comes at you with her sword, but her movements are sloppy and impatient. Her eyes are tearing up from your bullying. You suppose you shouldn’t go too far – you should stop before she starts crying. You dance back a few steps. Twirling the skull cap around your finger, you say, “So all you want is for me to listen to you, right? Okay. If you can get this back, I’ll listen to you for… let’s see, about an hour. I will sit quietly and consider everything you have to say seriously.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. I give you my word.”

“Then…” Yifang comes at you with renewed resolve. Her technique is keen and swift – her first stab would have hit you right in the chest if she was not aiming for the more difficult target; your hand holding her skull cap. You manage to draw back in time, but she presses the attack without pause. Even with your knowledge of how the Qingcheng Stab works, you find yourself quickly being pushed towards the edge of the ring. Her control over the technique is absolutely flawless; you find yourself thinking that the counter you had devised would probably work only four times out of ten, against an opponent of her caliber. If this had been a serious fight, where she was aiming to defeat you instead of getting the skull cap back, you would have certainly lost by now in your current condition.

As it is, you can predict where she will strike thanks to the treasure you have in your hand. Still, you won’t be able to hold out much longer. You slow down your movements, clutching your injured arm. A look of concern passes across her face, but it doesn’t stop her from closing the distance as she attempts to wrest the skull cap away from you now that you are in a vulnerable position. Clever girl.

In desperation, you toss the skull cap away, out of her reach. She leaps after it.

Yifang catches the skull cap and turns around to look triumphantly at you, but at the same time the gong is sounded, signalling that she is out of bounds. Her face freezes as she realizes a bit too late what you were planning. Silly girl. You bow towards her respectfully. “I will listen to all you have to say later, as promised.” Thankfully, Yifang isn’t as cunning as Qilin. That would never have worked if she was.

The crowd is in a good mood despite the anti-climatic end to the match, apparently humoured sufficiently by your antics.

As you are announced the winner, a young man comes running towards the stage. The tournament officials attempt to restrain him, holding him back. He seems to be wearing the uniform of a Huashan disciple.

“You!” he shouts, his voice ringing loud and clear, “You are Zhang Jue’s disciple, aren’t you? Man Tiger Pig!” There is an audible gasp from the crowd as they begin to murmur at this accusation. Yifang begins to come towards you, clearly worried, but you wave her off with a quick and subtle gesture of your fingers.

You take one step forward and stare silently at the Huashan disciple from behind your mask. You have not met him before, of that you are sure. He falters slightly under your wordless gaze before bravely continuing his allegations. “Your master killed my father! How dare you come all the way here in front of the honourable and noble Eight Sects when you study under such a cruel and murderous man?” The tournament officials continue to push him back as they do their jobs. The man is clearly disrupting the event.

“Wait!” calls out a man from the benches where the tournament committee sits. As he stands up, you recognize the clothes to be that of Kunlun. He appears to be in his early thirties, with a rather distinguished moustache above his lips. “Officials, free this brother of ours and allow him to speak. If indeed Man Tiger Pig is Zhang Jue’s disciple, he must at least face up to the sins of his master. That is his duty as an apprentice. We can afford to bend the rules for such a serious matter.”

The tournament officials reluctantly let go of the Huashan disciple. With a single bound he leaps onto the stage.

He shouts out his challenge, “My name is Yu Gan! Your master, the Southern Maniac Zhang Jue, killed my father Yu Bing. He was struck down without righteous cause and died a horrible death. I have trained all my life to avenge his death. Now that I know his disciple is here, I would seek a match to uphold my father’s honor! Will you respond, Man Tiger Pig?”

When he finishes, he places one hand on the hilt of his sword. You find funny that he is using the name ‘Man Tiger Pig’ so seriously in connection with the tragic death of his father at Master Zhang's hands. The crowd is waiting with bated breath, eager to see how you will react.

***

A. You admit to being Zhang Jue’s disciple. You don’t think there is any need to hide it now, after your conversation with the leaders of Wudang and Shaolin.

B. You deny being Zhang Jue’s disciple. You don't think Yu Gan's appearance is a coincidence. Someone is trying to lure you out, and you are not going to oblige.

***

1. You will fight him. Whether or not you admit to being Zhang Jue’s disciple, if he has come up on stage you can’t let him leave without the fight he wants. That would be rather impolite. Besides, it would serve as an easy reminder of your strength after your anti-climatic win over Yifang.

2. You don’t fight him. You aren't going to push yourself after managing to avoid a straight fight with Yifang. It may disappoint the crowd, but you can’t please everyone. You'll just have to talk your way out of the challenge.
 

二十二 · Before the Finals

Before the Finals

With a loud sigh, your shoulders slump and you step back from Yu Gan. You suppose that the gig is up. “Yes. I am the disciple of Zhang Jue,” you admit, loud enough for the audience to hear. A ripple spreads amongst the crowd at your acknowledgement.

“Very good. You admit it,” smiles your accuser grimly. “You have nowhere to run, Man Tiger Pig. Fight me here and now.”

“You want to fight me here?”

“Of course! Why else would I be here?” shouts Yu Gan.

“But I do not want to fight you here,” you say simply.

“Then you are a coward after all,” he snarls. “Is that what the disciple of Zhang Jue is? Everyone, take a look at this gutless wimp!” Yu Gan stretches out a finger, pointing it right in your face as he laughs loudly to the crowd.

“You misunderstand me, Yu Gan. I do not wish to fight you here because it would be dishonourable of me to do so,” you reply.

“Dishonourable – what are you talking about? Stop trying to find excuses and face me like a man! Not fighting me is dishonourable.”

“But you see, sir,” you say with a hidden grin, “You are angry and excited at finally being able to take vengeance for your father’s murder upon the disciple of the man who you say killed him. I can understand that feeling. I, too, would be just as emotional. However, I am sure your respected master taught you not to rush into a fight hotheadedly. It would not be fair to you if I fight you now, when you are not in your best condition.” You linger on that last sentence for a while, making sure that the crowd catches it, before continuing. “After all, is it not said that the wise man’s heart is as stable as the root of the world? Battle me when you are calmer, so that you may exhibit your full prowess in pursuit of justice.”

“I-I am calm,” he says quickly, slightly taken off guard at your sudden speech. “You will not trick me with your flowery words!”

“Are you sure?” you ask concernedly. “I would not want to take advantage of you, sir. In fact, if I am truly Zhang Jue’s disciple you must know my techniques are dangerous. Why risk your life impulsively? I am perfectly willing to take your challenge when you are feeling better.” The audience seems to agree somewhat with your sentiment. At least, they are not jeering you and chanting for you to fight.

“There is no need to wait. I am thinking perfectly clearly right now.”

“Are you really, really sure?” you ask again.

“I said I was calm!” he shouts, drawing his sword. It looks like he is ready to attack. “Whether you like it or not, Man Tiger Pig, justice will be served today. If I cannot reach your master, I will settle for teaching you a lesson!”

“...Is that so?”

The man takes a step back. You stand there, head half-cocked to one side in the silly pig’s mask, your posture loose and relaxed. Your sudden calmness is unnerving him.

“Y-yeah.” He grips his sword with both hands. “I won’t let you escape this duel.” It looks like he will attack you even if you refuse to fight, regardless of the damage to his reputation that it will do. There is a slight tremor in his stance, however. It looks like his instincts are up to the task of warning him. A cornered tiger is dangerous, even if wounded.

“Stop!” A familiar voice rings out across the stage. Its owner glides down to the stage gracefully like a white swan whose neck you’d gladly like to wring. Bai Jiutian. The crowd gives a murmur of approval. “Brother Gan, as much as I hate to admit it, Zhang Jue’s disciple has a point. You are being too rash right now. Do not throw your life away against this scoundrel.”

“Brother Jiutian, I cannot give up this opportunity to redeem my family’s good name! I will need to avenge our humiliation at Zhang Jue’s hands,” cries Yu Gan, clearly upset. Your words seems to have had the opposite effect of what you intended, inciting him instead of calming him down. “Even if it costs me my life to do so!”

He attempts to lunge at you, but Bai Jiutian holds him back easily with one arm. “No, brother! This will be unseemly. Besides, what good is it if you lose your life defending your father’s name? Your father would have wanted you to live a good life and continue the family line. That is your most important duty!”

“But-“

“Do not worry, Brother Gan. You are part of Huashan. When you entered the sect you became as family to us. I look up to you as if you were my own older brother. There is no need for you to fight Man Tiger Pig. He is Zhang Jue’s disciple, not Zhang Jue himself. This fight is beneath your level. Leave it to me. I will take on Zhang Jue’s disciple in your stead.”

The crowd roars in surprise at Bai Jiutian’s announcement, excited at the prospect of seeing him battle you.

“Not today, however,” he says loudly. “As we can all see, Man Tiger Pig is injured from his previous battles. We will have our fight here, at this very place, the day after the finals. As a member of the tournament committee, I have the authority to do so. Whether you win or lose tomorrow, Man Tiger Pig, you will need to be made to acknowledge your master’s misdeeds. We will not be fighting to kill. There is no need for more bloodshed… but I would have you kneel and apologize to everyone you tricked in this tournament, prostrate and apologize for the crimes of your master, and unmask yourself to demonstrate your respect for the pugilistic community, to swear you will not demonstrate such disregard for our feelings ever again. In return, you have my word that until the conclusion of our duel, no one else in the orthodox community will challenge you for their numerous grievances against your master and disrupt your tournament preparations. What say you?”

You whistle. “That is a very long list of demands.”

“You are free to make your own demands should you win,” shrugs Bai Jiutian elegantly.

“Unfortunately I cannot think of anything on such short notice. After all, I already had the fortune of witnessing the splendour of one of the Twin Flowers of Huashan yesterday. Anything I can ask now would pale in comparison to that,” you say. The crowd laughs despite themselves. Bai Jiutian’s face darkens, his smile turning upside down. “Still with that flippant manner, I see. Very well. Name your demands before the fight then. I would not have you crying afterwards claiming that I did not give you sufficient motivation besides defending your own honour,” he says coldly.

You turn to leave, but he calls out for you to stop again. Sighing, you turn around. “What now?”

Bai tosses a small pouch at you. “Medicine for your wounds. These herbs are extremely effective. I would have you in your best condition before our duel, so that there can be no complaints.”

Such a perfect gentleman. You nod in thanks.

“Well, okay. I am sure you are more than satisfied to have taken the limelight away from the finals tomorrow, so could I leave now?”

“I did not-“ begins Bai Jiutian indignantly, but you leave before he completes his sentence.

***

Later that evening, it is just you, Qilin, Cao’er and Murong Yandi. Guo Fu and Pu’er had been carried off by Wudang disciples led by Wu Jin, who had lost handily to the big lad but was impressed to the point of wanting to recruit him as a fellow brother. The Grand Taoist had mysteriously vanished before Wu Jin could obtain permission from him, but in the end he had managed to get confirmation from a senior Wudang disciple on the committee. Guo Fu promised that he would drop by later, however. Yifang had been summoned by the Abbess – according to Cao’er, she was to spend the night meditating in order to strengthen her mental discipline.

“…these are expensive herbs, Jing,” says Cao’er. “…golden fox leaves. They can heal physical wounds extremely quickly. You should be fully recovered by the time you fight with the white one if you use it. If not, by my skills alone I will only be able to restore some mobility to your arm in time for tomorrow’s match... it will not be fully healed for another week.”

“I can’t detect any traces of any poisons either,” says Qilin as she lies belly-down on your bed, feeding one of those extremely expensive leaves to her toad. “Of course, he might be using something I have no experience with, but I doubt such a poison exists. I never ingest anything of dubious source, though, so on the off chance I missed something - as unlikely as it may be - I do recommend you don’t use his medicine. I don’t trust that stuck-up prig.”

“I, for one, am still surprised that you are Zhang Jue’s disciple,” says Murong Yandi. “It gave me the shock of my life.”

“Why’s that?” you chuckle. “Did you cross paths with my master? I hope he didn’t kill any of your family.”

“Oh, no, of course not, but he has his… reputation. My master fought yours before. According to him, Zhang Jue was one of the few pugilists who could make him draw his sword in battle.”

“That’s not surprising. By the way, I have not met your master before. Do you think you could introduce us?” Yandi shakes his head sadly. “I’m afraid not. My master is a bit of a recluse. He doesn’t like talking with people, which is why he wants me to turn out differently.”

***

Tomorrow will be the finals. You will be facing Nameless, the Persian fighter. Then, the day after, Bai Jiutian has scheduled a duel with you. He seems rather confident of winning. You could skip his challenge, of course.

A. You spend time studying ways to defeat Nameless, based of Qilin’s first hand experience and Cao’er’s observations. You should focus on what is immediately ahead of you for now.

B. You spend time getting a headstart on preparing for the match against Bai Jiutian by consulting Murong Yandi. Since he came here to face the man, he should know something of his techniques.

C. You don’t care about the fights at all. You hit the streets, attempting to lure out the people-in-black now that you have revealed your identity as Zhang Jue’s disciple.

***

A. You use the medicine that Bai Jiutian gave you.

B. You do not use the medicine that Bai Jiutian gave you.
 

二十三 · Tournament Finals: Nameless

Tournament Finals: Nameless

In front of you stands your opponent, the masked fighter known as Nameless. The audience is excited and louder than ever. Two mysterious masked contestants – one of which has admitted to be Zhang Jue’s disciple and has received a challenge from the previous champion, while the other has exhibited a style of martial arts no one has ever seen in near flawless victories all through the tournament – it is no surprise that the final match would draw a larger crowd than usual.

After the both of you bow to each other, you spot the Abbot of Shaolin observing the match from his seat. You should probably try to win this one. Right before the match, Master Qi had made his customary appearance and happily informed you that both he and Abbot Fangzhang had decided to pool their money and bet on you for the grand finale. Something about showing those foreign devils what for, he’d said.

As the fight begins, you try to recall everything you know about your opponent.

The fighter is a she, under that disguise. She is likely affiliated with the other two masked fighters in the tournament, Faceless and Shapeless. Qilin has told you that her moves hail from a form of martial arts practised by a Zoroastrian fire cult – it is likely they all belong to the same organization. She is highly skilled, almost as good as Yifang. Both Qilin and Cao’er think Nameless is at least as fast as you are, though not nearly as strong.

She makes the first move, darting in to deliver a blow to your solar plexus. You parry her attack and throw your foot upwards in a kick that she dodges gracefully. Nameless steps back, her expression inscrutable behind that tiger mask. With a slight, mocking shrug, as if that exchange disappointed her, she dives back in again with a flurry of punches and kicks. You retaliate with the same, the both of you moving around the stage in a flowing dance of attack and counter-attack. She matches your speed with ease, finding more than enough time to give a reply for whatever you can throw at her. Your superior strength will be of no use if you cannot find a way to pin her down.

As the exchange of moves continues, you realize that she is steadily increasing her focus on your left side, where your defense is poorer thanks to your injured arm. A quick feint to your left causes you to overextend yourself, compensating too much for your injury. Nameless is quick to capitalize on the chance that she has created. Two solid blows land in the middle of your chest, forcing you back.

Instead of pursuing you, your masked opponent puts her hands on her hips and shakes her head wordlessly. The crowd cheers at this reversal; Man Tiger Pig is getting a taste of his own medicine and they are enjoying the show.

You scratch your head and nod vigorously in response, acknowledging that you have to do better. Taking a stance, this time you go on the attack. Cao’er had told you about a little quirk that Nameless seems to exhibit. She will always favour evading to her right, attempting to keep to her opponent’s left. Taking careful, measured strikes, you wait for your chance.

Even as Nameless takes a quick step to her right, narrowly dodging your straight kick, you have already predicted her course and begun your follow-up. A single elbow strike is all you can manage with your left arm, but it is enough to force her to block. Your attack crashes against her forearms, causing her to give out a single yelp of pain. Being the scoundrel that you are, you ignore a damsel’s cry of distress and act to compound said distress by lashing out with the back of your fist. Your blow breaks her guard, forcing Nameless to back off in a hurry.

This time, it is your turn to play to the audience. You wag a finger at her, sending the crowd wild.

Nameless raises her hands and claps it thrice slowly and sarcastically in response. Then, she rushes in to continue the fight.

After a series of blows, again you lure her into dodging right. As you launch your counter, you realize that you have been tricked. She is ready for you this time. Her leg snaps up swiftly in a powerful crescent kick. Cursing your carelessness, you redirect your efforts into defense just in time to grab her foot, stopping it from landing right in your flank.

You pull at the foot, trying to drag her towards you, but with a quick wiggle she frees her foot from the boot and hops away, leaving you with a piece of empty footwear in your hand. Before you can drop it, however, her other boot comes sailing towards you, smacking you right in the pig’s snout.

The crowd seems to really like that one, judging by their guffaws.

Nameless skips from bare foot to bare foot before settling into a stance and beckoning at you, daring you to make the next move.

You oblige.

The dance continues, as both of you circle around the stage without managing to get a firm upper hand on the other. Nameless is quick enough to evade your blows and skilled enough to prevent you from drawing your sword. On the other hand, her attacks aren’t powerful enough that you are unable to block them, unlike Guo Fu’s hammer-like punches. She is using her neigong to augment her strikes – with every hit you can feel a mild burning sensation where her fists and kicks land, but your own qi swallows up the effect quickly enough for it not to matter.

More worryingly, she seems to be getting faster and faster with every exchange, as if she is testing her own speed against yours. You are not sure if you will be able to keep up at this rate; Nameless could very likely end up being quicker than you are. It looks like she has been holding back throughout the competition... You have no choice.

Taking a deep breath, you exert your qinggong. Your steps become lighter and faster; your sudden burst of speed catches your masked opponent off guard as you manage to get behind her.

At this range and angle, even a lightly executed Chuzhan Fist should be enough to hit her. You drive a straight punch right towards her back.

She turns, surprised.

Then, she – somehow – somersaults backwards from her disadvantageous position before your fist hits home. As she lands, she immediately runs at you, faster than she has ever moved before.

It’ll be a feint. If you throw an attack at her right now, she will evade it and counter – she is ready for it. You settle backwards into a defensive stance.

It does you no good.

Nameless’s visage blurs as she darts to the side right before she gets into range, faster than your eyes can follow. This is a speed you cannot match. You try to turn your head to track her, something about her technique seeming extremely familiar to you.

That’s right.

There's no mistaking it.

Yinglang Step.

You know enough of the technique to prepare a counter attack, but the masked fighter has already flanked you with incredible speed, her palm hitting just under your ribcage. She unleashes her qi with that strike. The burning is intense. It is as if the churning, murky sea of oil that is your own qi was just lit up by a match. A searing conflagration scorches your body from within for just a brief second before your internal energy swallows it up, smothering it in darkness.

It looks like Nameless was expecting you to fall with that attack… her follow-up comes a split second too slow, as does your counter, from the unexpected strength of her neigong. The both of you evade the mutual attacks by a hair’s breadth.

Her uppercut catches the chin of the pig, tearing it off.

Your Shouwang Claws hooks the cheek of the tiger, ripping it off.

The paper-and-cloth masks flutter to the ground of the stage as the crowd holds their breath.

Your first thought is that you should have thought of that. A mask underneath a mask. Nameless is wearing an ornate, white porcelain mask that covers the top of her face, her straight black hair having come untied thanks to the force of your attack. Stylized fire is painted across the surface of the mask. Even with her face covered, however, you can tell that she is likely a peerless beauty.

A beauty that is decidedly not Persian, whose people you have seen before during your time in the court. Instead…

The corners of her lips twist upwards in a taunting smile full of mockery as she hops backwards, putting some more distance between the both of you. The match is still on, even if the both of you are now unmasked. Well, you more so than she is…

***

A. You have no hope of matching her speed – and having a chance of winning – without going all out and using Yuanshi Hundun in combination with the Kuanglang Step. If that is what you need to do to achieve victory, so be it.

B. You hold back on using your neigong; Nameless is not Guo Fu, and you could just as easily kill her or injure her too severely if you lose control at an inopportune moment. You will try to win without it.

***

1. If she is who you think she is… you attempt to engage Nameless in conversation. Perhaps it will distract her. Or perhaps it will distract you. Still, you need to know for sure.

2. You would rather focus on the fight instead. You can always talk to her afterwards, right?
 

二十四 · Amesha Spenta

Amesha Spenta

Still too fast.

She is still too fast for you to handle, even with your inner strength in play. The faster and wilder your attacks are, the more elusive she becomes, slipping away from your grasp and retaliating with a series of burning strikes.

Her heel lands square on your temple, jarring your head. The girl packs quite a powerful punch in that lithe frame, but you have no time to be amazed by her strength. You turn your fall into a tumble, rolling away from her to regain some distance. You take a defensive stance, keeping your guard up. Your head is still spinning from her kick. Your knees are beginning to feel weak. You don’t think you can take another hit from her and still stay on your feet. She paces around you like a hunter stalking her prey. Her smile still remains, her attitude confident. Still, you did not come here to lose. This is not a fight you can win by attempting to outdo her in the swiftness of your movements. You remember one of Master Zhang’s suggestions – he had plenty of those to give, though in context if you did not heed his suggestions you had a good chance of ending up heavily injured or dead.

You wait, keeping yourself perfectly still. Your calm exterior strikes a contrast with the muddled mess of qi that surges within you; it is a difficult posture to hold. Your very nature yearns to leap back into the fight and strike out at random, but you suppress that itching urge and hold your stance.

No wasted movements, said your master. Allow your qi to guide your movements, but do not give yourself over to it. Nudge it along your desired path… then throw all your power behind that strike.

Honestly… easier said than done.

It is a skill you have yet to master, but you attempt it anyway. You focus, watching Nameless make another run at you.

Will she feint to the left? Attack from the right? Or will she attempt a direct assault?

She’s too fast for your eyes to track – as she closes in you give up on attempting to predict her. Enough thinking. You spring into action, following your instinct. A frontal attack. That has to be it. Her arm whips around in a blur; her fingers clip your ear, drawing blood. Your sudden, forward movement has thrown off her timing. She will try to pull back and escape, but at this distance… Channeling Yuanshi Hundun, your internal energy surges up through your arms, lashing out at your opponent.

A nudge, to focus it where you want it to go. Then, you summon all your might.

The effect is not unlike that of forcing a wide river to flow through a narrow channel.

Your qi does not react well to being constrained and controlled this way, responding with an explosion of power that tears through your own body painfully. Your palm strikes her right in the center of her chest. You exert enough control to pull back at the last second, but the resulting force is still enough to propel Nameless across the stage and out of the ring.

Wincing as your muscles and tendons start the long and arduous process to self-recovery, you vow never to take up one of Master Zhang’s suggestions again unless it is absolutely a matter of life or death.

To your relief, while the crowd cheers your victory you see that Nameless has pushed herself up into a sitting position, though a trickle of blood runs down from her lips. She has definitely been injured by your strike. Strangely, you do not feel as happy about winning the tournament as you thought you would. You begin to walk over to the masked girl. If she is who you think she is… You begin to call out, “Yu-“

Your words die in your throat. Your feet stop.

A crippling fear washes over you. There is a strong killing intent aimed at you. Your instincts scream as you whirl to receive an attack coming from your side. Palm meets palm – your assailant is an older man, with most of his features hidden under a peasant’s conical straw hat. His cloak billows about him, revealing an ornate garment underneath not of Han origin.

In a split second, a raging conflagration invades your body.

Despite the nature of your qi, it is insufficient to fight back internal energy of this magnitude. You are blasted away from the man, in the same way as what you did to Nameless just a while ago. Though you land on your feet, the strength of his attack forces you to drop to your knees soon after.

This man is strong. He might even be the equal of Master Zhang.

“Do not touch the Holy Maiden,” growls the mysterious man in a low voice.

“I can’t know if she’s holy if you don’t even let me talk to her,” you respond. “Besides, I was touching her all through the fight-“

You regret your flippant words quickly enough as the man charges at you. Before he reaches you, however, a bright yellow-and-red cassock obscures your view. Fangzhang, the Abbot of Shaolin, stands between you and the intruder, looking every bit as impassable as a mountain despite his old frame. Your assailant does not pull back even so. He attacks Fangzhang head-on, striking out with his fist.

The Abbot meets his opponent’s fist with his head, pitting his bare wrinkled dome against hardened knuckles. There is a clear ringing sound, like the tolling of a great bell, as the mysterious intruder is thrown back. He gazes at the Abbot impassively, shaking his hand.

“The famed Northern Monk of Shaolin. This will be exciting,” he grins.

“Stop.” The order comes not from Fangzhang, but from Nameless. Surprisingly, the man acquiesces quickly, bending his knee. Two more behatted persons have emerged on the stage, the tournament officials and committee helpless to stop them. They offer a helping hand to Nameless, but she shrugs it off haughtily and stands straight up, staring at me. Then, she turns to one of her acquaintances and whispers something. The man nods. He removes his hat, and the rest follow suit. They don’t appear to be Persian, but neither are they Han; their looks are exotic and you cannot place their ethnicity. Turning to the Abbot and the audience, he introduces himself in perfect Han.

“I am called Vahista, Amesha of the great Fire Temple of Gushnasp. I have come to the Central Plains of the Tang as servant of my lord of the flame, to witness our Holy Maiden challenge your youths in battle. We have found you lacking.”

“She lost,” I point out loudly, to the laughs of the crowd. Behind him, the Holy Maiden’s eyes flash in irritation.

“Not to one of the Eight Sects’, who dominate the pugilistic world,” responds Vahista calmly. “Indeed, our Holy Maiden bested any of the Eight Sects’ disciples that stood in her way with ease. This shows us that your teachings are weak, and ours are strong. After all, students are only as good as their teachers.” He looks at the Abbot as he says that last word; it is clearly a taunt.

Fangzhang, however, remains unfazed and silent. You might have to revise your opinion of the old man now.

After getting no response from the Abbot, Vahista continues to address his audience. "We do not believe the Eight Sects are capable of protecting the people. If this is what their younger generation is capable of, there is no future for this country in ten years' time. The Eight Sects take and give little in return. They only maintain the status quo, never seeking improvement. How many villages have fallen because the inhabitants were unable to protect themselves in the absence of orthodox pugilists to defend them? On my way here I have seen dozens of small communities plundered by bandits in their moment of weakness. None of you can be everywhere at once despite all your good intentions. We aim to change the world for the better, that such tragedies will not happen again. The Fire of Gushnasp will show that it is a better protector for the people than the Eight Sects. We declare a challenge. Heed our words. Six months from now, the strongest fighters of Gushnasp, including our temple's lord, will be present at Heihu Valley. There, we will demonstrate our superiority over the pugilists of the Central Plains once and for all. We will do this after the manner of the Central Plains. I believe it is customary to arrange for a duel between disciples and masters of differing sects. That is how it will be done."

You curse inwardly. You had come with the intention of issuing a public challenge to the Eight Sects should you win, but doing that now, after the fire cult has issued theirs... that's only going to look silly. You are forced to abandon the notion now.

Meanwhile, the crowd is silent, not knowing how to respond to this sudden turn of events. Even the eloquent Bai Jiutian seems surprised by the challenge of the cultists. The eyes of everyone present, commoner and pugilist alike, turn to Abbot Fangzhang. As the most senior and respected pugilist present, he is their de facto leader. His response will be representative for them all.

After what seems like a long time, he grins, and gives a single, wordless nod. Vahista returns a slight bow, seemingly satisfied. Then, he focuses his attention on you.

"Young man, you are not a member of the Eight Sects', are you?" he calls out to you as you recuperate behind Fangzhang.

"Do I look like one?"

He smiles thinly. "No, you do not. I am sorry for asking such a silly question. You have a great power, and are unbound to any of the orthodox sects; if you are interested in finding out how you can use it to serve a better cause, we would gladly educate you."

"I've never been one to sit still and take in lessons," you reply.

"Pity," sighs Vahista. "We will be leaving the city now, but should you change your mind later today you may catch up to us at Wufushan. We will be there for a brief while before continuing to head west. Do consider our invitation." With that, the cultists leave, two of them supporting the injured Holy Maiden as they bound up a nearby building with their qinggong and vanish.

***

“Hm, I thought you would be brooding on the rooftop,” says Qilin, peeking into your room.

“Why would I be doing that?” you mutter, rolling your eyes. With the treatment Cao’er gave you right after the tournament, your wounds inflicted from the last fight should recover rather quickly, but there are still some niggling pains left in your limbs. Of course, your left arm remains rather stubborn – exerting yourself today has not helped its recovery.

“Well, you just look the sort to sit dramatically on the roof, watching the people mill about their business below as you loom over them brooding about all the bad things that happen to you all the time,” says Qilin airily as she lets herself in without asking your permission.

“That’s- do I really give off that sort of impression?”

“You do,” she replies solemnly. Then, giving you a grin that you don’t like the look of, she continues, “What’s the story between you and the fire cult’s Holy Maiden, then?”

“W-what’s what?” you sputter. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, an adult woman can smell out this sort of thing. I could tell, by the way you were acting. You know her, don’t you?”

“Maybe,” you mumble, “maybe not. It’s not any of your business.”

She giggles, leaning closer to you until you can smell her subtle fragrance. “Is it that sort of relationship, then? Star-crossed lovers?”

“Nothing like that. There is nothing going on there, so you can stop your wild fancies now, Miss Chi,” you say quickly, perhaps a bit more harshly than you intended. It has been a rather long day.

“Is that so?” She draws back, strangely surprised at your denial, yet with a weird smile on her face. You wonder if she’s planning something. “I suppose that is good too…”

“I’m sure you didn’t come here just to ask about the Holy Maiden.” You finish packing your things – you will be leaving by tomorrow at the latest. Qilin shrugs. “I thought I would come and offer Xiaoqing to keep you company –“ –her snake pokes its head out of her collar and hisses – “–if you were feeling down or something. You seem fine, so I’ll save Xiaoqing the trouble. What do you plan to do tomorrow, though? You have a fight with Bai Jiutian, right?”

You do. It had slipped your mind, with what had happened during and after the final match. You had won the tournament, earning the crowd’s applause. Your reputation had risen with some sects, but Vahista’s parting words to you have sowed the seeds of suspicion in others. You had plenty of taels now, a gleeful monk and beggar having finally given you your fair share of the winnings. You even laid your hands on a Shaolin technique manual, though when you browsed through the Yingzhao Fist (鷹爪拳, Eagle Claw Fist) manual it ended up being surprisingly similar to the Shouwang Claws you already knew. As a basic technique there was not much you could learn from it, but you should be able to incorporate the Yingzhao moves into a third style of the Shouwang Claws.

Murong Yandi had been dragged out of the city by his teacher right after the tournament – you did not have the chance to say goodbye to him. The Abbot and Qi Liuwu had left too, now focused on preparing for the duel with the Fire Cult. Guo Fu would be returning with the Wudang disciples tomorrow, as will Cao’er and Yifang with the Abbess and Emei. You are not sure where Qilin is going, but you doubt she will remain here.

There is nothing left for you to do in Luoyang, now that the tournament is over. All that remains is to address Bai Jiutian’s challenge.

***

A. You will turn up tomorrow to accept Bai Jiutian’s challenge. You aren’t one to back down from a fight, and you doubt that you can’t take him on.

B. You turn up tomorrow to reject his challenge publicly. There are words you would have with him now that you do not need to bother hiding your identity.

1. You do not return the golden fox leaves. They are valuable and you might have a use for them. Who cares what he says?

2. You return the golden fox leaves. He will not be able to say that you stole his medication and dodged his challenge.

3. You return the golden fox leaves. Qilin, however, has suggested a little something extra with it – an itching powder she cooked up. Nothing lethal, but extremely irritating…

***

C. You do not turn up, opting to leave the city quietly.

1. If you are to catch up with the fire cultists, you must leave tonight to get to Wufushan in time. You head there – you are interested in what they have to say.

2. West is not where you want to go. Your paths will cross again. In the meantime, you have business at Yuhua Hall that has been neglected far too long.
 

二十五 · Leaving Luoyang

Leaving Luoyang

There is a rather sizeable throng awaiting your match with Bai Jiutian. At the centre of the stage you see the man himself waiting patiently, the perfect picture of a refined gentleman. The duel had been scheduled a few hours past daybreak, but the sun was now approaching its zenith. Even the calm and composed Bai Jiutian is already sweating from standing in the heat.

A twitch of irritation passes across his face. You decide to reveal yourself – the crowd is getting restless. Standing up from your shaded vantage point on a nearby roof, you call out to your opponent. The crowd begins to murmur as all eyes are drawn to you.

“You are late, Man Tiger Pig. What are the limits of your irresponsible ways?” Bai Jiutian replies loudly, shading his eyes as he looks up at you.

“My apologies for this late arrival, Young Master Bai, but my wounds from facing down the Fire Cult have yet to heal. I spent most of the morning unable to walk.”

“Did the medicine I give you not help?” he asks suspiciously.

“About that…” You throw the pouch at him. Bai Jiutian catches it, turning it around before his eyes.

“I am not sure why you thought wormtail leaves would help my recovery,” you continue. “Those are useful for fevers and the like, but hardly suitable for injuries of the limbs.”

“Wormtail leaves?” Bai Jiutian is surprised and angered. “I gave you golden fox leaves as a mark of my goodwill!” Opening the pouch, he rummages within and picks out a shining leaf to prove it to the crowd. “There!” He seems to be slightly relieved to see the leaves he gave you for some reason.

“Oh, I am truly sorry for my ineptitude, Young Master Bai,” you say. “I am not a well-studied person. Still, you cannot blame me. Wormtail and golden fox have a similar colour when dried, and I was not expecting to see something as valuable as golden fox leaves. I did not think a Huashan disciple could have afforded to walk around with such expensive medication, let alone give it away to someone he considers a foe. My presumptuous nature has caused me to behave in an unsightly manner, it seems.” You lower your head in an apologetic manner.

“I… No matter,” grimaces Bai Jiutian. “It was not something I bought. It was a precious gift from a precious friend, and I would gladly use it to preserve the honour of Huashan, even if it would have been wasted on a scoundrel like you.”

“It is good thing that it was not wasted then,” you shrug.

“Are you going to come down and fight me, Man Tiger Pig? For that matter, why are you still appearing with that mask?” he challenges, going straight to the point.

“This?” You tap the side of the mask – tiger-striped pig’s masks have become rather popular with the roadside stalls since yesterday. It was no trouble getting one. “It’s become a habit. The mask makes me feel safe.” In truth, you only did it because you know it will irritate him further to look at that mask.

“It makes you look like a coward,” taunts Bai. “Will you come down and exchange moves with me now?”

“I would, but I won’t.”

“Truly a coward,” sneers the man. The crowd begins to jeer at you.

“You misunderstand me, Young Master Bai. I do not wish to fight you simply because I do not wish to injure you. Everyone knows that Zhang Jue’s techniques are cruel and lethal. Should I harm you by accident…”

“You will not lay even a finger on me,” he replies confidently. “The swordplay of Huashan is beyond your ability to defeat.”

“Yet I laid my hands on your junior’s sash.”

“Only because you, Man Tiger Pig, are no gentleman.” But he pauses for a while, uncertain – if you had a trick up your sleeve, there was still the chance that you could hit him. He is not so blind as to deny that possibility.

“I fear only the rare probability that a misjudged attack might wound you, Young Master Bai. I would not tempt fate. It takes only one stroke of misfortune to ruin a man’s life forever. Indeed, if you were injured, who would lead the ranks of our generation in the battle against the Fire Cult?”

The crowd murmurs their approval. It seems like they already do see him as their leader. Bai Jiutian himself seems slightly thoughtful as he considers your words. His gaze falls downward, probably calculating the risks and honour at stake.

“Even though I may be the disciple of Zhang Jue, neither of us are aligned with these cultists’ interests. They are an intruder into our way of life,” you say. “Under their rule the pugilistic world would be forever changed. Is it so hard to believe that I would not like to see their victory any more than you do?”

Bai Jiutian looks up. “There is no evidence that you are telling the truth-“ He finds himself talking to empty air, as you have slipped off while he was lost in thought. You have no time to debate him right now – you suspect that his intentions in this are not pure, and he would force you into a fight regardless of what you said should you stay there for too long.

***

You board a barge down the Grand Canal after bidding goodbye to Cao’er, Yifang and Guo Fu by the riverbank. You reminded Cao’er of your promise to pick her up at Emei, but it seems that you had no need to do so – she has been counting down the days till your probable arrival. Yifang reminds you that you owe her some time, but she says that she will not make good on that claim right now, though she does not give a reason why. Guo Fu and his wife thanked you profusely for all you have done for them – thanks that you receive with some embarrassment. Now that he is a Wudang disciple, his livelihood should be assured. You told him to convey your regards if he should meet the Grand Taoist Wang Zhengchong, and to look after his wife even while training hard in martial arts.

Qilin was not here, but that wasn’t surprising. When you woke up this morning you found a small letter addressed to you lying by your pillow. In it, she said that she was returning south to her ‘family business’ in order to get a better grasp on recent events. She also left you a sachet of Five Poisons Special Powder as a sample of her work, which she claimed to be her own modification of a bread-and-butter Wudu Cult product after doing some testing here. She describes it as a type of poison that causes the victim to go into seizures without inflicting permanent harm.

Of course, she also took some taels from your pouch while you were sleeping as compensation. Apparently it wasn’t a free sample.

***

You stop by Xuzhou on your way to Yangzhou – the barge will hold here for a day or two while they take on and unload cargo. Giving Scholar Jiang’s residence a wide berth, you head towards Luoying Manor.

As always, Lady Ji is there, a constant, unaging presence. She invites you in kindly and has her maids bring you to the inner courtyard before mysteriously disappearing off somewhere. At this time of the year the Manor does not get many visitors, but still there are a few strange scholars and wandering fighters present. You should be able to find out some things from them.

***

Formulate two questions to ask, with each question addressing a single subject of interest. You can ask anything you want, from politics to techniques, but there is no guarantee you will get an answer useful to you, or even an answer at all, depending on what question you ask. For example, general questions get you general answers that could be too vague to be useful, while specific questions might get you more details, but with a greater risk of getting no useful information if no one here knows anything about the specific thing you are asking.
 

二十六 · Yuhua in Yangzhou

Yuhua in Yangzhou

Despite popular belief, some people insist that General Yang Xue betrayed his country not because of lust for power, or greed for wealth, but for the love of a woman. No matter his reason, however, his name will go down in history as the traitor that allowed the Tujue to invade. By the time the Imperial Court finally realized the treachery of their greatest general, the horses of Guruldai Khagan had already swept past the mountains of Xiliang and were riding on Chang’an.

The invasion of the Tujue was swift, effective and brutal. Unlike his predecessors, Guruldai of the Ashina had ambitions to establish a permanent seat of power and crown himself Emperor of a new dynasty. Instead of sacking and looting cities, he conquered them. Emperor Gaosheng retreated from Chang’an, fleeing south as the Tujue continued their onslaught. Though the Tang had a million men at arms, they were also focused on threats to the northeast and the south. It took time to redirect their armies at the nomadic horsemen – horsemen that should have been kept in check by Yang Xue’s forces.

The bulk of the resistance in the early years of the war fell to the populace. It was during this time that the sects’ prominence began to wax. The skilled martial artists served as both leaders and spies, traversing the battlefront and risking their lives to defend the victims of war. Soon they had banded together under the leadership of the Taoist Wang Zhengchong, a disciple of Wudang, forming an irregular force that operated mainly behind enemy lines. They distracted and slowed down the Khagan’s advance enough for the main Tang armies to launch a successful counter-offensive, recapturing city after city.

It was then that General Yang Xue returned to the forefront of the war, his whereabouts prior to this unknown since the early days of the invasion. Taking command of the Tujue tribes, he directed a series of smashing victories against the Tang forces, before almost breaking them for good at Moyue Pass. Thanks to Yang Xue’s abilities, it seems that Guruldai Khagan’s ambitions would come to fruition. The Tang still had one card up their sleeves, however.

Finally heeding the Emperor Gaosheng’s desperate request, Wang Zhengchong and the monk Fangzhang embarked upon a suicidal mission, penetrating deep into the heart of the enemy camp by themselves. They reappeared the next morning with the heads of the enemy Khagan and the traitor Yang Xue, bloodied and battered by their ordeal.

This was more than enough to demoralize the Tujue. Under pressure from the regrouping Tang armies, they scattered, fleeing the Central Plains.

The five year war had severe and long-lasting effects on the country. In the aftermath, the freed northern regions had relied heavily on the relatively untouched south to rebuild. Emperor Gaosheng raised taxes drastically to fund the reconstruction, creating even greater unease amongst the populace. Still, the vast riches and well-established bureaucracy of the government meant that this would not deal a fatal blow to the dynasty. Meanwhile, his sons, the royal princes that had played a part during the war, began to squabble amongst themselves, each seeing opportunity in the dynasty’s weakness to gain more influence over the Imperial Court.

As the country began the uneasy process of recovery, tensions seethed underneath the surface.

This boiled over a mere three years after the Tujue had been driven off, when Emperor Gaosheng died suddenly of a mysterious illness. His designated heir, Crown Prince Li Xiude, did not survive to take the throne as he passed from a dagger in his back mere hours after receiving news of his father’s death. From Gaosheng’s twenty six surviving sons, three major factions emerged.

The Second Prince Li Wang led the largest faction, with eight brothers at his back. After the Crown Prince, he was said to be the most excellent of the princes, with both strength and smarts.

The Eleventh Prince Li Suguang, had influence over six other brothers. He was an ambitious and powerful man who had made his name in the Tujue war.

The Sixth Prince Li Zhou, led five of his brothers in vying for the throne. Though his group was the smallest, he was said to be a charismatic speaker and kind leader.

The various generals, military prefects, and martial arts sects threw their support behind each of the factions thanks to the work the various princes had done behind the scenes. This resulted in open war.

As the conflict progressed, the Imperial princes began dying from blades that they saw coming, those that they did not see coming, and those that they should have seen coming. Surprisingly, the Eleventh Prince was one of the first, dying in an ambush with two of his brothers.

In the end, however, the winner was an unexpected contender. The Twenty-Seventh Prince, Li Ming. In the midst of the conflict, he had managed to secure support from his siblings in all three factions. The rival princes had their feet swept out from under them. Li Ming was ruthless and quick in his actions. Cornering his siblings within a month from the time he made his move, he finally ended the civil war by capturing and beheading fifteen princes, including the Second and the Sixth, when they approached him to negotiate peace.

The next day, he crowned himself Emperor Taisheng.

The continuous battles taking place across the country had exacted a serious toll on the treasury. As a response, the government of the new Emperor began enacting policies to decentralize the bureaucracy, giving the prefects leeway to do what they will as long as taxes to the Imperial Court were paid on time.

This, coupled with the concentration of military power in the Imperial Court’s hands and the summary execution of the entire families of prefects that did not heed Emperor Taisheng’s instructions upon the pretext of corruption, had the effect of galvanizing the prefectures to ensure the taxes were submitted duly in order to avoid the capital’s gaze from falling upon them.

Of course, this only meant that corruption began to take place in other ways…

***

The sleep-inducing history lesson you received at Luoying Manor was half-forgotten by the time you made your way to Yangzhou. The scholars had droned on for hours with plenty of details, but you only managed to remember part of it. It was definitely not something you could memorize that easily – you are not some sort of brilliant scholar that could absorb in an hour the knowledge that took them decades to collect. What they said was insightful in its own way, but in the end you learnt nothing that would help you with your goals.

As for the misfortune of your birth, the only thing they could determine was that the Taisha star shone upon you. You would bring about the downfall of the order of Heaven, sharing your misfortune with the entire country, but the scholars did not know enough to go into specifics. They said that they could be easily wrong about their readings; they were scholars after all, and not astrologers.

Lady Ji had appeared to you shortly before you left and recommended in her mysterious manner that you seek out the All-Seeing Astrologer, Hua Jin, if you desired to know your destiny. She does not know where he is now; according to her, it would be fate if you found him, and fate if you didn’t.

No matter.

You put all thoughts of fate and destiny away from your mind. After days of travel, during which you studied the manual Master Yao gave you, you have reached your destination. You are in Yangzhou now, the most prosperous city in the entire empire. It may not be as populous as Chang’an, but the bustling, thriving activity in Yangzhou cannot be matched even by Xuzhou. More than anywhere else, Yangzhou was the economic center of the Tang Dynasty, where the largest merchant houses were located… and also where the most renowned brothel operated.

You find yourself outside Yuhua Hall soon enough; it was not hard to find. Now that you are finally here, the only thing you need to do is to enter and begin searching for information.

From the looks of it, however, it would be rather hard – or rather, expensive – to gain entry. An elegantly written flyer near the brothel stated that entrance alone would require a deposit of easily a quarter of your finances. You have no idea how much more you would be expected to spend within. It is a good thing that you had your share of earnings from betting at the tournament.

No matter what, you would probably have to make yourself more respectable – that meant spending on clothes to replace your tattered and dirty ones.

***

A. You enter Yuhua Hall as a client, spending your winnings in order to obtain information.

B. You attempt to enter Yuhua Hall as a servant, finding a way to sell yourself into servitude.

C. You attempt to enter Yuhua Hall as a merchant, peddling Yao’s Protective Sheath.

D. You attempt to sneak into Yuhua Hall like a thief, attempting to obtain information without revealing yourself.
 

二十七 · The Drunken Scholar

The Drunken Scholar

After declaring your identity as a itinerant purveyor of certain protective objects, you had been ushered in through a side entrance by the staff of the brothel. They guided you through a series of winding paths through an ornate garden, leading you to a simple pavilion some distance away from the main building. An attractive lady is there, playing chess with a distinguished-looking gentleman. Upon your arrival, she whispers something to the man. He gets up, scowling at you, before leaving the pavilion.

“This had better be worth my time, peddler,” says the elegantly-dressed woman disinterestedly as she gestures for you to sit. From her looks, she cannot be older than her mid-twenties. Her face is lightly made-up, after the fashion currently popular in the capital. "I assure you it is, my lady," you say cheerfully, taking your place. "I must say, it is remarkable that someone so young is the proprietor of such a successful establishment!"

The woman laughs dismissively, not even glancing at you. "That would be my mother, Madame Xia. Unfortunately, the madame is away for business, so it falls to me to deal with the operations of Yuhua Hall in her absence. Now, let's get down to business quickly and skip the introductions. My time is rather valuable." You nod to acknowledge her wish to avoid small talk. It looks like you will have to show your product before you can even begin to ask about what you are really here for.

When you reveal Yao's Protective Sheath, the woman's eyes narrow slightly, her nose wrinkling just a bit. Otherwise, she remains impressively unruffled. "The scent is an issue I am still working on," you say apologetically, "but I can assure you that the ointment only serves a protective purpose to complement the sheath itself. The specially sewn covering, on its own, is still superior to any sheath in use today."

With no hesitation, the woman plucks the dripping sheath out of the jar and rolls it between her fingers. She nods her head - it looks like she is a connoisseur when it came to these items, able to recognise true quality when she sees it. "This is truly great workmanship. Sensitivity issues should be a thing of the past with this. I already have some ideas in mind to handle the smell, so that should be a minor problem for us. However, it does not seem like you can supply us with enough stock. You are just a wandering merchant, are you not? I do not have the habit of purchasing just one sheath. That would be pointless for Yuhua Hall. How much stock can you supply us?"

She is correct, you would not have the time to devote to full-time manufacture of these protective sheaths. You do not intend to actually make this your main livelihood. However, you did not spend a year dealing with greedy merchants without learning a thing or two about business.

"Actually..."

You reveal your plan to her. In return for a small fee to be paid whenever your sheaths are used in the brothel - and they would be the only ones available - you would provide her the recipe. On her part, the new coverings would likely increase Yuhua Hall's reputation further as the pioneer and leader of this trade. She seems rather taken with the idea. The two of you negotiate for a while on the exact percentage of your cut, before finally deciding on a rather miniscule amount. It would still be enough to support you for the rest of your life, however, unless Yuhua Hall were to burn to the ground.

“You seem rather experienced for your age,” smiles the woman thinly and reluctantly, though she is clearly getting the better deal out of this. “Very well. I believe we have come to terms. Xiaojin, go and get me Xiaoyu,” she orders. The girl bows and runs off. While awaiting her return, the woman turns her attentions back to you.

“So, what is the name of this peddler?”

“I am Xu Jing,” you reply, “and how should I address you, my lady?”

“My family name is Xia, and my first name is Xue. You may call me Miss Xia. I would not dare to be called a lady in my line of business,” says the woman, a glimmer of good humour in her eyes. You bow your head in acknowledgement. “Miss Xia it is, then.”

“Ah, our good scholar is here,” calls out Miss Xia as she looks past you. “I have a contract for you to draft, Xiaoyu.”

The smell of alcohol reaches you before the person does – as you turn around, you see a man tottering up on unsteady legs. You do not know whether he is suffering from a hangover or still drunk. Perhaps it is both. As he draws closer, you recognize his face. His grooming seems to have gone to the dogs, his eyes are badly bloodshot, and there are worry lines across his brow, but it seems to be Xiahou Yu, the young scholar you met at Luoying Manor. Gone is that elegant, quiet, and slightly snobbish demeanour that he possessed more than a year ago. Now he looks the part of a drunkard even more than Qi Liuwu does… and that is saying something.

“Huh. A contract,” he grumbles, his eyes kept to the floor. “Another one of those, I suppose. At least it’s a change from the stupid flyers you make me draw every day. I, who would have come tops in the Imperial examination, drawing flyers for a brothel. Oh, fate plays with man in the cruellest of ways. Ink? Where is my ink and brush? And paper. Come on, get to it.”

Miss Xia laughs as she bids the servants to gather what he needs. As they prepare the writing materials, she recites the terms of the contract. Xiahou Yu doesn’t seem to be listening, grasping his head and lamenting his luck, but once she is done, he sighs, grabs the brush and begins writing almost immediately. Surprisingly, his brushstrokes are strong and clear despite his current condition. The beauty of the scholar’s calligraphy is unmarred by drink.

“I have other things to see to while Xiaoyu here is finishing up the contract,” says Miss Xia as she gets up. “I will be back shortly, so please do make yourself comfortable.” She sweeps off, leaving you and the scholar behind.

He finishes faster than you expected. The way he phrased the terms are clear and concise, with no mistake as to what it entails. As you read through the contract, Xiahou Yu speaks to you.

“Of all the places to meet again, Xu Jing.”

“I’m surprised you still recognize me,” you say quietly.

“Alcohol makes you remember the strangest things. It draws a haze down over certain hollows in your mind, and brings out other memories to the fore. I suppose you are here to – no, it doesn’t matter why you are here, does it?”

“I suppose it doesn’t. How did you end up here?”

He heaves a long sigh. After a while, he reaches into his garments and brings out a roll of paper. Looking at it wistfully, he unties the string holding it, letting the paper fall open by itself. It is a painting of a beautiful lady in the midst of blooming peach blossom trees, her back half-turned as she looks over her shoulder. Even with your amateur’s grasp of art, you can understand that it is a very good painting. The artist must have put his entire heart and soul into it – you can sense the passion and longing and frustration conveyed by the painting.

The second thing you notice is the lady herself. There is a familiar red mark on the right side of her face, a single flaw on her cold, imperious beauty.

This is the person you have been – should have been – hunting.

“To be honest,” says Xiahou Yu longingly, oblivious to your expression, “I didn’t come here just because of my clan’s massacre, but also because of her. She said her hometown was in Yangzhou, and I thought I could find her here.”

“How did you meet her?” you ask, wondering just how a scholar like him could have met a murderous assassin.

“I saved her life,” he said, a sad expression on his face. “I found her near death on the outskirts of my family manor, and so I hid her and kept her safe.” His voice trails off, a wistful gaze in his eyes as he reminisces about what seems to be happier times to him. “Anyway,” he sighs, “when the manor was attacked, she rescued me, when she could have run. She fought off six men at once to save my life. Then, she left me in the middle of a forest, in darkest night, without even a word of parting. I have been seeking her ever since… Chanfeng. Liu Chanfeng.”

You suppose that is her name. “And so you came down to Yangzhou asking about her, I suppose. What did you find?”

“That she used to work here,” he shrugs. “I don’t mind. For me it is a meeting of minds, not so much the lusts of the body.”

“You are truly a generous man,” you chuckle. “Why are you still here, then, instead of going to look for her? Do you not know where she is?”

“I think I know where she may be right now,” he says bitterly, “but I am trapped here. I made the mistake of indulging slightly in drink. The entire occurrence remains hazy to me, but when I woke up they stuck me with a bill for sleeping with every girl they had on duty that night.”

You wince. On the way in you had caught a glimpse of the prices. They were exorbitant, to say the least.

“Twice,” adds Xiahou Yu.

You can’t help but whistle. That is impressive. “Poor Brother Yu. And you are stuck here working for…”

“Twenty more years,” he sighs. Then, he grabs the liquor on the table and downs it with an angry, wild expression on his face. “If only I could flee this place… Ah, the cage of the body and the cage of the heart; I cannot decide which is a more cruel prison!”

You wonder if you should try to secure his freedom – if your aim is to find this woman in black, it seems like Xiahou Yu is your best bet.

***

A. Spend all your money in freeing Xiahou Yu by buying his freedom from Yuhua Hall, if necessary.

B. Sneak into Yuhua Hall later that night and extract him.

C. Deal with this in an upfront manner; threaten to take Xiahou Yu whether they like it not not.

D. You have other things to attend to. You will gather the information by yourself.
 

二十八 · Yangzhou Tales

Yangzhou Tales

Miss Xia seems reluctant to part with her prized employee, but finally agrees. By the end of the negotiations for Yu’s freedom, you are left with not a cent to your name and a very grateful scholar. You had forfeited all payments from the deal involving Yao’s Protective Sheath for two years in order to afford his ransom. You hope it is worth it.

You return the next day and find Xiahou Yu waiting for you at the gates of Yuhua Hall. It was just a day, but his transformation is dramatic, the alcohol-fueled haze in his eyes replaced by a bright determination. He bows sharply when he sees you. “Thank you very much for freeing me from Yuhua Hall. I am not sure how I can ever make it up to you, but please let me try!”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. Money is where you find it,” you say, recalling Qi Liuwu’s quip. “We are going to have to find some, though, unless you want to be eating wild rabbit for the rest of your days.”

“Ah, about that…” Xiahou reaches into his clothes and pulls out a small pouch. “It is not much, but the girls in Yuhua gathered some taels together for me. It should be enough for food, though not lodging.”

“You are surprisingly popular, aren’t you?” you grin. “Not bad. Your drinking must have impressed the courtesans.”

“No, I will never drink again,” he replies quickly, a wild look in his eyes as he gulps audibly. “Ever.”

You are not sure how long his resolution will hold out. Nodding, you say, “For now, we will be travelling together. You want to meet your Liu Chanfeng again, don’t you? I may have business with her too, so we will stick together until then.”

“Forgive me for intruding,” he asks suspiciously, “but I have been wondering; just what business do you have with her?”

“Don’t worry,” you laugh. “I’m not interested in her that way. To be more specific, it is probably her friends that I have business with. Well, the sun is high and I have not yet eaten. As a mark of your gratitude, I’ll have you treat me to a good lunch, Brother Yu.”

***

“She never told me this, but here I found out that she used to be a rather popular courtesan at Yuhua Hall,” begins Xiahou Yu as he retells the story that he has pieced together over the past two years. “When she was eighteen, she fell in love with one of her regular customers, an influential man’s scion by the name of Zhang Manlou. He was scum of the worst sort.” Xiahou grits his teeth angrily. “His godfather is one of the Grand Eunuchs of the Imperial Court, Grand Eunuch Wang.”

You remember Grand Eunuch Wang well; of the four old prickless bastards that stood at the top of the court, he was probably the worst nag and the pettiest fellow of the lot – not a day went by without him complaining about one thing or another.

“As such, that scum thought himself untouchable,” continues Xiahou. “He toyed with Chanfeng’s feelings and made her think that he genuinely felt for her. Then, he got her pregnant.”

“I thought the girls at Yuhua Hall were supposed to use protection,” you interject.

“They do, but it is not perfect. On the off chance that they do conceive, the child is taken care of by the Hall,” replies Xiahou.

“So, the child…”

“Poor Chanfeng thought that Zhang Manlou would take responsibility, and so instead of having it in Yuhua Hall she went seeking him in his mansion in Chang’an.” The scholar’s hands ball into fists as he stares at the table angrily. “He was married, yes, but what rich man cannot afford a wife or mistress? Still, the bastard disavowed any knowledge of her, in front of his entire household. Then, he attacked her. It was the one thing she did not believe he would do. Zhang Manlou practices a neigong called the Huangu Skill (還骨功,Returning Bone Skill). The unborn child was killed. She was left with that mark on her face. She returned to Yuhua Hall for only a month, before disappearing. That was six years ago, when she was eighteen.”

With a deep sigh, Xiahou downs the cup of tea, though by the expression on his face he clearly finds that it is a poor substitute for wine.

“I’ve found out that she was recently spotted together with members of the Black Dragon Society, which has its headquarters in the vicinity of Xiangyang. They are a vicious bunch of mercenaries and assassins for hire… I am not sure why Chanfeng would be with them. I have also heard that there is a small, obscure school called the Wunan Sect hidden somewhere in Shennong Forest, a few days' travel from Xiangyang. Apparently they are an all-female sect, taking in those who have been betrayed by men. I feel that that is probably where she is.”

It looks like no matter what, your investigation would take you to Xiangyang next. Still, you are in no real hurry to leave Yangzhou at the moment. You wonder if you should see if there is anything else to do here. Keeping an ear out for news on the grapevine, you find that…

***

A. The most influential martial arts establishment in Yangzhou, the Zhou Clan Manor, is gathering pugilists to conduct a campaign against a band of pirates that has been terrorizing the southern coast. Payment is what you can claim from the pirates’ plunder; most pugilists are participating to make a name for themselves, however.

B. The two largest merchant clans of Yangzhou, the Dao family and the Jian family, have been feuding for generations. It looks like they may be about to go to war; this could be a lucrative opportunity if you stick your nose in whether as a negotiator or to help one side over another.

C. Nothing more in Yangzhou interests you; you think you should hurry over to Xiangyang instead and continue pursuing your lead as fast as possible.
 

二十九 · Anti-Pirate Alliance

Anti-Pirate Alliance

The main hall of the Zhou Clan’s Manor is crowded with pugilists by the time you and Xiahou Yu arrive. The two of you blend into the crowd, not wanting to cause a stir. Given the different uniforms on display, you note at least six or seven minor schools present. The masters of those schools are seated at the front of the hall. One of them looks familiar, but you cannot place him at the moment. Only one of the Eight Sects has sent representatives; Kunlun, but you do not recognize their faces. They appear to be senior to you in age. Surprisingly, you spot Miss Xia there. Why would Yuhua Hall send a representative?

After some time, a distinguished, middle-aged gentleman with an elegant beard steps out from behind the main hall. He is followed by two youngsters – one male, one female, both rather pleasing to the eye. From the looks of it, they are probably his children. The gentleman clears his throat and calls for silence. It looks like he is the master of the manor, Zhou Dingqiu.

“Everyone, I am pleased to have you here today at the Zhou residence. I hope that you have been greeted with the greatest courtesy by the members of my household.” The crowd nods and murmurs in agreement; it looks like you have missed out on a free lunch earlier today. You cluck your tongue in disappointment. Zhou Dingqiu begins addressing the leaders of the minor schools, thanking them for their attendance. As he rattles off the names, you find terribly bored; they are all fodder – it doesn’t seem like there are any pugilists of interest here. You look around the hall. Xiahou Yu is actually listening intently, but you have better things to do with your time.

Then, you recognize the master you had found familiar just as his name is called, Zhou Dingqiu thanking him for coming all the way out here to help. Rong Muben of Songfeng. He stands up and bows in acknowledgement, looking rather hale and hearthy. It looks like there are some Songfeng disciples standing in the crowd too, though they have yet to notice you. You look away from him, deciding to focus on the matter in front of you first. Zhou and the various masters, as well as the Eight Sects’ representatives, finally finish their greetings and start discussing the main issue.

“We are all gathered here because of the problem plaguing this prefecture’s coastline. Wo pirates. They have been pillaging coastal villages for many months now, and no one has stood up against them.” begins Zhou Dingqiu.

“Ah, that is interesting,” whispers Xiahou Yu.

“What is?” you whisper in return.

“You know the Wo are the people of Nippon, right?”

“Even I know that. What is so interesting about them being pirates?”

“A treaty was signed sixty years ago to prevent this very thing from happening. It is a matter of foreign policy if the Wo are pirating on our shores.”

“Oh, did they?” It must have been taught to you in your studies. In fact, you recall hearing something like this, now that Yu has jogged your memory, but the details do not come to you. “If that is the case, the prefect should be dealing with it, or should have submitted a report to the Court for action. Why is he not here, with a Tang fleet to subjugate a single band of pirates? We do have a navy and it has not seen any action in… what, a century?”

“I wouldn’t know about that. It could be that he is in league with the pirates somehow,” conjectures Xiahou Yu. “It’s a wild guess, but the other alternatives don’t make him look much better.”

You nod. “Incompetence. Why he isn’t helping isn’t that important right now anyway, since the sects are taking matters into their own hands.”

“Now,” says Zhou more loudly, apparently distracted by your whispers with Yu. “The government will not aid us in this venture. The prefect has sent a letter detailing his approval of our actions and his gratitude, but there will be no money or ships forthcoming.”

“Do you expect us to swim there?” shouts a rotund master. “Sure, you can walk on water, but the rest of us aren’t so capable.” The crowd laughs as Zhou tries to calm them down. “Master Ji, this is why Lady Xia of Yuhua Hall has kindly agreed to sponsor our campaign.”

“Taking money from a brothel?” shouts a skinny master. “Why, I would never! This is a disgrace!”

“He’s right,” murmurs Xiahou Yu, “I’ve seen him give money to Yuhua Hall, not take it.”

“Well then, he’ll be a good customer for my product,” you grin. “Remind me to keep him alive so that he can continue whoring.”

“Now now, Master Gong, we really have no choice. For the sake of the people,” pleads Zhou Dingqiu. “This is not a time for our pride to stand in our way.”

“That is right, Master Gong,” says Rong Muben, joining in on Zhou Dingqiu’s side. “When the people are in trouble, we must help them. They are the livelihood of the country; we cannot let pride force us to reject help.”

“It is a merely a matter of community service,” Miss Xia speaks up. “Yuhua Hall continues to prosper because the people give to it.” She gives Master Gong a wink, sending him falling back into his chair with a red face. “It is only natural that we give back. If you will not work with us for your sake, at least for the sake of your wife?”

“W-well,” splutters Master Gong, “Fine. Do as you please. I have no objections.”

Zhou gives a sigh of relief. “Now, I will let my son, Zhou Zhideng, explain the plan.” The young man comes to the fore and begins talking. It is a rather basic plan that is hard to mess up – now that they have identified the hideout of the Wo pirates, they will sneak in under cover of darkness, burn the pirate ships, and begin exterminating the scum. One on one, every pugilist should be a match for any pirate, and it seems that they outnumber the enemy at that.

You notice the girl, Zhou Zhideng’s sister, looking moody and displeased. You sigh.

“What’s the matter?” asks Xiahou Yu.

“See that girl? Zhou Dingqiu’s daughter?” you whisper.

“Yes, what of her?”

“It’s going to be trouble. I know how this is going to go,” you grumble. “She’s going to try to sneak on board the ship and tag along for some reason or another.” Xiahou Yu chuckles. “Surely that cannot be true. She looks too meek to do such a thing.”

“Trust me, brother Yu. You’ll see.” You sigh again.

Then, the whispers begin.

“Hey, wait, that boy… Man Tiger Pig… that’s the Man Tiger Pig, isn’t it?”

“Zhang Jue’s disciple!? What is he doing here?”

“That… can’t be right, can it? I had heard Zhang Jue’s disciple was a mountain of a boy, not a scruffy young man who looks like he has just started shaving!”

“No, that is him! I saw him at the tournament! It’s Man Tiger Pig!”

You find yourself and Xiahou Yu in an ever-widening circle of space as the crowd backs away from you. You suppose it would be too good to be true to hope that no one would ever recognize you, but you had no intention of hiding your identity anyway. Looking confidently at Zhou Dingqiu, you bow politely in greeting, giving him your best smile.

“The disciple of Zhang Jue pays his obeisance to the master of Zhou Manor.”

Xiahou Yu follows suit quickly, calling himself a humble scholar.

The entire hall is frozen, with not a soul moving an inch; none of them know what to make of your sudden appearance in their midst. Zhou Dingqiu looks at you with suspicion. Rong Muben, on the other hand, has an expression of anger, but he does not move from his seat. The Songfeng disciples jerk into action, as they finally recognize your face.

“That is Xu Jing! Master, that’s the murderer of our young master! Let’s-“

“Stop!” roars Rong Muben. His disciples’ swords are half-drawn as they shrink back at their master’s voice. “I have no idea why this… cur… is here, but I have vowed that the Songfeng Sword School would not take vengeance for Zhiyu’s untimely demise. I will not break that vow as long as I live! Sheathe your swords!”

Heeding their master’s orders, the disciples step back, glaring daggers at you.

Up in front, Miss Xia arches an elegantly painted eyebrows at the revelation of your identity. You give her a brief shrug – it is what it is.

“Now, ah, Young Master Xu,” begins Zhou Dingqiu awkwardly, not entirely sure how to handle this mess, “Why are you here? I hope it is not to challenge us to battle. As you can see, we are rather occupied at the moment.”

You laugh, waving your hands in denial. “Oh, of course not. I merely heard of your manor’s call to arms against the pirates, and decided to participate.”

“Why would you do such a thing?” He seems genuinely puzzled.

“Why can’t I?” you reply simply, looking straight into his eyes.

Zhou does not answer, knowing that the only way to reply would be to drag your master’s reputation into it. Then, he shakes his head, a little sad smile crossing his lips. “Very well. I will judge you on what you do, not what your master does. It is not my position to question help, if indeed you are offering it. I have heard of your victory at the recent tournament – you will be a strong addition to our task force. I cannot turn that away.”

The hall erupts in protest at his words. It seems like no one here trusts you.

“They really hate you,” whispers Xiahou Yu.

“They can go die in a fire,” you say.

“That’s rather poetic. Maybe I should write it down.”

Rong Muben stands up from his chair.

“Master Rong,” begins Zhou Dingqiu, “where are you going?”

“I may not seek vengeance against that boy, but I cannot work together with him,” he grimaces. “I cannot even stand to see his face.”

“But-“

“It is done, Master Zhou. Songfeng will not be participating in this assault. It would sully my integrity if I cooperated with my son’s killer.”

“Is that pride I hear speaking?” you call out. Rong Muben turns around, glowering at you wordlessly. You continue, “Is the suffering of the people less important than your integrity, Master Rong?” One of the Songfeng disciples steps up. “I hate to say this, but if we leave now, Master, we are only going to let this bastard win. Perhaps that is what he wants, to drive this alliance apart. Maybe we should…”

You only laugh, looking around you casually. All of the pugilists seem to be on guard, ready to fight at a moment’s notice. “What is this? Are all of you going to pile on me? Who will make the first move? I do not think this is a good start to your anti-pirate alliance if you start losing people even before you set foot on the island.” They back away nervously as your gaze meets theirs; no matter what, your reputation does precede you, and these are merely a bunch of fodder schools compared to the Eight Sects. Of course, being a major sect doesn’t seem to stop the Kunlun representatives from looking worried as you grin at them.

“Look,” says Zhou Zhideng, trying to help his father salvage the situation. “Can everyone just calm down? I have seen Man Tiger Pig in battle. I do not think he is here to cause trouble, and I think he will be of great help.”

“You already have,” whispers Xiahou Yu.

“That I have,” you nod knowingly.

“Please, listen to my father,” says the young master of Zhou Manor. “We must not underestimate the pirates even if everything appears to be going right for us.”

“If…” says Zhou Dingqiu heavily, “if Young Master Xu is willing to promise his good behaviour, will you all accept his participation?”

The old man is trying to speak for you. Your first instinct is to interrupt him, but Xiahou Yu tugs at your arm. “Wait,” he hisses.

“Or perhaps he can take us on in a friendly match. No grudges,” says one of the Songfeng disciples heatedly. “If he wins, he gets to participate. If he loses, he gets out of here immediately.” Zhou Dingqiu looks taken aback at the idea of having a fight right now, but does not say anything for now. Master Gong speaks up suddenly, deciding to get involved. “How about we have a competition for the head of the Wo leader? We can settle the grudge that way, instead of fighting in Zhou Manor. If Zhang Jue’s disciple wins, it’s all good. If we win, it’s all good too!”

The hall seems to like Master Gong’s idea – Songfeng aside, none of them seem overly keen to fight you. Still, to be chased out by them now - to retreat - is an idea that irks you too much to even consider...

***

A. You decide to take on the Songfeng disciples in a ‘friendly’ match. It will not please Zhou Dingqiu, but backing down from their direct challenge will make you look like a coward in front of everyone. Besides, it’s about time you settled things with them.

B. You take the challenge of being the first to claim the head of the Wo leader. This should be able to satisfy everyone except Songfeng; some of them may start to say that you backed down out of fear of them.

C. You back down and promise your good behaviour to avoid any further trouble. This will only satisfy the Zhou Clan. You are not going to be taunted into any challenge – you are here to check out the pirate activity and perhaps subdue it, nothing more. You do not care whether a bunch of minnows think you soft.
 

三十 · A Maiden's Request

A Maiden’s Request

“Master Gong’s proposition sounds interesting,” you say, directing your words at the Songfeng disciples. “Rather than fighting each other, turning Zhou Manor into the site of a bloodbath, and risking the success of the mission, why don’t we make this into a challenge? Reach the pirate leader before I do, and take his head, and you can say that you have bested me. I will agree to that.”

As the other pugilists quietly pressure the Songfeng disciples to agree, Rong Muben speaks up. “That will be an acceptable condition. Still, I am sorry, Master Zhou, but I cannot participate in this personally. However, I will instruct my disciples to give you their utmost cooperation.” Having said his piece, he steps back and returns to his seat, a sour look on his face. His students, similarly irate, mumble their agreement, though they mutter accusations of cowardice under their breath. You smile at them and give the customary salute of an open palm over closed fist. They do not return it.

“Good,” sighs Zhou Dingqiu in relief. “That is settled, then. The preparations are well underway, and we will depart in a day’s time. If any of you have any further questions, you will always be welcome at my manor.” With that, the gathering disperses. Many are still uneasy at your participation, throwing suspicious glances at you as they leave. It does not really matter to you one way or another though – once the mission commences, acting in concert with the orthodox pugilists would only serve to slow you down.

***

Making your way through the streets of Yangzhou, you begin heading back towards the ramshackle hut that now serves as your temporary lodgings. Reaching a narrow street corner, you turn into the narrow alley suddenly, pulling Yu along with you.

“What’s the matter?” he asks.

“It’s happening sooner than I expected.” You gesture at him to move further in. Then, you wait.

You hear footsteps approaching your position, their pace picking up now that they are After a few seconds, the owner of the footsteps appears. She gives a gasp when she sees you waiting for her in the alley, taking an involuntary step backwards.

“Miss Zhou.” You give her a curt greeting. “A rather bold thing for a young maiden to do, running after two men in broad daylight.”

She shakes her head and frowns at you. “I was going to call out to you when we reached a more appropriate place to discuss matters. I suppose this place is appropriate enough.” Without any hint of worry, she steps into the alley, giving you a stare as if daring you to do your worst.

“Well, to come after me alone you have more balls than any of the Songfeng disciples at least,” you murmur. “What is it that you want to discuss?”

Miss Zhou nods and begins. “I have a request-“

“Why?”

“You’re asking why? You haven’t even heard my request yet!” she says, looking puzzled.

“You want me to take you to the pirates’ island?” you say.

“How did you know that?”

You sigh. “A lucky guess.” You are probably the only person she could ask, after all, and her intentions were rather transparent from her expressions during the meeting. “Why do you want to go there, and how do you think I can help you? Keep your replies to four words.” Xiahou Yu laughs in approval.

“To rescue a friend,” she replies quickly.

“Who is this friend?”

“Childhood friend, merchant’s daughter,” says the girl again.

“Captured by the pirates?”

“No, she went willingly.”

“Why did she go?”

“She married a pirate.”

“Wait, what?” This does not seem to be going the way you expected it to go. You had thought that the young mistress of Zhou Manor was going along to prove her skills, sick of being cloistered in the manor, or some such similar story. “That means she’s also a pirate now, right? More or less.”

“Yes, so I want to rescue her from the attack tomorrow.”

“Which means…”

“I can have a boat prepared within the hour. If you are willing to assist me, we will set sail for Tielou Island tonight.”

“You’re basically asking me to warn the pirates that an attack is coming,” you say in disbelief. “An attack planned by your own father, because you want to save the life of your friend.”

“Is that wrong? From what I've heard, the pirates are only pillaging to survive. At any rate, what is important to me is getting my friend away from the island.”

“Well, ethically and legally, yes,” interjects Xiahou Yu. “In so far as deeds are accomplished, they should be accomplished for the greater good. The pirates plunder what is not rightfully theirs and inflict suffering upon the populace. The needs of the many outweigh the life of one person.”

Miss Zhou peers at him, before saying, “Hey, didn’t I see you walking the streets one time in nothing but a sackcloth?”

“I do not remember,” he says flatly. It must have been one of his episodes – you probably do not want to give him any more access to alcohol any time soon, even if he has vowed to never drink it again.

“Well, I don’t see why you need us along,” you say.

“She may be my friend, but that does not mean that I would like to walk into their den alone. Even if I can protect myself, I would feel safer with more fighters on my side,” she explains.

“Right. Does your friend speak their language?” you ask.

“Not as far as I know.”

“Do any of them speak our language?”

“I don’t know,” she says, shaking her head. If her friend had married one of them surely they could communicate somehow… right?

“I know a bit of the Nippon language that the Wo speak,” says Xiahou Yu. “I studied it for a few weeks as part of my self-education on foreign policy.”

“My friend, the brilliant scholar. Whatever would I do without you?” you say with a strained chuckle. “What will you do if we refuse, Miss Zhou?”

“What can I do? I may have to take matters into my own hands, but that will be no concern of yours,” she says politely. You are not exactly sure what she will do; perhaps she might chance going it alone, perhaps she might not. That is no concern of yours, is it?

***

A. You agree and go along with her to meet the pirates before the mission begins. It will be extremely risky, but it will give you the chance to turn adversity into opportunity. You can decide what to do with the pirates after you set foot on the island – this will give you a headstart on the other pugilists anyway.

B. You attempt to convince her that you can save her friend on the day of the attack itself. She will definitely still insist on coming along, which means that you will have to find a way to sneak her onboard the ship underneath her father’s nose. If he finds out... well, you think you might be swimming back to the mainland.

C. You report her plans to her father so that he keeps an eye on her. This is far too risky a plan for any maiden to conduct. By having Zhou Dingqiu place her under lock and key, she should be kept safe and out of harm’s way during the mission. You might still keep an eye out for her friend, but that won't be your priority.

D. You reject her proposal, but do not do anything else. There is no need to undertake extra measures for this particular mission – what will be will be.
 

三十一 · The Pirate in Black

Ninja update.

***

The Pirate in Black


Xiahou Yu had done a bit of digging into the merchant’s daughter before the both of you boarded the boat; he found out that the girl had actually been saved from a pirate attack before this, and claimed that her current husband was the one that did so. It seems that this particular band has both been raiding and also establishing their dominance in the area by driving out other pirates. Unfortunately most of the stories told of their raids were full of embellishment; the scholar and you just did not have the time to dig out the truth of their capabilities. You would just have to go in and adapt on the fly.

The boat had turned out to be a rather old junk that belonged to the Zhou family – before departure you had feared that it would capsize and send you all to the bottom of the ocean, but the servant handling it was an experienced and elderly sailor that managed to bring you through the rough seas with no loss of anything other than Yu’s dinner. He comes up to you, still pale from the ride.

“So, why are we doing this again?”

“Because it’s more fun this way.”

You pull on the pig’s mask and head out.

***

Travelling through the forest, you find some freshly made traps scattered along the forest floor. After nearly falling into a pitfall, you decide to take to the treetops.

It does not take you long to find signs of the pirates. Perched from your vantage point atop the trees, you spot a large collection of sturdy huts. Torches burn around the perimeter, forming a circle against the darkness. It does not look like the hideout you had been expecting – in fact, it appears to be a village, judging from the tools lined up neatly here and there. From the furrows dug some way out, they seem to have been attempting to farm here. You wonder if this village was here before the pirates came, and if they merely appropriated it.

A pinprick of light catches your eye in the distance. It is soon followed by other lights, forming a line – from the colour of the light, those are probably torches, carried by hand. You head towards them, leaping from tree to tree amidst the chirping of the crickets.

You see a line of women and children heading deeper into the woods, with large bundles bound to their back. There are perhaps sixty, maybe seventy of them. Prisoners? Upon a second look, you decide that is not the case. They are unguarded, though you note some of the women are carrying bows and have positioned themselves in a protective formation around the line. From their manner of clothing they are not Han; they could be the pirates’ family members. It seems that they are carrying their possessions with them - an evacuation, perhaps? Faint fragments of their conversation floats to your ear, carried by the wind, but you do not understand a single word.

Thus far you have not seen an actual pirate here. As you are wondering what you should do next, you feel something off.

For just an instant, the cricket chirps faded… behind you.

You whirl around just in time to block a chop aimed at the back of your neck. You raise your other arm to retaliate, but your assailant is already gone, your fingers clawing at shadows. Your hackles rise as your instinct warns you that it is dangerous to stay still. You move.

Pushing off from the branches, you leap towards another tree. The moon is dark tonight; there will be no light to help you. Luckily, you have your ears.

Crickets cease their chirping when they sense something moving towards them. From your experience spending nights in the jungle, you know that they are extremely sensitive – it was by listening to the crickets that you managed to stalk the beasts successfully. As an aside, you tried to stalk Master Zhang with this tactic – it was not successful, simply because his mere presence terrorized every single cricket in the area into silence.

Of course, it works both ways; your own movement will invariably betray you to those who know how to listen.

You spot a blur of darkness, blacker than its surroundings, but before that the song of the crickets have already changed. You dodge your assailant easily enough, but yet again, before you are able to retaliate he has already melted into the shadows. There is no doubt that he is also listening – in the dark forest men’s eyes are more hindrance than help, eager to be tricked by the faint light.

Again, an exchange of blows, none hitting their mark. You continue to listen to the crickets, attempting to locate your target. As he moves, so do you – climbing up trees, hanging from branches, crouching behind rocks and roots; it is becoming a battle of prediction as the both of you manoeuvre to gain a position where you can lay in wait to strike at your moving opponent. The hunter, however, refuses to become the hunted – all of your tricks fail one by one. The decoy, the misstep, the bait; none of them seem to work on your opponent. It irks you to admit it, but he seems to be better at the silent game than you are.

You’ll just have to change the nature of the game. If you can’t beat him in stealth, you’ll just have to lure him out via other means.

“I’m impressed,” you call out. “Perhaps we can exchange pointers about crickets?”

Nothing.

“Are you one of the pirates?” Perhaps it would be better to confirm the identity of your assailant.

Still nothing. You laugh.

“I’m standing right here, but you aren’t going to do anything?”

“No,” whispers a man’s voice next to your ear hoarsely, his tone deep and serious. He doesn’t sound young; perhaps middle-aged. You freeze up in shock, unable to keep your composure; when did he get behind you? Before you can react, a strong arm wraps around your throat and pulls up, forcing your head into a chokehold. You had been listening all the while, even when you were talking. There had been no change in the volume of the crickets at all. He shouldn’t have been able to sneak up on you.

“You focus too much on the crickets,” he says, as if reading your thoughts. His Han is heavily accented, “Rookie mistake. There are ways of moving that even the crickets cannot feel.”

“Yes, well,” you choke out, “it worked out for me in the end, didn’t it? Got you.”

You act before he can respond, reaching behind you and grasping his shoulders. From this position you should be able to hurl him. Bracing your feet against the ground, you tug with all your might, summoning your internal strength to assist you. The man shifts his posture.

It is like pulling a mountain. He does not budge.

His chokehold on you loosens, however, and you immediately take that advantage to slip out of it. As you draw away, you are pulled to a halt by his hand, locked around your elbow in a grip that you cannot escape. You grin. Perfect. You return the favour by grabbing his forearm. For the first time, you get a good look at your assailant. He is clad from head to toe in black just like you are, with only his eyes exposed. The man is definitely a master of some sort –he does not flinch as your fingers fail to dig into his flesh. For just a brief instant you wonder if you may have overreached, but doubting yourself is just too boring when you could instead start trading blows with your masked assailant.

However, he does not seem to have any intent of the sort. With an intricate movement, he frees himself from your grasp like a snake shedding its skin. Within moments he has vanished again. This time, however, he doesn’t continue the attack.

“You are a fighter from the Central Plains, aren’t you?”

“Ah, now you want to talk? That’s fine by me,” you say, though you can’t help but shift your eyes around you warily.

“We do not want any trouble with you. Would you be willing to leave?”

“Sure.” You will have to think of a way to overcome this sentry, but it should be doable, one way or another.

“You do not mean it,” comes the reply, though you cannot tell where it is coming from.

“Of course I do,” you chuckle.

You feel the point of a blade against the hollow of your throat almost instantly. Again, you were entirely unable to detect him. There is no killing intent emanating from the black figure in front of you, but you have no doubt that if push comes to shove that blade is going to go through your throat if you even twitch the wrong way.

“You are very skilled for your age, but overly playful. No more games, boy. This is a bad time for us, and I am in no mood for tricks. Answer my question. You are a fighter from the mainland, right?”

You nod slowly.

“For me, there are two options which my lord has entrusted me with. The first is for you to leave the island. Departing on a boat, alive, or floating away as a corpse, it does not matter to me which. The second is to bring you to meet with him. Having tested your skills I am not too willing to take that risk, but I believe that is what my lord really wishes. I am undecided, boy. What do you think?” whispers the man, his eyes cold and deadly.

***

A. You ask to depart the island safely. This is not a foe you can defeat right now. It may be better for you to wait until the pugilists arrive. You can just wait on the boat, a good distance away, for their arrival. Safety in numbers; once they are here they can serve as a decoy for you. It will definitely be easier to take the head of the pirate leader that way.

B. You ask to meet with the leader. It may be a trap of some sort, or the pirate leader may have something planned, but something about all this doesn’t seem right to you, and you think you need more understanding of the situation. Given this man’s skills, you don’t think it will be easy for you to escape should you travel right into their den, however.

C. You attack him out of the blue, banking on your agility to evade his point-blank thrust. If it doesn’t work you are definitely dead, but you would rather die than be sent off packing in humiliation, or be brought to meet his leader.
 

三十二 · The Pirate Leader

The Pirate Leader

“I’ll speak to your leader. Take me to him,” you say.

The man is silent. “Not a choice I would agree with,” he says, finally. “Very well. Try to keep up.” In a blur, he vanishes, the bushes seemingly untouched in his wake. You follow, making a bit more noise in comparison as you run through the forest. He leads you back to where you had seen the line of women and children earlier on, though you are headed in a slightly different direction to where they had went. Further in, you come across a small cave entrance, guarded by two spearmen of military bearing. The man speaks a few quick sentences to them in their foreign tongue, and the guards bow before standing aside to allow you entry.

You are forced to duck to enter the cave; it is a narrow squeeze, but a few steps in the space widens out more comfortably. You stumble, your hands grasping the wet rock to steady your feet. “You cannot see?” asks the man, somewhere in the darkness ahead of you. You wonder how he can make his way around in such total absence of light. There is the sound of shifting cloth, then a quiet scratch, and a slow glow appears in front of you. The man passes you a small torch. “I am sorry,” he says. “Sometimes I forget. Come, now that you have light, move faster.”

After a few more twists and turns through the narrow rock corridors, you finally see light in front of you, at the end of the tunnel. You follow the man out into a small, earthen room, well-lit by numerous torches. The air is damp; you can smell the sea. The room seems to have been decorated after the fashion of a war room of some sort – there are long, white and blue banners strung down from the ceiling, while a map of the coast is pinned up across a wooden board at the end of the room. Men in scaled cuirasses sit cross-legged in a neat line on both sides of the room, their posture straight and firm. At the center of the room stands a young man, similarly protected in that foreign armour. A curved sword hangs by his side; you recognize it as a wodao, commonly used by his people. His bearing marks him as one used to command. A map of the island is rolled out across the floor and he is placing small wooden checkers across it in a simulation of what you can only think to be the coming battle.

The man escorting you goes to his knees in front of the youth, confirming your suspicions about his identity. They exchange words in their tongue; the pirate leader’s eyes flick towards you for a few seconds and back to his subordinate. Suddenly, one of his men begins shouting at you, getting up and gesticulating angrily. You do not understand a word, so unfortunately all you can do is look back at him and smile bemusedly. He takes a step forward, his manner threatening. His sword is halfway out from its sheath when your hand flashes forward and grips him by the throat. He chokes and sputters, his eyes shining with panic as he tries to breath. As one, the room reacts, men leaping to their feet and placing one hand on their swords. You note, however, that the man who had intercepted you in the forest, and the leader himself, remain rather unmoved.

You grin under your mask, saying, “Unfortunately I am not well-educated enough to speak the language of Nippon. Could anyone versed in Han convey this message? Find a better way to test me.” The leader that barks out a command. They heed it instantly, returning to their positions on the floor. You release the man you are holding by the throat, allowing him to cough as he retreats.

“It was a misunderstanding,” says the pirate leader in Han. Then, he speaks another sentence in his language, gesturing at his men to leave. Though the man in black does not move from his liege’s side, all of the other pirates bow to their leader and file out of the room through a different entrance from the one you used.

“Now that we are alone here, will you take off your mask and give me your name, warrior?” asks the leader. “I find it disconcerting to have to talk to that… visage.”

You laugh, pulling off the pig’s mask. “I suppose I could allow you that courtesy. You may call me Xu Jing.”

The young man repeats your name, attempting to get the pronunciation right.

“Ah, so he was masked, my lord? I thought there was something wrong about his head,” muses the man in black as he unravels his own mask, revealing an older man of about fifty. “Was I correct about his age, however?”

“Indeed, uncle Yoriwaka, on both accounts. It surprises me, that the pugilists would send someone so young as a scout.”

You had not figured it out in the dark, but out here in the light, you realize that the man in black, Yoriwaka, is blind. He makes a good show of disguising it; he blinks and shifts his eyes around just like a seeing person would, but if anyone paid enough attention they could notice the subtle differences.

“Ah, you know about the pugilists? You are rather well-informed for a pirate leader.”

“Your people were not hiding their advertisements for fighters to join a pirate hunt. I would be no leader if I did not keep an eye on the movements of those we have wronged and seek to do wrong upon us in return,” sighs the young man. “I am Yorimitsu of the Minamoto clan. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Xu Jing.” You think you have heard of that clan before – they were supposed to be some big shots in Japan, equivalent to nobility. If only the scholar were here right now; he’d probably remember more than you do.

“What is a member of a famed clan doing all the way out here as a pirate? Is it at the behest of your government?” you ask.

Yorimitsu laughs. “If you think Nippon is attempting to invade, you have thought wrong. We are exiles, cast away from the court due to brotherly strife. I, and fifty of my loyal retainers, as well as their family, were sent away from our homeland, never to return. We sought refuge at the Tang court, but all they granted us was this island, Tetsuhashi.”

“We had not heard of that,” you say. “At least, everyone is certain that you are nothing more than low-born pirates.”

“The prefect of Yangzhou, at least, knows of us, and he exacts tribute in return for the navy turning a blind eye to our deeds. Furthermore, your eunuchs and ministers did not want to be seen as interfering with the internal affairs of other nations. It was not widely announced, and this island was of no value to anyone. A perfect place to dump some political exiles and forget about them. But we had to take what we could get. We were in no position to negotiate.”

“And so you resorted to piracy.”

“Not by choice, but necessity. I will apologize for the harm we have caused to your people, and I do not claim my actions are righteous or just, but I do not regret taking those measures. We have tried and failed to farm here time after time. My duty is to my retainers and their families. If that means I have to take from your people to feed my own, I will do so.”

“Why not just settle on the mainland? If you managed to found a village on this island, it should not be too difficult to eke out a living on more fertile ground.”

“I have considered that option, but there are two problems standing in the way. Firstly, after so many months we have yet to identify a suitable location nearby on the mainland. None of the villages will take us in – we have tried, and failed, to even trade with them, before resorting to raids. I am afraid foreigners are not very welcomed here. The city’s market is different, but no less useless to us – there are powerful merchants linked to the prefect that have barred us from trading. Understandable, as some of them do business in my home country and they would not want to incur the displeasure of the Taira. Secondly, if we were to venture further inland, we would not have the supplies necessary to make the long march. I hear that bandits are rife upon the roads, and the total number of women, children and elderly I have to protect number nearly two hundred. Why would I risk the lives of my people when we have begun getting comfortable here?” declares Yorimitsu.

You scratch your head, sighing. “Then why did you express a desire to meet me? What do you think I can do for you?"

“It was obvious that they would send a scout beforehand - it is only prudent to do so on the eve of an attack. If I were lucky, the scout that came would be a reasonable person. Given uncle Yoriwaka’s account of your skills, you must be a highly respected pugilist despite your age, probably a warrior of some renown, if you were entrusted with the mission to scout the battleground by yourself. I hope that you will warn your fellows to leave the island. We are fully prepared for their attack; any battle will exact grievous casualties on both sides.”

If he thinks you are a highly respected pugilist, he must not have done enough research. He might be regretting that very soon. You laugh again. “You sound like a bright leader. At least, you seem to have given all this more thought than I have,” you say. “Why, it almost sounds like if you are gone, your people will fall apart in very short order.”

“That is a correct assessment,” he says calmly in response to your veiled threat. “If taking my head could solve this conflict, I would offer it gladly. However, I do not see any alternative that strikes me with enough confidence to leave my people to their own means. My task is not yet done. That is why I ask for your aid. You will be well compensated – we have kept some treasures from the pirates that were here before us. I only require that you convince the pugilists to turn around and leave.”

Even if you do so, there would still be the problem of their piracy to handle - as long as they were raiding, they would face the risk of reprisal. Chasing the pugilists away is not a long term solution. Of course, you could think about that after you talk to the pugilists for him... or you could settle the problem once and for all right now.

***

A. You will side with the Minamoto and attempt to negotiate a deal for the pugilists to leave. Of course, given that your reputation is hardly that of ‘highly respected’ in their eyes, as Yorimitsu seems to think it is... this will not be easy. In fact, you think your chances of negotiating are so low that you would probably fare better attempting to beat them all down by yourself, but if that is what Lord Yorimitsu wants...

1. You ask about Miss Zhou’s friend – you will send her away with Miss Zhou and the boat. They will not cross paths with the pugilist fleet, but at least this way they will not be here if fighting does break out.

2. You ask to bring Miss Zhou here – she will definitely be of use in ‘negotiations’. You do not think she will be able to convince her father by herself, but you have the added option of making a more persuasive argument of your own if you have her 'hostage'.

***

B. Taking his head will solve matters; at least, it will solve matters for you. You may have been at a disadvantage in the dark, but in the light you are confident things will be different. You attack Yorimitsu. Once he is dead, his people should be scattered and unable to muster any reasonable resistance, leaving them easy pickings for the pugilists when they arrive.

***

C. You decide not to take sides for now. You ask for Miss Zhou’s friend – judging from his personality, Yorimitsu has no real reason to keep her here in an impending attack, and take her back to the ship. Then, you will wait and see how the battle plays out before deciding how you should act.
 

三十三 · Cove Confrontation

Cove Confrontation

“What is the meaning of this?” asks Zhou Dingqiu, standing at the head of a hundred fighters. They had been forced to change their plans upon spotting you awaiting them at the cove where the pirate ships had been moored. Instead of coming onshore quietly to scuttle the ships, Zhou had decided that his element of surprise was likely lost. Of course, it was lost from the start. “When you didn’t showed up, I thought something like this would happen. Have you taken the pirate leader’s head before us?” asks Master Gong. You shake your head. “Nothing so easy as that. I’m here to warn you,” you say. “It turns out that the pirates have already known of your coming from the start.”

“How could they have-“

“If you’re going to advertise your recruitment publicly in the city, anyone would know about it,” you interrupt. “I’m afraid that pressing on right now is only going to result in pointless deaths. They are prepared for you.”

“It doesn’t matter, does it? Unless you’re a coward,” taunts some nameless Songfeng disciple.

“It matters because this fight appears to be rather pointless,” you say.

“How so? You seem to know something we don’t,” remarks Zhou Zhideng, the scion of the Zhou clan. He seems worried that things are not going to plan. You nod and begin to explain what you have found out, carefully leaving out his daughter’s plan so as not to incite any more unwarranted excitement, as well as Yorimitsu’s offer of a reward. After you have finished, Zhou sighs deeply and says, “A strange story indeed. I am not sure what to think, having sailed all the way out here.”

“It’s all a lie! He’s failed to take their leader’s head and now he seeks to scare us off doing the same so that he will not lose face!” shouts one of the pugilists. “Don’t fall for Man Tiger Pig’s lies! He’s only backpedalling now because he put his own reputation at stake!” A chorus of agreement echoes amongst the crowd, such is your reputation for trickery that they are eager to believe you are not telling the truth.

“If you do not trust me, I can show you the village, and their people. I can arrange for an audience with their leader, too,” you offer.

“He’s just going to lead us into a trap!”

“Yeah, don’t trust him! I say we go ahead and show him the power of the orthodox sects, doing what he has failed to do!” As one the crowd surges forward, but when you fail to budge even an inch in the face of their advance, their steps falter. You grin.

“I will say this – if you go forth, you will die, and I will not even have to move a finger.” It is not a lie. The Minamoto had already set archers in position, having spotted the pugilists’ approach from far away. They would have been met by a hail of arrows had they proceeded with their original plan of setting fire to the ships. Thankfully the archers seem to be disciplined enough to refrain from a volley until you have exhausted your options – but if you fail to turn them away here, you have no doubt they will fire.

“Please, listen to him, father! Brother!” The young lady of Zhou Manor, Zhou Zixia, runs out besides you. The scholar runs after her, helplessly asking her to wait. This wasn’t the time for her to make her appearance. Zhou Dingqiu’s face darkens when he sees his daughter. His son steps forward, surprised. “Sister! What are you doing here? I thought-“

Zixia tries to support your story, but she is drowned out by a shout from her father. “Enough! This is shameful behaviour indeed! Zixia, come over here. This is no way for a respectable lady to behave – you promised me that you would stay obediently! And you, Xu Jing, I thought better of you. I suspected that she might try asking you for help with her foolish errand, but I did not think her actually silly enough to try, and you disreputable enough to accept!”

“Father, perhaps it was nothing more than coincidence. We should reconsider-” begins Zhideng, but Zhou Dingqiu shakes his head angrily. “This has shamed our entire clan. I must apologise to all the brave fighters here for showing such an embarrassing side of our family. Dirty linen should not have been aired in public.”

“That is alright, Master Zhou,” says Master Ji awkwardly, “but what do we do now?”

“The pirates have broken the law, and caused suffering,” he replies. “That is the truth. For these foreigners to come to our land and pillage our property is inexcusable, no matter what reasons they may have. This is not their country.”

“Down with the foreign devils!” shouts a Songfeng disciple that you mark and decide will go down first when the fighting starts.

“Will matters be solved with just my life alone?” To your surprise, Yorimitsu appears, stepping out of the darkness in full battle regalia. His uncle does not seem to be anywhere nearby, but you have no doubt that the man is watching and ready to strike. Unexpected things are happening faster than you can respond; this is not what you had in mind. “I am Yorimitsu of the Minamoto, leader of my people on this island. The responsibility is mine to bear. If I fall here, will you judge justice served?”

“Why would that be, young man?” snorts Master Gong. “We have no guarantee your people will not continue to pirate. Who would trust the word of a pirate?”

“Not even if I lay down my life to bind an oath?”

“Your oaths have no value to us, Wo,” says Zhou Dingqiu. “This problem must be solved, and solved decisively. When the grass is cut the roots must be plucked. The Imperial Court has expressed their desire to clean up the coast and free the people from the plague of piracy. Though they are not able or willing to do it directly, as loyal subjects the orthodox sects are more than willing to do it on the Emperor’s behalf. I am afraid this can only end in one way.”

“Is that so?” murmurs Yorimitsu, his hand laid on his sword. The crowd tenses. You rather suspect arrows will begin flying at any moment.

“If you fight now, your daughter will be caught up in the fighting,” you point out.

“You-“ grimaces Zhou Dinqiu, his expression full of anger. “Are you threatening me?”

“Of course not! I would not dare, Master Zhou,” you say. “I am merely pointing out something to watch out for.”

“A daughter that would rebel against her father to such an extent is no daughter of mine,” he scowls, though you can tell he does not mean his words. Still, he seems resolved to go on the attack. “For that matter, Xu Jing, why are you siding with these Wo? Are you betraying your own country?”

“I am not siding with them,” you reply, “merely trying to prevent needless loss of life. Would you serve your country better by continuing to live, or by bleeding out here by the sea? What can you accomplish if you drive these people to extinction? Will there be no more raids? Of course not. There will always be pirates.”

“That is right,” Xiahou Yu speaks out, having found his courage from somewhere – you stare at him as you catch a whiff of just where he had found his courage. Hopefully he had not partook of too much courage. “Even if you stamp out these pirates, more will come. Can you hire boats every month, every year, trying to keep them under control? Piracy is a symptom of the greater disease that ails our empire, not a cause. It is not the pirates we must strive against! It is those who have strayed from the Will of Heaven!” Ah, yes. He definitely took too much. You resist the urge to bury your head in the sand. Even though you agree with him, this is not the time and place to speak out against the government.

“Treason! He speaks treason!” screams the pugilists.

“They have betrayed us to the foreign devils! Gut them all!”

It looks like this will all spiral into a fight rather soon. Yorimitsu is on edge, as are the pugilists. “I thank you for your efforts,” mutters the young Minamoto leader, “but it seems that it was a lost cause in the first place. You have my apologies for getting you involved in this – my own judgment was lacking. You should leave now. I would not ask you to turn your sword on your own people. I will arrange for your payment, so do not worry about that.”

***

A. You accept Yorimitsu’s offer and leave, returning Zixia to her father. You will have no part in what is to come. Best to retreat and let them sort it out themselves; you have no obligations to them. It seems that the idea for this campaign actually originated from within the Court; you are under no impressions that they are a monolithic bloc, but as you have no idea of just which factions are behind this and what games they are playing, you do not want to get involved any further.

B. You take Miss Zhou hostage to force all attention back to you. From there you can dictate your terms. It is unlikely that you can force unilateral retreat, but a challenge would be acceptable. You are still a member of the jianghu yourself, and they will find it hard to turn down. The best way would be to challenge all of them – one at a time, all at once, they can come at you however they wish. If the pirates kill even a single pugilist, things will never be salvaged. Of course, if you mess up you are probably dead.

C. You decide to fight alongside the Minamoto pirates to repel the pugilists. It is probably safer and less risky this way for yourself, and it would result in less loss of life in comparison to letting them sort it out themselves. By ending the fight decisively at the cove and turning them away before they get deeper into the island, you can minimize the bloodshed.

D. You decide to fight alongside the pugilists, turning on Yorimitsu and taking his head. You are close enough to do so quickly, before any intervention can happen. This is for the best – with a brutal show of force, if you are on the side of the pugilists, you could at least prevent an outright massacre from happening when they descend upon his womenfolk and children.
 

三十四 · Hundred Man Battle

Hundred Man Battle

You beckon at Zhou Zixia to come closer to you; she does so hurriedly, perhaps thinking that you have some plan to solve this little predicament. Well, she’s not wrong. You seize her by the neck, putting her into a chokehold. “Wh-what are you doing?” she cries out. You hadn’t rehearsed it with her beforehand, but her shock helps drive the point home. Zhou Dingqiu shouts out in concern for his daughter instantly as everyone’s attention turns to you. You move into the torchlight, making sure everyone sees where you are.

“Alright, that’s just about enough,” you call out, holding the girl tight against her struggles to break free. “You bore me, all of you. If you don’t want this cute young maiden here to get hurt, listen carefully to what I have to say.”

“This is – this is preposterous!” exclaims Zhou Dingqiu. “How vile can you be!”

“This much, I would say.”

“If you think you are going to force us to leave by taking my daughter hostage-“

“Of course not, Master Zhou. That would be entirely too boring. No, I have in mind something much more entertaining.” Yorimitsu stares at you for a second before bowing in gratitude and retreating. You push Zixia away, towards the scholar. He catches her – knowing what you have in mind, he draws a dagger and holds it to her throat. “Listen to Xu Jing or Miss Zhou here is going to bleed out all over the sand!” he shouts, a bit too convincingly.

“No, don’t actually do it,” you whisper.

“Oh, right. Of course,” nods Yu seriously.

“You scoundrel!” The pugilists seem to agree unanimously that this was not a very nice thing to do. You laugh, stepping closer to them. “If you are not going to leave here without a fight, I will kindly oblige you.”

“We did not come here to fight, we came to uphold justice!”

“I suppose our interpretations of justice do not coincide,” you say disinterestedly. “No matter. I have my own path, and you have yours. Right now that means if you want to get to the pirates, you must first get past me.”

“You are truly just like your master,” grimaces Zhou. “I am disappointed.”

“Better hope that is the only way I am like my master then, old man,” you grin, crouching low into a Shouwang stance. “Otherwise, the sea will run red with blood before I am done tonight.”

A burly pugilist steps in front of you, appearing to be confident in his strength. “I will be the first and only one to meet your challenge. My name is Mo Mindian, of –“ You cut his introduction short with a swift blow to his belly, felling him in a single blow. Blood trickles from his lips and his eyes have rolled up in his head, though the man still breathes. Drawing a deep breath, you shout your challenge cheerfully above the roar of the waves: “Enough words! There are one hundred and twenty two… twenty one of you, and if I am to listen to your long winded introductions it will be dawn before I have finished with you. Now, come at me!”

There is a brief moment of hesitation, but their fear is soon wiped away by anger – no matter their level of competence, they are still warriors. The first two to reach you fight unarmed. You have no idea of the school they belong to, nor do you care. They will serve for a quick warm-up. The two fighters approach from both sides, starting it off with a punch. Swaying away from their outstretched fists, you grip them at the elbow, your fingers digging into flesh. With a wet, ripping sound, you drag your fingers down their forearms, tearing away at their tendons. Your opponents collapse, screaming and clutching at their crippled arms, as you take another step closer towards the crowd.

More of them leap into action.

Evading their attacks, you roll away and dart between the enemy fighters with your qinggong, moving lightly across the sandy terrain. A few unskilled hands try to grab you, but you elude their grasp with ease, slipping away with deceptive movements. You lay into them with fist and claw, summoning your inner strength to augment your might. Every blow of yours cracks bone and rends flesh. The droplets of blood that spatter the sand are dark under the pale moonlight.

You feel two strong arms hook under your shoulders and lift you up from behind. Your feet leave the ground. Before you can struggle free, a series of powerful kicks land right in your torso. Gritting your teeth against the pain, you swing your legs upwards. Your feet catch the jaw of the fighter in front of you, dislocating it and toppling him. With tremendous effort, you break your captor’s grip, flipping around behind him and sending him to the ground with a knee to the back of his head. There is no time to rest, as more pugilists beset you from all sides. Whirling around, you dodge what you can and block what you cannot, striking out at your opponents when you see the opportunity.

A spear takes you in the side, but you snap off the shaft before it penetrates further and reward your assailant with a blow to the side of his temple – he is out like a light before he even hits the ground. Before long, you find yourself trapped: six swords surround you, all aimed for your neck. Songfeng. You crouch to the ground and and throw yourself against one of the swordsmen. You barrel into his knees, knocking him to the ground. Rolling to your feet, you recover before he can and put him down with a swift punch to the chest. Blood sprays from his mouth; you have no idea what you hit to make that happen, but it probably isn’t good for him.

With one fluid movement, you rise while plucking his sword from his motionless fingers, parrying the Songfeng blades. You know that their sword technique consists of fluid, continuous movements that pressure the opponent ceaselessly – with a quick flick of your wrist, you press the attack, swinging your blade without giving them time to transition into their next move. A swift stab to the thigh brings down one disciple while the remaining four are still twirling into position. He falls on his behind, the sword still sunk into his leg. Grabbing the sword arm of the closest one, you twist it. There is a loud crack as his forearm bends unnaturally; the sword drops from his limp hand and you catch it before it hits the ground. Sweeping upwards with that same sword, you slice into the arm of another Songfeng disciple, leaving a deep cut just under his shoulder.

You wince; you had attacked on your injured side, and that movement caused your spear injury to worsen. They do not hesitate to capitalize on your moment of weakness. A swift stab is sent flying towards your heart, but you manage to move away just in time for it to only strike your upper arm, the blade’s point lodging in bone. Pivoting on your feet, you swing around and grasp the hand that wielded that sword, crushing it in your grip. Your opponent screams.

More fighters surge to the aid of the Songfeng disciples, attempting to overwhelm you with sheer force. You cannot think of anything else but fighting right now. Punches. Kicks. Slashes and stabs. Some of them hit you, some do not. You hit back. Things become a blur as you allow your instinct to take over, focusing only on surviving the battle.

You hurl someone over your shoulder. As he lands on the backs of his fallen comrades, you end it by driving your fist into his stomach. You spit out the blood that has welled up in your mouth, wiping your lips on your arm. Your knuckles are bleeding and swollen, and a gash of your head has been dripping blood into your right eye for the last dozen minutes. Your vision is blurry, your breath disordered. Your chest feels like it is on fire. You have no idea how many cuts and scrapes you have suffered, and how many times you have nearly avoided dying, but it looks like there is now a lull in the storm.

Chuckling, you turn your gaze towards the remaining fighters. “Ha…” you pant heavily, rising up to your full height, “…are you taking a break? I suppose… you need a rest… don’t you?”

Whimpering men litter the beach, their groans growing louder as the stinging seawater rolls over their bodies with the rising of the tide.

“So… who’s next?” You raise a finger, pointing at the remaining pugilists in a challenging manner; none of the masters have joined the fray, instead opting to watch with ever increasing horror as you dismantled their strike force on your own. It looks like there are less than thirty of them left. To your surprise, your arm seems to have turned a strange shade of purple – you had not noticed it during the fight. You peer at it more closely. It might be broken.

“Looks like it’s broken!” calls out Xiahou Yu.

“No, it’s not. It just turns this colour when I get serious!” you shout back. “Now, do we continue the fun, or do the games end here?”

Zhou Dingqiu, Master Ji, and Master Gong step forward; the latter two rather nervously. “Why are you going to such lengths for a band of pirates?” asks Zhou, perplexed. “Is it the treasure they promised? I do not understand, Xu Jing.”

"Then I'll hit you until you do." Cracking your neck to work out the kinks, you beckon with your fingers, urging him to continue the fight.

The masters are more of a challenge than their disciples. Despite their age they are faster and stronger than their students, and in your current condition you are hard pressed to defend yourself against all three. Their relentless blows drive you back – Zhou’s sword, Ji’s palms and Gong’s fists show no mercy, pummeling you from all sides. Your defense fails. Your knees buckle under the force of their assault. Master Gong blindsides you from the right, driving both his fists into your ribcage. You are flung away a good distance, tumbling across the wet sand before skidding to a halt. Righting yourself, you regain your stance. The surf laps at your feet as the three masters approach.

Master Ji leaps at you, his palm outstretched. Summoning your strength in the stance of the Xianglong Palms, you meet his attack, palm-to-palm. It is a clash of internal energy – Ji is stunned when your neigong proves sufficient to rise to his challenge. He is pushed back across the beach, his palm still glued to yours as the struggle continues both externally and internally. Master Gong runs to his aid; planting both his hands on Master Ji’s back, he channels his qi into his ally. Your advance slows; the both of them dig in their heels, beginning to form some semblance of resistance.

“What… what is this feeling?” gasps Master Ji as his arm trembles. If he knows one thing, it is that if he wavers for even a second you will overpower him and strike a deciding blow, such is the strange and dangerous nature of your qi. You force your legs to take an step towards them. Then another. And another. Their feet slip, backpedalling into a retreat. Drawing upon reserves you never knew you had, you push forth in an inexorable advance, allowing your primordial energy to surge forward without restraint.

Then, Master Zhou arrives to their aid. Squaring his stance and steadying his footing, he slams his palms into Master Gong’s back with a shout, lending his energy to theirs. Their combined strength is sufficient to finally force you back. Your arm shivers as they attempt to break your guard – it feels as if your arm is about to snap like a twig under pressure. You grip your wrist with your other hand, gasping at the effort and the pain it causes you. There is no other choice.

You forcibly bring your rampaging qi under control, constraining it. Compacting it.

As expected, it reacts in as volatile a manner as it had during the tournament finals. Perhaps more. There is a loud bang, the sound of air being forced outwards sharply. The force of the internal energy channeled through your palm explodes, as you lose all control over it. An invisible pressure hurls the three masters away from you. Sand and surf flies up into the air.

Your legs give way. Sinking to your knees, you try to gulp for air. Every breath you take seems to burn your lungs. You look at your opponents. Master Ji seems to have taken the brunt of your attack – he is face down, unmoving on the ground. Master Gong is hunched over in pain, while Zhou Dingqiu gets to his feet unsteadily, his breathing heavy. You force yourself back up, grinning. Every nerve and muscle and bone in your body protests in excruciating pain, almost sending you back down, but you persist.

“Well… that was… exciting,” you say, haltingly. “How many of you… left?” You do a quick count with your eyes, wiping away the blood that is smearing your vision. “Including you, Master Zhou… twenty two, it seems. Not a big number.” You exhale, balling your hands into fists and raising them. “Do you want to give it another try? Perhaps this time you’ll get lucky.”

Zhou Dingqiu scowls, raising his sword again. “Your head is made of stone. I do not think even the gods themselves can beat any sense into you, Xu Jing.”

“Stop!” Unexpectedly, his son places himself between the two of you. “I think this is getting pointless, father. Just look around you!” The beach is filled with groaning and moving bodies, some half-dead, some unconscious. It is not certain whether any of them are dead, but in the chaos of the melee that is always a possibility. Zhideng continues, “It is our loss. We cannot take on the pirates with just twenty two men. Besides, our fellow pugilists will need care and aid. We cannot leave them here like this. Any further fighting will not serve our cause.” With a disgruntled look, the elder Zhou sheathes his sword, nodding in agreement. “Very well, my son. I suppose you are correct.”

“You are still fresh, Young Master Zhou,” you chuckle, swaying on your feet even so. “Aren’t you going to test yourself?” He gives you a sad smile and shakes his head. “As I have said before, I watched your fights in the tournament. I know when I am outclassed. It is your victory.” You aren’t so sure. A light breeze would knock you down right now, and it must be utterly obvious that you are in no more condition to fight while they still have twenty fresh fighters to throw at you. You grin wearily. “If you insist that I have won, then I suppose I have.”

“We have medicines,” says Yorimitsu carefully, as he steps back to the fore. He keeps his gaze trained on the Zhou father and son, giving them a slight bow. “If you promise to retreat immediately afterwards, and never step foot on this island again, I can have my healers tend to your wounded.”

The younger Zhou seems to be considering his proposal, but Zhou Dingqiu immediately shakes his head. “No. I thank you for your offer, pirate, but firstly, I do not trust you, and secondly, it would shame me even more to receive aid from an enemy. We will take care of our own. We do not need the Wo to spare us any charity.” Casting a withering glance at you, he turns and begins ordering the remaining fighters to start helping the fallen pugilists.

You laugh loudly before falling flat on your face, your limbs finally deciding that they have had enough of this abuse and that a vacation is in order.

Xiahou Yu and Zhou Zixia run to your side, turning you over.

“I think I might need some of those healers he talked about,” you groan, tasting the sand in your mouth.

***

“The Minamoto clan is eternally in your debt, Xu Jing.” Yorimitsu and his uncle bow to you on their knees, demonstrating their utmost respect. You had successfully chased away more than a hundred pugilists by yourself, sparing hundreds of lives from a terrible battle. In the aftermath, Zixia had returned with her family, promising that she would find a way to convey a reward to you for your help in the near future. She had managed to convince her friend to leave - Yorimitsu had allowed her husband to depart the clan, and hopefully the two of them will find a place to belong.

You cough, pulling yourself upright amidst the swaddle of bandages you find yourself tightly bound in. Your body is a sack full of pain at the moment, but you can still manage to move about, albeit slowly. “Does that mean you will listen to whatever I say?”

“My honour demands that you can have my life if you should require it,” says Yorimitsu seriously. “You went above and beyond for the likes of us even when you had no obligation to do so. I would entrust my life to you without hesitation.”

“If that is the case…”

***

You should solve the issue of their piracy, but what are the measures you can take?

A. You ask them to stay on the island but refrain from any further piracy from the time being. They should have stockpiled enough supplies to last for a brief while – you will arrange for aid when you return to the mainland. Hopefully the pugilists will not have sufficient strength to retaliate… and you hope that the Court doesn’t take notice and respond by bringing in the navy.

B. Yinhu Island is but a couple weeks’ sail away from here. It is a much larger island, and from experience you know that there are some patches of fertile soil around – it should be a suitable place for them to settle on, and they will likely be safe from any reprisals if they hide there. You give them directions to Maniac Island, and a letter to show to Zhang.

------

1. You ask them for all of their treasure – it doesn’t amount to much, but you will use it to negotiate with Yuhua Hall. Being an influential establishment, they might be able to conjure up some aid, especially for the women and children. You are unsure if this is the best choice in the long term, but it is probably the safest way to get help to them, if it succeeds.

2. You go straight to the governor, trying to convince him with a mixture of blandishments and threats, as well as bribery with the pirates’ treasure. A single word from him would make the Minamoto clan’s lives much easier, and it is the quickest way to help them. Every man has his price, and he may be more amenable to reason after the defeat of the pugilists.

3. You attempt to get into contact with the Crown Prince. You know for a fact that he does not spend all of his time in Chang’an; the time of the year seems right for him to embark on one of the Imperial Southern Inspections. You have little chance of crossing paths with him, but you could bribe a beggar to convey a message in your mutual code – Shun is smart enough to handle the rest on his own. He will be keen on recruiting the Minamoto, but you are also certain that he will not want any other organizations getting a whiff of this; that means that you will not be able to seek help for the Minamoto from any other group.

***

The pirates do not have much treasure they can offer; their money would be better spent on attempting to establish relations for their long-term prospects. To that end, they have decided to present to you a gift of a beautifully forged wodao – a slim and slender sabre similar to the ones in use by the Tang, but with a gentle curve to its back. You find that the balance of the masterwork blade is impeccable for both stabbing and slashing; it is balanced enough that you could handle it as if it were a regular sword. You cannot conceal it as with the Yuchang Sword, but if you have no use for it and times are hard, you could likely pawn it for some money.

Besides that, Yoriwaka, the stealth master of the clan, has offered to impart to you one of the techniques that he has mastered in his travels over the years.

A. Reikan. (霊勘, Spiritual Instinct) A technique that involves the use of qi in such a way that it augments the five senses of the practitioner. It is analogous to multiple similar techniques known by martial arts practitioners in the Central Plains. It requires a calm inner state to be used effectively, with the greatest effects being seen during meditation. (+2 Perception)

B. Kagemi. (影身, Shadow Body). A method of silent moving that melds well with your Kuanglang Step – Kuanglang Step will increase to a higher level, allowing you to be undetectable to all but an elite few. (Additional +2 Stealth to Kuanglang Step).

***

Your convalescence means that you will be unable to practice any martial arts for a while, at least until you can exert yourself again without vomiting blood all over the place. You decide to spend your time practicing other skills with Xiahou Yu. Of course, drinking is out.

A. You play with dice with him, using your cunning to figure out how to cheat at it. (+2 Sleight-of-Hand)

B. You practice art, getting pointers and tips on how to best hold a brush, and the most interesting way of cobbling together couplets. (+2 Artistic Skill)

C. You study history and the classics, absorbing knowledge from the learned scholar. (+2 Scholarly Knowledge)

D. The both of you have little knowledge of traps, but you work together to think up various theoretical ways to set up traps. (+2 Traps)
 

三十五 · Meeting at a Shrine

Meeting at a Shrine

The pigeon flies off, leaving the letter behind in your hand. You think you should learn how to train one of those from Master Zhang when you have the chance. Unfurling the letter, you take care not to touch the suspicious-looking stains. It looks like the pigeon has relieved itself repeatedly in a rather awkward fashion during its flight here. The letter is simple and to the point:

“My apprentice, the plight of these people that you have sent me is rather interesting, as are their skills. I will have set sail for Nippon by the time you read this letter, bringing along some of the Minamoto as my guides. I will check on your progress after I have completed my tour of their country.”

Crumpling up the paper, you toss it into the meagre fire you have going. As expected of your master; hopefully he won’t become a diplomatic incident. The sky has turned dark some time ago. There is a rumble of thunder. Looking up, you glimpse a brief flash of lightning through the holes in the ramshackle roof. With a sigh, Xiahou Yu finishes his records and begins packs up his writing utensils.

“I still do not see why you feel the need to write down every happening that has occurred each day,” you say. “It is not like we are doing anything important that needs to be immortalized in literature. We aren’t exactly Xuanzang on his journey to the west.”

“Habit,” replies Yu. “Besides, you never know when it might come in handy.”

You snort. “I am not so old that I need to write down everything I have experienced.”

“Well, there will come a day when we are old men. I will gladly share my journals with you then.”

You laugh, but a thunderous bang drowns out your intended reply. The rain begins to fall hard, spattering noisily against the rooftop. The roof of the old shrine keeps out most of the rain, just barely, but enough water begins to leak in to make the place uncomfortably wet. Xiahou Yu hurriedly puts away his tools before they get wet. You are about two days away from Xiangyang – there you should be able to find better shelter. For now, you have to make do with what you find on the road.

“Wasn’t there supposed to be a village near here?” wonders Yu aloud, looking at his map.

“Beats me,” you shrug. “At any rate, we couldn’t have progressed any further for today... wait.” You gesture at the scholar to stay still. “There’s someone coming,” you say. He looks puzzled. “Is there?” You can faintly hear footsteps splashing through the mud and rain – there seems to be only one person. Even in your weakened state you should still be able to take a single bandit, but if luck did not go your way it could be some martial arts master after your head. You did not leave Yangzhou on good terms with the orthodox schools there after all – it would be no surprise if they sent someone after you. Your hand drifts to the wodao at your side, ready to draw it if necessary.

The doors to the shrine are thrown open. You see a stocky man standing in the pouring rain. A flash of lightning throws his features under an ominous silhouette – his beard is wild and unruly, and his eyes bulge out like that of a fish. His thick lips part and widen into a sneer. “Ah, fellow travellers,” says the newcomer in a polite fashion unbefitting his looks. His voice is deep and gravelly. “I wonder if you would let me stay a while until the storm has passed.” You nod cautiously – though there is a sword by his side, he is dressed in the robes and accessories of an itinerant Taoist priest. He does not seem like a pugilist of the jianghu.

The man’s ugly grin grows bigger as he steps over the threshold, closing the doors behind him. His strange, large eyes roll over the view in front of him, finally resting upon your sword-hand. “I suppose these are dangerous times, but I assure you that you have nothing to fear from me.” You nod again, releasing your grip on your sword. Then, you put on a smile. “That is very reassuring indeed. Come, make yourself comfortable by the fire. It is not much, but every little bit helps when we are far from home.”

The Taoist does so, grinning all the way. He opens up his backpack and pulls out a large gourd of wine, taking a long swig from it. With a grunt, the man holds out the gourd and shakes it, offering it to the two of you. Xiahou Yu shakes his head quickly and retreats with a nervous smile, nibbling his thumb. “You must pardon my friend,” you explain, “he has had some bad encounters with alcohol. I will gladly drink with you.” You sip the wine politely, not wanting to imbibe too much. As you return the gourd to the Taoist, he nods approvingly.

“So, Master priest, what brings you all the way out here?” You had chosen a rather remote route to Xiangyang; you were certainly off the beaten track. It was a quick route, all things considered, but the terrain was more difficult to traverse.

“Matters of the Tao, of course,” smiles your guest. “My name is Zhong Hai, exorcist of spirits and demons, hailing from a long line of esteemed ghost-catchers. I have been called to investigate some incidents of meddlesome ghosts in a nearby village. Who might you two young gentlemen be?”

“Ah, pardon our manners,” you reply, bowing. “I am Xu Jing and this is Xiahou Yu. We are two travelling scholars on our way to Xiangyang-“

“Ghosts?” interrupts Xiahou Yu. “Did you say ghosts?” He is trembling, but not out of fear – out of excitement. “I didn’t know that you liked supernatural occurrences,” you quip, “with all your focus on arts and books.”

“Oh, I have always wanted to meet one! The first stories I learnt to read were a collection of ghostly tales. Sadly the real thing seems to be far rarer than people claim they are; I have never seen one. Master Zhong, you must have a lot of experiences subduing these spirits, right?” says Yu excitedly.

“That I have. I have wandered the land for over thirty years in my line of work,”replies the exorcist. “Why, lad, do you wish to see one?”

“It is one of my life’s goals,” replies the scholar proudly. Zhong Hai smiles thinly. “I would advise against it – the living and the dead are best kept apart… but I will not lie; it can also be one of the most strange and enchanting sights for mortal eyes. If you are that eager I would not mind some company on my next job.”

“How about it, Jing?” grins Xiahou Yu as he turns to you. “Why don’t we check this out? Don’t tell me you aren’t interested in supernatural incidents?”

***

A. You go along with Xiahou Yu and Zhong Hai to investigate this allegedly haunted village. You believe in the existence of spirits and deities, like every other person in the world, but you have never seen one yourself. It should be an enlightening and educational experience, no matter what happens.

B. You prefer to forge ahead to Xiangyang. You allow Xiahou Yu to go off with Zhong Hai if that is what he wants – you have no interest in bossing him around – you can always meet up with him back at the city after he has had his little adventure. On your part, you have no interest in hunting for ghosts and demons.

C. You remind Xiahou Yu that he has a debt to you, forbidding him from going off with the priest. None of you are going to go gallivanting about after ethereal entities – you have real things to investigate in Xiangyang, and this will likely only become a waste of time.
 

三十六 · Night at the Mansion

Night at the Mansion

A plain, gloomy ceiling makes itself the first thing your eyes see when they open. Your mind feels fuzzy, as if a dozen drunken martial artists had danced upon it with their tramping feet. It looks like you are in someone’s bedroom. A single candle is the only thing that shines in this place. There are windows, but it appears to be dark outside. The air is deathly still; there is no breeze to speak of, nor are there any insects singing their nocturnal song. Suddenly, a great flash of light illuminates the entire room. The thunder arrives just a beat behind, loud enough to rattle the wooden frames of the windows. Then, the silence of the night is abruptly disturbed by a torrent of rain, pouring down from the heavens without end as if Yu Shi desired to flood the world.

How did you get here? Your memories are still faint, but you vaguely recall meeting the Taoist Zhong Hai while sheltering from another thunderstorm with Xiahou Yu. The both of you had opted to follow him on an exorcism. After that, you had reached a village – you do not recall how long it took you to get there – where the elder had provided Zhong Hai with more details about his mission. It seems that ghosts had been kidnapping their young men, swooping down in the middle of the night and spiriting them away. The elder claimed that these men had been taken to an abandoned mansion up in the hills. You remember little after that, only that you had reached the mansion without any obstacles. There had been something off about the courtyard as you marched towards the entrance… horses? You recall seeing four horses, and wondering why there would be any. Then, you had stepped across the threshold of the main doors.

The next thing you knew, you were in this room.

You sit up on the admittedly comfortable bed and close your eyes. As you focus, the sound of the raindrops become sharper, each patter a distinct note to your ears. You breathe in, sensing the humid air and the slight breeze that has sprung up. The room is very dusty, rewarding you with an irritated nose. You sneeze. The temperature is cold – any colder and your breath would create puffs. You do not, however, hear any living thing.

Opening your eyes again, you get up from the bed. There is no other furniture here besides the bed and the table upon which the candle is set. From the dust, it does not seem like anyone has been in here for quite some time. You check your possessions; the talismans that Zhong Hai gave you are still there, folded up safely in your clothes. Plucking the candle from the table, you hold it out in front of you to light your way. You fumble for the door, pushing at it. It is locked, barred from within. You look around you again – there is no place for anyone to hide, not even under the small bed. The windows too are barred from the inside. How strange. It would be spooky, if not for the fact that Master Zhang once told you of a master assassin who could contort himself through the smallest spaces. Sadly, he found himself in a box one day, having been tricked by his mark, and ended up in several boxes soon after. This is not anything you would need to resort to ghosts to explain… you think.

Shrugging, you unbar the door and let yourself out.

The corridor outside is dimly lit, with little white lanterns lining the walls at far intervals. Here and there long strips of tattered cloth sway gently, hanging down from the ceiling to about the top of your head. They must have been decorations once, but they are too moth-eaten now for you to be sure. Some of the cloth strips are stained with rusty brown spatters, others tied into loops that you could probably fit a head through. A dyeing process gone wrong? The artistic tastes of the mansion’s inhabitants? You will never know, you suppose.

Looking to your left and right, the corridor seems to recede into infinite darkness. There seems to be no difference as to which way you pick. You decide to just step forward on a whim, your candle jutting out in front of you. The floorboards creak as you walk, almost in rhythm to the pouring rain and rumbling thunder. Here and there you try to see through the windows, but between the storm and the darkness you cannot make out a single thing outside of the mansion.

A slight chill runs through you for no reason, and you stop.

There appears to be a faint melody in the air – someone is humming a tune. There appears to be a door to your left that you have not noticed before. The lanterns in front of you seem to have gone dark – for some reason you do not quite understand, you feel goosebumps whenever you stare into the black void ahead. You turn around – it looks like the path you came from has also been swallowed up by darkness. Perhaps the lanterns have been blown out by a sudden gust of wind? Turning your attention to the room, you see that it is well-lit; you can see the glow of light through the windows. The pleasant voice is coming from somewhere within. It seems to be that of a girl, and the tune is strangely familiar to you; though you do not remember where you have heard it before, it must have been before you left the palace.

You hear the sound of water splashing unlike that of the rain outside. Whoever is inside is probably bathing…

***

A. You peek. You cannot call yourself a man if you don’t. Besides, there are very legitimate reasons for this, such as… reconnaissance. Yes, that is it. You need to find out who else is here besides you, Xiahou Yu and Zhong Hai. There were horses in the courtyard. There must be some living people here – why would ghosts need horses? If you do not look, you will not find out. Ergo, you must p… reconnoitre.

B. You do not peek. You are a gentleman. Such actions are very impolite. Of course you aren’t scared of possibly attracting the attention whatever is bathing within, it is just the rudeness of poking a hole through the paper and peering inside that you are against. Nothing to do with fear of the supernatural at all… nothing at all. In fact, to prove your gentlemanly guts, you will knock on the door and attempt to engage the bather in conversation. Politely.

C. You ignore the bather, opting to tread forward into the darkness alone despite the faint warning of your instincts.
 

三十七 · The Maiden in the Mansion

The Maiden in the Mansion

Bandits and rival pugilists were one thing, but could you defeat a ghost with your fists? You are unsure… but surely you have more guts than this? Drawing a deep breath and suppressing your trepidation, you summon all of your courage and knock on the door. The sound of splashing water stops. A voice calls out sharply: “Who’s there?” You are unsure how to answer. It sounds like a rather familiar voice, one you have heard recently. It also sounds nothing like how you think a ghost would sound, being full of warmth and life and very hostile suspicion.

“I beg my pardons for intruding on your bath, but-“

“I do not recall seeing any male attendants when I arrived. Who are you?” the voice repeats, more menacingly this time. Water splashes onto the floor of the room as the person inside gets up from their bath in a hurry. You can hear the ruffling of clothes. Well, it is only good manners to allow her to get dressed, you supposed. While waiting, you continue to explain yourself.

“I am but a humble traveller, lost in this storm. Could I-“

“I don’t think so!”

The door bursts open suddenly. There is a loud crack – the tail end of a whip wraps itself around your wrist. You would never have been caught this easily were you prepared, or had you been in top condition, but right now… With a sudden jerk you are brought down, falling painfully against the wooden floor. A foot lands on your neck before you can move an inch.

The girl calls out in an imperious voice. “You are an orthodox pugilist sent to pursue me, aren’t you? You… wait, you? From the tournament?”

You finally recognize that voice. Nameless. The Holy Maiden of the Fire Cult.

“Hello, princess,” you say, twisting around and trying to get a glimpse of her. Her foot presses down even harder on your neck, telling you that it is a bad idea. You give up for now and slump loosely on the floor like a downtrodden worm. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Don’t give me that, Man Tiger Pig. What are you doing here? Did you come to peek, like the lecherous, perverted pig that you are?”

“I swear, the thought never crossed my mind,” you say quickly. “I am a gentleman of the highest order.”

“Oh, of course I believe you,” laughs the Holy Maiden sarcastically as she grinds her heel on the back of your neck. “Answer my question. Why are you here? I did not think you were working with the orthodox sects.”

“It was just coincidence, that’s all,” you reply. “I had no idea you were here. I would have steered far away from this place if I knew. Your company is entirely unpleasant to me. Now, let me up or I’ll have to get serious. I’m not here to fight with you.” She is a tough opponent for you even at your best, but if she found out that you had been severely injured, any negotiations from now on would be severely lopsided in her favour. Besides, you aren’t lying: you would have to get serious. A quick grab at her sensitive spots should do it, though you might get an arm broken for your efforts. You feel the pressure on your neck lessen as she lifts her foot. Massaging your sore neck, you sit up, groaning all the while.

“I think that was a bit uncalled for,” you say, looking up at the beautiful girl standing warily in front of you. She shrugs. “You just have that sort of lecherous look that deserves a beating. Now, can you tell me why you are here?”

“I will, but I want to know why you are here after I finish,” you say. She nods once, keeping her eyes pinned on your hands even as she does so. It looks like she still doesn’t trust you.

“I’m here ghost-hunting.”

Her face pales visibly, but she keeps her self-assured tone. “Ha ha. A good joke, Man Tiger Pig. What do you mean, ghost-hunting? There aren’t any ghosts here. I was received by the lady of the mansion just yesterday, and treated kindly.”

“Are you blind? Look around you.” You gesture at the ominous strips of cloth, at the darkened hallways, and at the dusty floor. “No matter how you look at it, it’s clearly not normal.”

“Well,” she replies, a nervous tone creeping into her voice. “I don’t see anything out of the usual. Everything is norm… is… is…” Her eyes widen, as if seeing the place revealed in truth for the first time. “What is…” She is frozen, stock still for a moment. The lights in the room behind her flicker. For a brief instance you see two rooms overlaid upon each other – one bright and cosy, the other dark and creepy.

“Here’s my chance!” You whip out a talisman from your clothes and plant it right on the middle of her forehead, keeping it pressed there with your fingers. “Begone, evil spirit!” She stares back at you, having regained her composure. “What do you think you are doing?” she asks sweetly.

“Uh… exorcising a ghost?”

“I-I’m not a ghost!” she yells, striking out at you. You barely evade her attack in time, leaping back. The talisman flutters to the floor between the both of you. Either it is a useless fake, or she is not a ghost at all. You are not sure which is the correct answer. Suddenly, the flickering lights are blown out, leaving your candle as the only source of light in the darkened hallway. The Holy Maiden gives a short, girlish shriek, rooted to the spot. You hear a light, haunting laughter of a woman surrounding you, murmured words that you cannot make out.

“Talismans!” shouts the girl. “You have them, right? Use your talismans!” You draw out another talisman, waving it around in the air helplessly. How were you supposed to use one of these things? Suddenly, the talisman catches fire. You drop it before the flames reach your fingers. As it burns to ashes on the floor, the darkness seems to retreat. The lanterns come back to life with their steady glow, though the gloomy, dusty demeanour of your surroundings remain. You suppose those talismans do work after all.

The girl breathes heavily, having sunken to her knees in fright. “What, is the Holy Maiden scared of ghosts?” you say, though your heart is gripped by a small chill too. “Shouldn’t you have some sort of holy light to chase away spirits?” She stares at you angrily, but you wonder if she didn’t have some sort of innate protection – after all, things only started getting really strange after you mentioned ghosts to her, shaking her composure. Well, what’s done is done.

“So, you still haven’t told me why you are here,” you say cheerily, peering into the room she was bathing in; there is still a rusted tub inside, but the water is brackish. You probably shouldn’t tell her to look at the room again.

“The machinations of the so-called upstanding orthodox sects,” she says with a look of disgust. “Vahista insisted on stopping a while at Wufushan for you, thinking that there was a chance you might come. I have no idea why he would invite such a lout, but it turned out badly. More than a hundred orthodox swordsmen attacked us there, separating us. My handmaidens then acted as a decoy so that I could escape alone, while they led the enemy on a merry chase.”

“Alone? You mean you came here alone?”

“Yes. I was caught in a sudden storm and needed shelter.”

You vaguely recall seeing four horses out in the courtyard; it was likely that one of it was hers, but who did the other three horses belong to? You are certain they were not the Taoist’s.

“Anyway,” you sigh, moving forward. “What do you know about this mansion? You said that a lady invited you in.” She follows you, a reluctant look on her face. “That’s right. Lady Mi, who is living here with her maids. That is why I said I did not see any men around. You were acting suspiciously from the start – no, you have always been a suspicious fellow, so it was only natural that my keen senses picked up on your perverted desires.”

“I’m not, not at all. You are just a paranoid girl. Did you inhale too much smoke from worshipping that fire of yours?”

You dance away from the crack of her whip, keeping your candle steady. “Watch it!” you shout. “I wonder just who taught you to be so rude,” she says, an angry grin on her face. “You aren’t any less rude yourself,” you retort.

“Only to lowly, insolent dogs like you, who don’t deserve mercy.”

“Yes, yes, lowly insolent dogs like me who so happen to have the talismans that can chase away ghosts.” You flash a talisman at her, grinning as you step out of range of her whip. A look of fear passes over her face as she hurries to catch up to you. “R-right,” she says, “I suppose I can tolerate your presence for now. Not because of ghosts or anything like that, but because you would be too scared to proceed without my companionship. I will do you a favour, Man Tiger Pig.”

“Of course you will,” you sneer, glad at having gotten one over her this time. You should probably lord it over this arrogant girl while you can. “By the way, you have been here longer than I have, with those ghosts,” you say, enjoying the look of discomfort on her face. “Can you tell where we are?”

She looks around her. “This place seems a bit bigger than I remember, but the layout appears to not have changed too much. I suppose we are in the west wing. If that is the case…”

***

There are a few interesting rooms that you can reach quickly from here. You decide to visit:

A. The library chambers. There might be some things of interest that you can find in the library. Perhaps the scholar will be there, too.

B. The kitchen. You are feeling rather hungry. Sure, you might not be able to find any food here, but no harm looking. Besides, you have heard before that a kitchen is the least haunted of any place… you think.

C. The main foyer. You are heading straight for the main exit. Best to make sure you can escape first. It is too bad about Xiahou Yu and Zhong Hai, but you can come back for them after looking around outside.

***

“All right, that’s decided then,” you say. “Let’s head there.”

The two of you walk slowly and quietly along the hallways. The storm is still going strong outside, with frequent flashes of lightning illuminating your path harshly. The candle has melted down to about half of its original length – it probably will not last another hour, but at least the corridors are lit dimly by the lanterns. Suddenly, the girl behind you speaks up.

“Say… what is your name?”

“Well, that is rather sudden,” you say, not looking back. “Don’t you just call me by Man Tiger Pig? Why do you need to know my name?”

“I was just wondering,” she says, “since there was this… boy that I once knew. You remind me of him.”

“Oh? A childhood sweetheart?” you laugh.

“Of course not,” she snaps. “He was just as vile and crude as you are. I swore that if I ever saw him again I would cut him into eighteen pieces and feed him to the wolves.”

“Well, that gives me no incentive to admit that I was the boy even if I actually were him. What are you, stupid?”

You prepare to duck a blow from the violent girl, but she doesn’t respond to your taunt.

***

A. You give her your name.

B. You don’t give her your name.
 

三十八 · Man in Black in the Library

Man in Black in the Library

“Xu Jing.”

“Xu Jing… You wouldn’t be… No, it doesn’t matter now, does it?” She shakes her head, a slightly melancholic look on her face.

“You are rather strange, aren’t you?” you ask with a laugh. “First you ask my name, then you say it doesn’t matter? Make up your mind.”

“No, I didn’t mean that-”

You interrupt her. “So, now that you know my name, am I expected to keep calling you Holy Maiden in return?”

“…very well,” she replies reluctantly. “Yunzi… that name should do, for you.”

“Yunzi, huh? I have no problems calling you that – it’s less of a sting to my pride than praising the oh-so-Holy Maiden at any rate. It is my unfortunate pleasure to meet you, Miss Yunzi. Shall we be off?” You give her a mocking bow, eliciting a rather nasty glare from the girl. You wonder if it wouldn’t be easier on you to just ditch her somewhere.

After some more walking, you spot something moving in the gloom ahead, near the library entrance. Stopping in your tracks, you reach for another talisman – there are about eight left. “W-what is it?” asks Yunzi nervously. As your eyes focus, you see that it is a man clothed all in black, fiddling with the door. His movements seem unsteady and fatigued. “Do you see? That man?” you whisper. She squints, peering down the dimly lit corridor. “I can barely make him out… wait. That silhouette looks familiar. I think he is one of the leaders that attacked us at Wufushan.”

“Are you certain? I wouldn’t be so sure about recognizing someone from just a silhouette.”

“Shut up. I’ll be certain after I’ve brought him down and taken a good look at him.”

The man opens the door and enters the room. The both of you creep forward quietly. By the time you reach the door, you hear a girl giggling inside. “Well, that can’t be good,” you sigh. “We should go check out the other places, right?” asks Yunzi hopefully. You shake your head. “Of course not. This is perfect. Hold this.” Passing the candle to her, you pull out a talisman. Then, you draw your sword and kick down the door, leaping inside with a shout.

You see the man in the embrace of a pale, half-dressed girl, their lips locked together. Yunzi stifles a gasp behind you. As the ethereal girl draws back, you can see wispy tendrils of fog being drawn into her mouth from the man’s gaping jaws. His eyes have rolled up into his head and his features seem shrivelled. The girl turns her attention to you, her eyes flat and dead. She seems rather solid for a ghost, but there is no fooling your eyes. She is not of the living, not anymore.

The ghostly girl’s nose wrinkles as she sniffs the air in your direction. “The poisonous, foul-tasting boy? It looks like our illusions didn’t cage you as well as we’d hoped. What business do you have with me? You are interrupting my pleasure.”

“Now isn’t that funny?” you say, “I don’t recall asking to be knocked out and put into some lousy room. That should be my line. What business do you have with us?”

The ghost sighs, cradling her meal gently. “I suppose the priest you came with didn’t explain it to you. Why should-“ You dart forward and wave a talisman in her face. With an ugly shriek, she drops the man and shrinks back, backing away from the piece of paper. “I would appreciate some answers,” you ask sweetly. “Fine! Fine!” moans the ghost in a panic. She explains with a hurried shout, “We abduct or seduce young men so that we can partake of their yang energy and transfer it to our mistress, Lady Mi!” Suddenly, your talisman burns up, turning into ashes. It looks like they do not have a long shelf-life. Before you can draw another, the ghost turns incorporeal, fading away with a frightened look on her face and escaping your questioning.

With some disappointment, you turn your attention to the man on the ground. He is breathing, but barely. A glint of metal catches your attention; reaching into his robes, you pull out a silver crest with the Imperial symbol. A high-ranking palace operative? With a start, you peer at his face again. Though the feeding has aged and shrunken him, his face still remains slightly familiar. You are unable to put a name to the face, but you think he might have been a lackey of Grand Eunuch Li. His eyes open, darting wildly around the room. Then, they focus on you.

“Xu Jing, is the coast clear?” asks Yunzi, as if expecting you to clear the room before her royal entry. “C-can I come in?” She seems about to panic. “In a moment,” you call back. “There’s something fishy about the room.”

“Ah…” exhales the man on the floor. His shriveled arm grabs yours – in the dim light you can make out a circular tattoo of a black dragon on his wrist. Could he have some sort of connection with the Black Dragon Society? Even in his weakened state his grip is strong enough that you cannot break it easily. The man’s gaze wanders all over your face, and a sudden light of recognition dawns in his glazed eyes. “You… are you…” he groans.

You look at him impassively. “Xu Jing! H-hurry up! I think there’s a strange wind blowing outside here!” It’s probably just her imagination, but you should decide what to do quickly.

***

A. You can end his life quickly and bloodlessly – Yunzi would likely be too nervous of her surroundings to check the corpse properly, and you can blame it on the ghost. An agent of the secret police and possible member of the Black Dragon Society that has recognized you and is likely working for Eunuch Li is a person you cannot allow to live.

B. There are too many questions you need to ask him. You keep him alive for now so that you and Yunzi can interrogate him – if he was truly part of the swordsmen that attacked her, this means things are a lot more complicated than you had been led to believe. You can always try to silence him later, though you are not certain you will get a better chance.
 

三十九 · Lady Mi

Lady Mi

You reach out, preparing to kill him with a swift blow. Considering his current condition it would probably be swift mercy. Your hand pauses, hesitating as he stares at you. It is strange – just a few years before you would probably have plunged a dagger in his neck without a second thought, but now, when you are able to take a life easily with your bare hands, you find yourself wondering if you should kill a helpless man. Your hesitation does not last long, however. This is for the sake of ridding Shun of his enemy’s pawn. No matter what, the eunuchs are ultimately out to secure their own power, and if Shun is to wield and exercise influence on the throne that would go against their interests. The eunuchs and their lackeys can never be trusted.

In the next second, the light in the man’s eyes is snuffed out forever. You take the imperial crest from his clothes and tuck it into your own. It may come in handy in the future.

“He’s dead,” you call out to Yunzi. “It looks like the ghost drained him dry.” As she steps tentatively into the room, you step aside to allow her a look at the corpse. With some trepidation, she creeps closer to the dead body and begins examining it. “What are you doing?” you ask. “I need to find out exactly who is after me,” she mutters, “Perhaps he’s got something on him as identification. Don’t distract me.” She spots the tattoo on his wrist and holds it up. “What is this?”

“A black dragon, it looks like,” you shrug. “Perhaps the Black Dragon Society? Have you heard of them?” She shakes her head. You begin to explain. “I wouldn’t call them orthodox. Far from it. Why were you convinced the people who attacked you were of the orthodox sects?”

“Who else would attack us? I also recognized some of them using orthodox techniques, though not all,” she replies, trying to recall details of the attack. “Anyway, where would I find this Black Dragon Society? I would have words with them-”

The entire mansion shakes, shuddering right down into its very foundations. You hear an unearthly scream from the direction of the main hall, and a fierce yell – it sounds like the Taoist, Zhong Hai. “Let’s go!” shouts Yunzi, looking anxiously down the corridor. You nod and take the lead, sprinting down the corridor. The lanterns flicker and go out as you pass them, but you allow your senses to lead the way. Your surroundings gradually grow colder. The sound of the rain and thunder fade away, leaving behind an eerie silence broken occasionally by faint sounds of battle ahead of you.

A fierce duel greets your sight when you arrive at the main foyer. Though Xiahou Yu is nowhere to be seen, the Taoist is battling a beautiful middle-aged lady, his wooden sword making wide sweeping arcs that repel the woman’s long, extending sleeves. “I wonder how much cloth she’s hiding in there,” you mutter as Yunzi comes to a stop behind you. “That’s Lady Mi, the mistress of the mansion!” she exclaims.

“Well, I suppose she’s a ghost too. By the way, did they offer you anything to eat while you were their esteemed guest?” Her face immediately turns green as she suppresses the urge to vomit. You chuckle, preparing to go to the Taoist’s aid. “If you’re too scared, you can sit this one out.” She gives you a painful punch in the back. “Y-You forget who you are talking to. I won’t lose to a pervert.” You leap into the fray, Yunzi following soon after while muttering a foreign prayer. Instantly, two long strips of fabric shoot out from the woman’s sleeves to intercept the both of you. You cut yours down easily, while Yunzi grabs the one sent after her in her hands. It begins to smoulder. Lady Mi arches her painted eyebrow, turning her gaze to the Holy Maiden.

“What is this? I give you shelter and you attack your hostess for the sake of a man? Come, child, he has poisoned your thoughts. This is not your fight.” says the lady of the mansion, her voice reverberating throughout the hall though her mouth does not move.

“This sounds strangely familiar-“

“Where have I heard this before-“

You speak at the same time as Yunzi does. Pausing, the two of you look at each other. You can’t help but give a wry smile, just slightly, and she appears to do the same. “Oh come now, pay attention to the enemy, boy!” shouts Zhong Hai as he barrels past you, guzzling from his gourd of wine. He spits out the wine at Lady Mi, who leaps back with a look of deadly anger on her face. You dart to the right, Yunzi to the left. A spirit she might be, but she remains corporeal; perhaps the Taoist has pinned her down via some ritual. Though her sleeves are a weapon that you have not encountered before, you are able to grasp its movements rather easily – even in your current condition you can manage to fend off her attacks.

You slowly close the distance, slashing at the unending waves of cloth. There seems to be no limit to the amount of fabric she is shooting out, and it would probably be a bad idea to get caught by one of those strips. Suddenly, Lady Mi gives out a cry. Moving faster than you can, Yunzi had managed to weave her way through and deliver a powerful blow to the woman. As Lady Mi staggers backwards, the Taoist takes his chance and dives forward, driving his wooden sword straight at her chest. It hits her, causing green smoke to spew forth.

There is a sudden change in the atmosphere. Opening her mouth so wide that her jaw appears to have come unhinged, the woman roars, a deep, guttural sound that rattles your bones. A sudden gust of strong wind knocks all of you back. You skid across the polished floorboards, coming to a painful halt against a nearby pillar.

Lady Mi’s form begins to distort. A dark miasma begins emanating from her person. Her throat balloons. Her skin turns a greenish gray, and her eyes go yellow, bulging outwards. The once painted lips split, growing wider and thicker. She lets out a single croak.

Then, faster than your eyes can follow, a dark pink tongue unfurls itself from her gaping maw and lashes out at Zhong Hai. It catches him and retracts, pulling him towards the spirit. With a monstrous laugh, Lady Mi twirls her head around and smashes the Taoist through a wall. Before you or Yunzi can react, she crouches briefly before hopping forward, clearing the entire length of the hall in a single bound. A pair of palms strike you in the abdomen hard – you find yourself soaring through the air, dazed. Yunzi is struck down easily before you have landed, unable to put up any resistance against the slimy monster.

“Toad demoness,” groans Zhong Hai, as he stumbles out of the hole in the wall. “A powerful one, too. I came unprepared. Boy, when you see an opening, run.”

“Foolish humans,” growls Lady Mi. “I will have you all die here.” She turns back to attack Zhong Hai again, perhaps correctly seeing him as the real threat, but before she can do so there is a loud keening in the air.

“Not if I can help it!” Xiahou Yu runs into the foyer, a beautiful girl – ghost – by his side. A dozen other ghosts appear, swarming the toad demoness and pinning it down as it screams. “There you are,” you say irritably from your prone position on the ground. “Could you please tell me what is going on?” Yu nods, though he says “I’ll explain everything after we get out of here, Jing. First, we have a demon to subdue.”

“Brother Yu, my sisters and I will suppress the demon, but we cannot hold out forever. She is too powerful. Please, run!” pleads the girl, holding onto Yu’s hands.

“I will not abandon you here, Xiaoqing.” The scholar shakes his head while grasping her hands firmly. “It is okay, I have figured out a way to defeat the demoness. Remember what you told me about my friend being immune to ghostly qi draining because his qi was somehow poisonous to you?”

“Hey, Yu, I see where you are going and I do not like it!” you shout out, sitting up suddenly.

“Jing, quickly! While the ghosts are holding down the toad demoness, kiss it! Kiss it deeply! I am quite certain that will destroy it!” shouts Xiahou Yu.

“You are out of your mind! Look at that mouth, it’s big enough to eat my head!” you shout back.

“It’s our only chance!” he replies.

“If what he says is true, it might just work, boy! Do it! If it doesn’t work then we can just run!” Zhong Hai adds his support to the plan.

Yunzi laughs as she comes over to you, stretching out a hand to help you up. “Sounds like a plan that fits your perverted tendencies. Besides, that’s the sort of thing you are only fit to kiss, with your filthy lips.” You glare at her.

***

A. She’s crossed the line. If you are going to kiss a monster, you might as well kiss a beautiful girl too, to balance things out. It’s too bad that she’s the only living one around, but she’ll have to do. You steal a kiss from her for that uppity remark before jumping in to kiss the toad demoness. Hopefully this works.

B. They are right – well, if they are right, this is the best thing you can do. You will bravely sacrifice your own lips for the sake of the greater good, and kiss the toad demoness. No matter what snide comments Yunzi makes, you are doing this for your comrades, not because you want to kiss those slimy big lips. You are not a pervert.

C. There is no way you are going to do this. The ghosts are giving you an opening; it is time to make a run for it rather than put your lips to the task of pressing themselves up against glistening, drippy, fleshy toad demon mouths. What if it tongues you? Just thinking about it is enough to make you shudder. Running is the definitely right choice here. If you run, the others will be forced to follow.
 

四十 · Road to Xiangyang, Again

Road to Xiangyang, Again.

“If you insist,” you grumble, grasping her hand. You don’t know why you did it, not one bit. As she pulls you up, you take the opportunity to dart forwards, tugging her against you. Your lips press up against hers gently and briefly. Her eyes widen in surprise as she freezes up. You let her go with a sly grin. “Well, those filthy lips have now degraded your own, princess,” you say mockingly, though your heart is thumping rather furiously underneath your blasé exterior for reasons you do not quite understand. Leaving behind the stunned girl trying to get to grips with what has just happened, you turn towards the toad demon and break into a sprint.

“Well, here goes nothing!” As you approach, every fine detail of those wrinkled, slimy lips come into focus. You leap onto the monstrous Lady Mi. Gritting your teeth, you clamp your mouth over its maw. Nothing is happening. You feel the mushy flesh sliding around and the stank, fetid breath of the surprised monster. Nothing seems to be happening, except for a certain nasty catch in your throat that is about to cause you to empty your stomach. “Blow! Blow into it!” shouts Xiahou Yu. Cursing the day you stepped foot into this mansion, you blow as hard as you can. The demon shrieks. Plumes of foul green vapour begin shooting out from its skin as it scratches at you, attempting to pull you off, but you can sense it weakening. Still, it is not dead.

“It is not enough,” shouts Zhong Hai. “We need to take more conclusive action! Keep it occupied while I set up the talismans!” You are unable to ask how long he needs, as the wild, sticky tongue of the toad demoness suddenly finds its way halfway down your throat. You gag, but your willpower keeps you clinging on as you continue to breath into your opponent, your lips closed firmly over its own. You wave your hand about in a panic, hoping that they’ll hurry up – you cannot hold on for much longer. After what seems like an eternity, there is a flash of lightning. You feel a round, smooth object, much like a large pearl, being pushed into your mouth. Stuck in the position that you are, you cannot help but swallow. The demon shrieks. The object of your long kiss evaporates, turning into a puff of pale smoke and scattering into thin air.

Almost instantly, your surroundings seem to shift and change. Light begins to stream in through the small holes in the roof and the half open windows. For some reason, it is now day. You cough and sputter, groaning as you try to gulp in as much air as you can. Even the dusty atmosphere of the abandoned mansion is better than that stench you endured while kissing the demon.

But for now, things seem to be over.

***

You find the other two men in black sucked dry of their vitality, leaving behind nothing but dried up corpses. A few of the young villagers were still alive, but it seems that most of them had expired by the time Zhong Hai found them. The mansion had not always been a site for such horrors; as it turns out, it had once belonged to Yang Xue, the greatest traitor to the country in recent history. Though his immediate family had not stayed here, it had served as a residence for some of his closer kin. Upon his betrayal, an Imperial edict had decreed the death of everyone in the mansion. They had not resisted, but their end was bloody anyway. Upon hearing the edict, the women hung themselves to prevent violation prior to their execution. Some years later, the toad demoness moved in, enslaving the resident spirits and demanding that they supply her with fresh yang energy by kidnapping and seducing any males they come across.

“Now we are free, thanks to you, Brother Yu,” says the remaining ghost, Xiaoqing, primly – the others had dissolved into the sunlight with peaceful smiles. She had been one of the maids of the mansion prior to her death; now she was seated under an umbrella, shielding her from the sun. Her voice is weak, as it seems daylight does not agree with ghosts. “My sisters have moved on to join the cycle of reincarnation.”

“Don’t I get any thanks?” you mutter, though the scholar and the ghost do not seem to hear you. “All’s well that ends well, young one,” smiles the bearded exorcist as he claps you on the back. “By the way, did you find the toad’s pearl when it was destroyed? I could not see it anywhere.”

“The toad’s pearl?” you ask.

“Yes, a portion of the culmination of its essence. For a demon that strong, it must have lived for more more than three hundred years. The pearl would be a crystallized form of the energy it cultivated… not all of it, but perhaps at least hundred years’ worth. It is quite valuable, and useful in rituals,” sighs the Taoist. “It would be a waste if it went missing.”

“That… ah…” You recall the object that you swallowed. “I appear to have eaten it, by accident.” Zhong Hai’s bushy eyebrows rise as he stares at you. Then, he shrugs. “Is that so? Well, such is fate, I suppose. I will prescribe you some talismans – burn it, mix the ashes into water, and drink it if one day you should find yourself exhibiting toad-like behaviour. Hopefully the demonic energy will not interfere too much with your qi, though your case is rather strange in the first place. I do not know what will happen, but I will pray for your well-being.”

“It would be much better if you turned into a toad and died off,” mutters Yunzi as she passes by you, carrying a bundle of belongings that she retrieved from the mansion. “It would at least stop you from violating maidens with…” She falters, her cheeks flushing as she bites her lips. Your eyes are drawn to her mouth as she does so. Unexpectedly, you find your face burning up in return. “Y-you’re acting strange,” you retort awkwardly, trying to find something to say to banish this strange embarrassment over something you have done a thousand times before. “Finish your sentences if you have the guts for it.”

“A pervert doesn’t deserve my words,” she says hastily, before turning away to tie her belongings to the horse.

“You seem to become just like a little kid when you’re around her, Jing,” says Xiahou Yu cheerfully as he walks towards you with an antique umbrella over his shoulder. You find yourself too tired to even respond to his good-natured taunt. Instead, you settle for asking about the umbrella. “What’s that? Loot from the mansion?”

“No, Xiaoqing transferred into it,” he says casually. “She will be accompanying us on the journey. I tried to refuse but she insisted, saying that she owed me a debt.”

“That is not unprecedented,” muses Zhong Hai. “Just be careful not to overdo it, young scholar. I know it might be pleasurable but it harms your vitality.”

Xiahou Yu blushes. “No, it is not like that. We do not have that sort of relationship.”

“I would be more worried about the perverted dog, Taoist,” says Yunzi. “He’s likely to go at it until he dies of exhaustion.”

“Oh? Stop talking about things you have no experience in, you frigid girl,” you say loudly. Her eyes flash angrily, glaring at you as if she’d like nothing more than to tear your throat out and watch you bleed to death on the ground. “Now, now, can’t we all just get along?” says Xiahou Yu, awkwardly attempting to defuse the situation. “Jing, this really isn’t like you. Is there something going on that I am unaware of?” You look up at the sky for a while before sighing. “No, not really,” you say at last, scratching your head. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Yunzi. Can we stop the fighting? That’s not what I’m here for.” She looks at you disbelievingly, surprised at your apology.

“W-well,” she begins, “if you understand your position then I am satisfied. I shouldn’t have been so quick to anger in the first place, so… anyway, did you say that the man in black was part of the Black Dragon Society?” Yunzi swiftly tries to change the subject away from strange apologies. You take that chance gratefully, as you had been starting to feel rather awkward about what you just said. “I think he may be part of them, but I am not certain,” you say.

“That is enough to go on. Do you know where I can find them? I suppose I should investigate just what they are up to.”

“What about your faithful followers?” you ask. “Do you not need to meet up with them?”

“There is no need, Man Tiger Pig,” says a quiet voice from behind you – you sensed him just before he spoke. Whirling around, you see Vahista a fair distance away, imposing in his steady, patient stance. Zhong Hai and Xiahou Yu look at you, and then at the newcomer. “We always have a watchful eye on our Holy Maiden.” He pauses for a while, then continues with a self-effacing smile “Though I must admit, I was stumped about gaining entry to the mansion.”

“Vahista.” Yunzi’s voice is now imperious and filled with command. “What are you doing here?”

“I am here to escort you back, O Holy Maiden. It was unfortunate that you were separated from us during the ambush at Wufushan, but we did all we could to find you again. Our Lord of the Light was rather concerned. He would much rather you did not consort with strange men.”

“And I thank you for your efforts, Vahista. However, the date of betrothal is still three years away. He need not concern himself with my actions just yet,” replies Yunzi steadily.

Vahista laughs loudly. “Oh, you misunderstand me. Our master knows that you will return to him in due time. It is just that he needs to understand the company you keep, and how it will affect his plans.” There is a sudden wave of killing intent from him. Your brows furrow – will it turn into a fight?

Yunzi replies quickly, “The company I keep-“

You interrupt Yunzi, getting slightly irked by the conversation. “-is with a pervert. There, you’re looking at him,” you declare, finishing her sentence. “There you have it,” sighs Yunzi. “This is the rude lout that somehow crosses my path, as if I am cursed.” You glare at her before continuing “I will spare no woman my attentions, but mark my words, there is one woman on this earth that I would not touch besides my mother, and that is this shrew over here. I would rather die than touch a single hair on this loathsome toad. How does that affect your great lord’s plans now, Vahista?”

Vahista just smiles. “Not at all, if that is the case.” He casts a glance at you, then at Yunzi. “What do you plan to do now, Holy Maiden?”

“I plan to track down the conspirators that ambushed us at Wufushan and punish them for the glory of our temple. It is something that you need not concern yourself with – busy yourself with preparing for the challenge against the Eight Sects.”

The man nods, bowing low. “Your will is the will of my Lord, Holy Maiden. I will obey your orders. Please return to us safely after your investigations are complete.” He steps back, and with a nimble leap, vanishes into the trees. You do not sense his presence anymore – likely he has retreated as he said.

Yunzi sighs, apparently taxed by that conversation. “Well, I cannot waste any more time on you, Xu Jing,” she says. “We will part ways here. May we never meet again.”

***

A. You offer to go with Xiangyang to help her. She does not need to know what you are really there for.

B. You explain that you too have business at the Black Dragon Society regarding Xiahou Yu’s lady friend, though you keep your real motives a secret - you offer to go together.

C. You reveal the truth of why you will be going to the Black Dragon Society; you see no need to continue lying to them, and things may go more smoothly if you don't keep secrets.
1. You reveal it to Yunzi only.
2. You reveal it to Xiahou Yu only.
3. You reveal it to both.

D. You let her go on her own way – you will act separately from her for your own investigations when you arrive in Xiangyang.
 

四十一 · Enter the Black Dragon

Enter the Black Dragon

“This Liu Chanfeng,” says Yunzi, “She’s the one that attacked us a few years back, right?” There is a slight gleam in her eyes; one more of excitement than vengeance – you know that feeling. Having been beaten rather soundly by the woman before, you would be pleased to test your skills against her one more time… though you might not be in the best condition to do so. She likely feels the same, though you cannot rule out that she would also be curious about the woman's role in the assault on the Ashina tribe. You nod. “That’s right. I just need her to clarify a few things about that raid.” Xiahou Yu sighs, resting his chin on his palms. “I suppose it was too good to be true, that you would free me and accompany me on my quest with no strings attached.”

“I’m sorry for not being upfront,” you say. He shakes his head thoughtfully. “That’s alright. I would probably have done the same had I been in your position, out of duty to my benefactor. I am glad that you told me now, though I would never have guessed that you hailed from such a prestigious background. Besides… we have more pressing issues to worry about.”

The scholar is right. Upon reaching Xiangyang, you had soon discovered that the situation had changed rather drastically from what you had expected to find. The streets were abuzz with rumours that the Black Dragon Society had wiped out the Wunan Sect in a surprise attack just a day ago. Many reasons were bandied about; some said that the Black Dragon Society had kidnapped the women to sell into slavery to the western regions, while others said that the leader of the Wunan Sect had a bounty put on her head, and that the Black Dragon Society had been encouraged to collect in excessive fashion. There were also those that whispered of an Imperial decree involved in this assault, that the Wunan Sect had somehow offended the palace.

You are not sure whether any of those rumours have any truth to them, but there is one thing that you can be certain about: the Black Dragon Society currently has Liu Chanfeng captive. It took some digging on your part, but it seems that a few Black Dragon mercenaries have been bragging about how they took down that ‘frigid scarred nutso bitch’ in the taverns. From their description it could not be anyone else. She was currently imprisoned in their headquarters, a small fortress about an hour’s travel from the city that had been granted to them by the prefect of Xiangyang in return for their assistance with keeping order in the countryside.

For now, you would have to decide what to do next:

***

A. Investigate Shennong Forest and the Wunan Sect – if truly an attack occurred, you might still be able to find clues in the aftermath, and perhaps survivors, to give you a clearer picture of what has happened. It will probably take you more than three days to find the place, however.

B. Attempt to sneak into the Black Dragon Society headquarters. You will go in under the cover of darkness and make your way to the prison. This is the quickest way for you to get in touch with your target.

C. Approach the Black Dragon Society as potential recruits. After some discussion, all three of you are fairly certain that they will not recognize Yunzi as long as she keeps a simple disguise, if they are even looking out for her in the first place.
1. Approach with your true identity.
2. Approach with a false identity.

D. Walk in brazenly and request to see the prisoner. If it boils down to a trade of favours you are willing to negotiate, but you do not see the need to hide what you came for; Yu has a good enough excuse to meet her without needing to delve into your own motives.
 

四十二 · The Two Masters of the Fort

The Two Masters of the Fort

The fortress of the Black Dragon Society is an interesting construct. Built in the days of the Han dynasty, it was once a dilapidated fort on the outskirts of what would become Xiangyang. In the hands of the Society, however, they had built down, not up. Rather than turning the fortress into a more defensible location by strengthening its walls, they had instead chosen to tunnel deep into the earth. It was rumoured that there were a hundred and eight secret exits and entrances to the fortress, each filled with deadly traps against outsiders. Of course, as with every rumour that gets bandied about, it is most likely mere exaggeration.

“Is it true that there a hundred and eight secret tunnels leading out of this place?” you ask one of the guards at the gate. He peers at you suspiciously, hefting his spear into a ready position. “Who’s asking?”

“My name is Xu Jing. I seek an audience with your leader,” you say politely. Yunzi and Xiahou Yu stand quietly behind, having agreed – Yunzi grudgingly so – to leave the talking to you. The guard snorts at you. “Who? Our leaders are not free today, so get out of here before I make you.”

“I said,” you repeat, stepping closer, “I am Xu Jing of Maniac Island. I want to see your bosses now.” The guard’s spear lowers threateningly at your approach, but you merely stare contemptuously at the point of his weapon aimed at your throat. Then, you grin, baring your teeth. Your eyes meet his. The guard shrinks back slightly, not knowing whether to think you confident or foolhardy. “H-hold on, Xu Jing, was it?” interrupts his comrade. “Maniac Island? Disciple of the Southern Maniac? Just wait here for a second!” It takes many long minutes instead of a second, but during that time the guard never lowers his spear, nor do you take a step back. When the second guard returns, panting, he gives you the okay to proceed – the masters of the Black Dragon Society have deigned to meet you.

***

The leaders of the Black Dragon Society are two brothers – Hei Zuolong and Hei Youlong. The former is the elder, and a weaselly looking man, while the latter is the younger, and built much like a bear with almost as much hair to match. You have not seen them in action, but they are renowned as martial artists. Hei Youlong is the first to speak as the three of you enter the audience hall.

“What is Zhang Jue’s disciple doing here?” He does not seem too pleased at your presence, though there is a faint smile on his older brother’s face.

“I found myself passing through Xiangyang and decided to come pay respect to my elders in the jianghu, in hopes that we may be bestowed a favour,” you reply. “That is what I am doing here.”

“I see. It is an agreeable trait in youngsters to be respectful.” says Hei Zuolong, his voice thin and sharp. Hei Youlong, on the other hand, has a grim expression. “A favour? What favour is it?” he asks. You shrug. “A simple favour, one that is entirely within your power to grant, I am sure. My friend here has an acquaintance that you are keeping under custody. A woman with a red mark on her face. He would like to speak with her for a personal reason.”

The younger Hei brother frowns. “That traitor? What makes you think you can just walk in here and ask for that?”

“I don’t,” you say. “If this favour is granted I will be in your debt.”

Hei Zuolong laughs suddenly. “A trade of favours?” His eyes fix themselves upon you keenly – you do not like his stare. “Oh, I have heard of your exploits, Xu Jing. Winning the martial arts competition, defeating a hundred men. For someone whose name has just emerged in the pugilistic world you seem to be making some rather interesting waves. Very impressive.”

“I appreciate the compliment, Master Hei,” you bow.

“A trade of favours,” he repeats to himself, before chuckling. “You know that I cannot trust you to keep your word, right?” You frown. “What are you implying?”

“You do not exactly have a reputation for being… reliable,” says Hei Zuolong with relish. “You are a free spirit – you do what suits you at any given time. Any favour I trade with you will be only on your terms; you would break your oath with no qualms if you ever disliked the way I call in your debt. I think that is hardly fair. It would be rather difficult to deal with you.”

“Judge not a man by idle gossip, Master Hei,” you say. “I am not the sort to disregard a debt. We do not ask for much in the first place.”

“But you do,” says Zuolong, leaning forward while his eyes gleam. “Some very important people have taken an interest in our female guest here. If we let you see her, who knows what could happen? I could find myself dead over this.”

“This is a waste of time,” growls Youlong. “Brother, let me throw them out and be done with it.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” muses Zuolong. “Someone who knows her and wants to speak to her could also be a person of interest to our client, regardless of their reason...”

You hear Yunzi tapping her feet behind you. She is getting slightly impatient with the lack of progress; it looks like she would prefer to retreat and attempt another approach. Looking straight at Hei Zuolong, you say, “If there is nothing I can say to change your mind, perhaps we will take our leave.”

“Oh, don’t be so hasty. I would not send an acquaintance of Liu Chanfeng’s away without letting them meet – in fact, I insist that you allow me to do so. I was just testing your sincerity,” replies the weaselly man, grinning. He waves his hand. Though you do not see them, you hear the footsteps of a few dozen men shifting into position outside the hall. “I also do not want to cross your master, so I will help you out, and you will owe me a little favour. It is your friend, the bookish fellow over there, that wants to speak with the woman, no? I will let him meet with her. Not alone, of course. One of you will go along with him. The other will stay here until their meeting is done. For security purposes, you see.”

You glance back at your companions. Yunzi is glaring at you – she knows full well what situation the three of you are in right now. Hei Zuolong has made the offer in a manner that you cannot refuse. It would be suicidal to attempt to escape the fortress at this point. You would not get ten steps from the hall before being cut down by the enemy - pugilists are one thing, but you have seen the mercenaries training with bows on your way in, and you are not confident in your ability to avoid a rain of arrows. You are not sure what is going through the Black Dragon master’s mind to suddenly make this offer, but you do not trust him. Xiahou Yu, on the other hand, is looking at you calmly. He nods; he is signalling for you to accept the offer.

***

A. You accept the offer. You do not see any other choice for now; perhaps there will be an opening for you to take advantage of later.
1. You select Yunzi to go with Xiahou Yu, while you stay in the hall. It may be better for you to deal directly with the masters and talk to them while they are here.
2. You go along with Xiahou Yu so that you can oversee his conversation with Liu Chanfeng. Yunzi can take care of herself even if you leave her alone.

B. You reject the offer; if he is going to attack you, so be it. It could, as unlikely as it is, be a bluff… or you could be lucky enough to escape from the midst of their fortress. Whatever it is, you will not be forced to go on the Black Dragon Society’s terms.
 

四十三 · The Hospitality of the Hei Brothers

The Hospitality of the Hei Brothers

“Very well, I will remain here to enjoy your hospitality.” You offer to stay behind while Xiahou Yu and Yunzi are escorted to meet Liu Chanfeng in the cells. Yunzi makes a noise of protest. “I should be here-“

“I know you cannot bear to be apart from me, my dear,” you say quickly, interrupting her, “but this is for the best. I am sure your uncle would agree – he did leave you in my care at the mansion after we reunited. Trust me on this.” To her credit, she understands instantly; you are referring to Vahista, and implicitly telling her that you have not forgotten about the ambush on the Fire Cult at Wufushan. She will have to trust you to squeeze some details out about that incident on her behalf. “Fine.”

With an exasperated sigh, she turns away from you, her shoulders resigned. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

“Right back at you.”

The doors close behind them with a heavy bang as they leave with the guards, leaving you with Hei Zuolong and Youlong. The elder Hei has a sly grin on his face. “Your wife?” You can tell that he is trying to calculate how to use this to his benefit. “It is a long story,” you sigh, “but we are not properly wedded. She is a real handful.” He lets out a little chuckle in response. “Yes, I can tell. A real fiery steed, that one. It won’t be easy to break her. Perhaps I should teach you how?” Hei Zuolong’s eyes shine with amusement.

“No, thank you. I like her unbroken,” you reply firmly, trying not to let his casual remarks shake your focus. In doing so, you mirror his arrogant grin, staring right back at the man. He raises his eyebrows and shrugs. “Suit yourself. Now, what did I want to do next? Ah, that’s right. Youlong.” Zuolong waves his fingers lazily. The brawny younger brother nods, getting off his chair. Hei Youlong begins to walk towards you, his stance growing in menace with every step.

You remain still.

A few more steps and he will be in range to strike.

You try to keep your focus, suppressing the urge to take up a fighting stance.

It is clear what he will attempt, but the question is: will it hit?

Hei Youlong draws even closer, step by step.

Then, he lashes out at you.

His fist is fast. In your current condition there is no way you could evade it even if you see it coming. His attack skims the side of your face; it was never going to hit you. You look at the well-built man in front of you, a slightly quizzical expression on your face. “Well?”

Youlong grimaces. “You are Zhang Jue’s disciple, aren’t you? But I sense no killing intent of any sort, even when I attacked.” That is because you know that you cannot hurt either of these men in a fight at the moment. Any killing intent is wasted, and would likely inflame Hei Youlong's desire for a fight. Besides, you saw through his attack, understanding that it was never meant to land – they are merely testing you for now. What you say, however, is this: “That is because I am a pacifist.” You smile as kindly as you can manage.

“A pacifist?” rumbles Hei Youlong. “What nonsense is that? You, a pacifist?”

“Oh, I am deadly serious. I am a pacifist following the path of non-violence. I truly believe in rendering my enemies pacified so that they will not commit violence against me.” Your gaze sharpens, though your smile never leaves your face. Hei Zuolong shifts ever so slightly on his ornate chair, your words and confidence serving to wipe that grin away and put a thoughtful expression on his face. His younger brother only frowns and takes a cautious step back. You beam at them. “You may put my pacifism to the test if you wish.” Of course, you are running on pure bravado at this point. You know for certain that you will be unable to defeat even one of them, let alone both.

“There is no need. No more tests, you have proven yourself to be a worthy guest at the Black Dragon Society,” replies Zuolong with his usual grin. “Let us entertain you while you await the return of your friend.” He snaps his fingers and barks out a quick order. A few female servants hurry in, setting up a table for drinking. You recognize the cowed heads, the familiar behaviour of slaves ruled by fear. A slight disquiet nestling in your chest, you sit down at the table with the two brothers. After you subtly make sure that the wine and cups are not poisoned, the drinking begins, the slave girls coming to refill your cups every now and then. You drink in little, occasional sips, taking care not to imbibe too much too fast. The conversation kicks off with talk of the tournament, as Youlong asks about your fights, and goes on to talk about the current state of the jianghu: from what you can tell, the brothers seem rather optimistic about the future for some reason.

“If I may ask, Masters Hei,” Taking an advantage in a lull in the conversation, you change the topic. “I have heard that you deal with the transaction of bodies.”

“Dead and alive, yes,” replies the younger Hei. “Even the prefect of Xiangyang recognizes our contributions in this matter. There are some criminals that the law cannot touch.”

“Criminals that we can certainly touch,” says his older brother, laughing as he pulls a slave girl onto his lap. She does not struggle but only looks at the floor meekly – the girl cannot be older than fifteen. You wonder what crimes she had committed to become a legal slave; free commoners could not be enslaved by the law of the Tang. Zuolong continues, “We will not claim to do Heaven’s justice, but nonetheless when there is no other option for redress, we stain our hands for the betterment of all.”

“Indeed, and nothing is bettered more than your purses,” you say, giving them a knowing wink. The brothers laugh. “You are correct, Xu Jing,” says Zuolong. “Very much so.”

“Indulge my further curiosity, please,” you say, “I have heard rumours that you attacked the Wunan Sect and have made captives of its members for sale. Is that so? It sounds… illegal.”

“You are a strange one, Xu Jing. When did you start caring about the law?” grins Youlong good-naturedly. “What we do is illegal in the eyes of the world anyway.”

“Slavery of free Han has always been something the government has viewed harshly,” you point out. “Forgive me, but I think it a rather risky venture. Does the prefect know of this?”

“As it turns out, it is quite acceptable if they are enemies of the state, and thus traitorous criminals.” The grin on Zuolong’s face turns cold and mocking. His eyes are fixed on you now. “Which is why I was wondering… are you an enemy of the court? Is your friend one? As I said, there would be some very important people interested in anyone who is acquainted with a traitor. After all, we were tasked with dismantling an entire sect as a lesson to her.” A brag, you think: aimed at making you fear the supposed ease at which they destroyed an entire sect and also the power their backers wield in ordering such a thing over a single person's transgressions.

“I suppose these important people pay handsomely?” you ask innocuously, swirling the wine in your cup.

“It is not merely money that we deal in, Xu Jing,” replies Zuolong.

“Rich and powerful important people, then?”

“Is there any other sort?”

You shake your head. “No, I guess not. Well, if these very important people are interested in anyone with anything to do with her, she must have been rather traitorous. What did she do?”

“She killed some agents of the court,” shrugs Youlong. “That’s a death sentence, usually, but this time they have other plans for her.”

“Well, I am sure they are some very interesting plans,” you say, pondering the information you have just received.

The atmosphere at the table has changed, and not for the better. Hei Zuolong bares his teeth at you and asks, “So, tell me, Xu Jing, why are you here? I cannot imagine the disciple of Zhang Jue involving himself with affairs of the Imperial Court, but here you are.”

“I’ve already told you,” you say calmly, “I am here to help out my friend.”

“Is that so?” sneers Zuolong, continuing to press his line of enquiry. “In my line of work, I must always think the worst of people. I do not believe that is your real reason for coming… no, if I were you, it would surely be an excuse for some other reason. The question is, what is it a cover for?”

“No, the question is, why do you seem so enthralled with voicing out your own suspicions?” you say, laughing. “Do you think it makes you look smarter?” His face, already slightly flushed from the wine, turns red. You smile at him; you are not going to make the mistake of thinking he is actually drunk, and underestimating him as a result. That he did not immediately lunge at you over your casual provocation shows as much; it is a risky thing to do, but it is also vital to keep up your act of apparent confidence in your strength. “You think you are so clever,” he says with fierce amusement. Hei Youlong tenses up, preparing to go to his brother’s aid if necessary.

You look at the wine in the cup, your mind working to figure out your next step. It is confirmed now that they are in cahoots with at least one faction in the Imperial Court. Further attempts at enquiry would be difficult, however, and you still don’t know if there is a trap waiting to be sprung.

***

A. You reveal the silver crest, attempting to impersonate an Imperial agent. You should have enough knowledge of their organization to pass for one. This seems to be the only way you can get more information out of the two, and change the situation beyond what Hei Zuolong is expecting; if there is a trap, waiting passively will not help you much. You need to act.

B. You elect to keep things as they are, and continue drinking with the two masters until whatever happens next. Impersonating a member of the palace’s secret police is too risky: if you slip up in the act, they will have no qualms about attempting to capture you on the spot, not to mention word may spread that you are in possession of said crest, rendering it useless in the future.
 

四十四 · The Imperial Agent

The Imperial Agent

Without a word, you place the silver crest on the table lightly, face down. “What is that?” asks Hei Zuolong suspiciously. You lean back, gesturing for him to flip it over. A scowl on his weaselly face, he does so – and the master of the Black Dragon Society instantly goes pale as the crest makes a dull clink against the wooden table. “T-this… where did you…”

“Good, it looks like you recognize it. Hei Zuolong, Hei Youlong, you are fully aware what this emblem means, don’t you?” you say.

“Brother,” whispers Hei Youlong nervously. “What should we do?”

“Leave this to me. It could be a fake,” mutters Zuolong.

“We know that is nearly impossible. The design of the emblem is not known to many, and too difficult to forge. I grant you, there might be those who can illegally replicate the symbol of the Emperor’s secret police, but I do not know of any. Do you?” you declare, more confidently than you feel.

He shakes his head slowly, beads of sweat slowly appearing on his forehead. “You could have stole-“

“Are you accusing me of theft, Hei Zuolong?” you ask sharply.

“No… no, of course not,” He shakes his head and backs down. His gaze is wary – he does not seem entirely convinced that you are the real deal, but he is too cautious to assume that you are not what you claim to be. It seems that the Black Dragon Society is – interestingly – rather concerned with court opinion of them. Taking a few deep breath, he calms himself and begins to speak. “This is a most curious turn of events, Xu Jing. I did not think the young disciple of Zhang Jue would be an agent of the court. You must have started your training at a very early age.”

“Who knows, Master Hei?” you grin.

“Who knows indeed,” he sighs. “Now, why do we have the pleasure of your presence here today? I am sure you revealed yourself for a reason. What business do you really have with us?”

“I met a colleague of mine on his way back from Wufushan,” you reply.

“Ah.” Hei Zuolong raises his eyebrows. “Wufushan. We had little part in that… only a dozen men or so were engaged for that mission.”

“It raised some questions amongst my superiors,” you continue. “They did not know it was going to happen.”

“I was certain Mao Sanjiao would have informed them. He is their liaison within the Eight Sects after all, isn’t he?” grumbles Hei Zuolong. You are about to ask who Mao Sanjiao is, but stop yourself. There is a sudden glint in the man’s eye as he looks at you – you are probably supposed to know who this man is, if you are involved in this clandestine business. You decide to file his name away for further investigation later; it could be a false lead meant to trick you into revealing yourself.

You smile at Hei Zuolong. “It is not my business what other people get up to – all I know is what I am ordered to do. If that is the case, I will send news back to Taiye Hall that the Black Dragon Society had little involvement, and allow those smarter than me to decide their next course of action.” Taiye Hall is the headquarters of the secret police, dug underneath a lake near the palace – you have been there only twice, and found it damp and altogether unwelcoming.

He nods sagely, seemingly satisfied with your answer. “Yes, of course. That would be wise. I am curious, however… why did you need to go about things in such a roundabout manner?”

“A force of habit. I was coached to never reveal myself unless necessary. Besides, my companions do not know I am an agent of the court,” you say nonchalantly.

“I see.” Zuolong falls silent, looking at you. You can tell that deep down, he is still unconvinced – the man does not seem to trust easily. “Rest assured your secret is safe with me,” he grins suddenly. “So, you are not really here for Liu Chanfeng?”

Watching his face, you sense that it would be a mistake to claim that you are; you have very little knowledge of the Liu Chanfeng issue, and pretending you are involved with this case would probably catch you out in a lie. Again, you decide to be vague – it works to your benefit to keep Hei Zuolong unsure, since you do not have any actual facts to convince him with. “My friend is. It is wise of Taiye Hall to have me keep an eye on him, no?” you laugh.

“Oh, very wise indeed,” agrees Zuolong. “Still, if that is the case, I am afraid you have stumbled into a situation you have no business being involved with.”

“That is not a problem. I will have my companions away from here by tomorrow.”

“They can be away from here, but you… you I cannot set free.” His eyes are cold and his grin now frosty. In the end, it looks like your little gambit hasn’t worked out as well as you hoped.

“Master Hei, what do you mean?” you ask calmly, taking another sip of the wine.

“You may be an Imperial agent, but I do not answer to you, Xu Jing… if that is indeed your real name. We have dealings here that are rather… delicate. We cannot have you making the wrong sort of reports to Taiye Hall now, can we?”

You laugh, placing the cup down on the table gently. “I will report as I see fit. Are you going to try and attack me?”

“Nothing of the sort, Xu Jing.” Zuolong shakes his head, though Hei Youlong has already gotten up. You give him a dismissive glance, though you keep your guard up. “You must understand… we need to present a coherent narrative to Taiye Hall, don’t we?”

“I can’t say I disagree. What do you have in mind?”

“You see, it’s not what I have in mind that matters. It is what your colleague thinks,” he replies. “It would be much better for everyone involved if you would be our guest until he arrives and clears things up.”

“And if I refuse?”

“You cannot.” The reply comes from the younger Hei, now standing behind you – low, like the rumbling of thunder. The older Hei continues, “It could mean our heads if it was discovered we just let you walk out of here. If that is the case, I would rather take my chances with subduing you here and now.”

“You make a good case,” you sigh. “How long is it until he arrives?”

“Tomorrow night.” He does not seem to be lying about this, though it would be to your advantage if the real Imperial agent arrived even later.

“And my companions?”

“They can stay here if they wish, or go back to the city. I am sure they will not be leaving Xiangyang soon, in any case,” smiles Hei Zuolong thinly. You weigh your chances of escaping, and fighting your way out: it still does not seem any better than it was the last time you considered this issue; in fact, the odds are probably tilted against you even further now. It looks like you now have no choice but to stay and wait for an opening to escape.

***

“But, dear, you can’t expect me to leave you here,” trills Yunzi falsely upon hearing your explanation. She leans in close to your ear and hisses, “I won’t be sent away just like that. I’m not yours to order around.” It looks like you won’t be able to get rid of her right now. Xiahou Yu, on the other hand, only responds calmly and agrees to leave. “Watch out for their people,” you whisper. “Don’t worry. We’ll see each other soon,” replies the scholar. You notice that the umbrella is no longer with him; he may have something planned.

After you bid the scholar farewell, you are led to a guest room, located on the upper floor of the main building. “Are you not going to take my weapons?” you ask Hei Youlong, towering over you as he plays the guide. “What for?” he laughs. “You are a guest here, as my brother said. Besides, no amount of blades you carry will help you against the entire fortress.”

“Thank you.” You bow your head in gratitude.

“Wait a minute,” says Yunzi. “We are sharing a room?”

Youlong raises one bushy eyebrow. “Is there a problem? I thought the two of you were-“

“N-no, of course not!” You jump in quickly to correct the misunderstanding. “What my beloved means is that she couldn’t believe that you are so kind as to keep us together instead of separating us!”

“Yes. That is what I meant,” says your apparent beloved awkwardly.

“Ah, is that so?” shrugs the large man. “No thanks needed. Well, if you will excuse me, I must be off. I have drills to oversee.” Without any exchanging any further pleasantries, he stalks off, his heavy footsteps resounding across the wooden floorboards.

You enter the room with a disgruntled Yunzi.

“Let me make this clear-“

“-if you do anything stupid-“

“-I’ll throw you out of the window,” the both of you say at the same time.

“Well, I’m glad we’re in agreement on that part,” you say, and she nods.

***

“So the Eight Sects have something to do with the attack at Wufushan?” murmurs Yunzi as she goes over what you have learnt. “Some man called Mao Sanjiao appears to be involved. Have you heard of him?” you ask, but she shakes her head. “No. Actually, this is the first time I’ve been in the Central Plains…”

Suddenly, you find yourself wondering just what happened after you left the Ashina. You are about to ask her when there is a knock on the door. A young slave girl introduces her presence; she is bringing dinner. You let her in, noticing that she looks Han. As the girl meekly sets the plates, you begin talking to her. “So, where are you from?” She looks down at the floor, answering in a quiet voice. “Jiangku Village, m’lord, by the sea to the south.” You give her a reassuring nod. “How did you end up here anyway?”

“I…” She gives a nervous look at the door, then at you.

“Don’t worry,” says Yunzi. “This man may be a dangerous lecher, but he won’t tell on you to your masters.” The slave girl looks at her worriedly and takes a deep breath before responding. “I was taken while out gathering herbs. They…” She does not seem able to finish, as tears well up in her eyes. Instinctively, you get up and wipe her tears away gently. “I’m sorry to hear that,” you say softly. “But you have been a strong girl to make it through so far, haven’t you? You’ll be alright.” She nods, her face turning red. “T-thank you, m’lord. You are too kind.”

As the slave girl leaves, she casts you one last glance, smiling shyly as she closes the door behind her.

“Huh.” Yunzi grunts. “What was that all about? Ooh, you’ve been a strong girl. Ooh, let me wipe away your tears. You are truly a pervert, through and through.”

“It’s called being kind,” you retort. “Besides, I was suspicious about the slaves they had. Slavery is only legal when it is done to foreigners, criminals and traitors.”

“I’m a foreigner,” she points out.

“Yes, which means I’m well within my rights to make you my slave,” you reply casually.

“Ha, as if you could. We both know who’s likely to be the slave here, dog.”

“Anyway,” you glare at her, attempting to get the conversation back on track before the two of you enter yet another lengthy derailment, “it looks like they have been kidnapping Han commoners and enslaving them. That is highly illegal, and punishable by death.”

“Why haven’t they been caught then?”

“At first glance I would say that the prefect of Xiangyang is closing one eye to their activities,” you explain, “but perhaps there are more hands working behind the scenes. Still, if we publicize this, either the government or the sects would have no choice but to act. It is not something that can be done in the blink of an eye, though I wonder if there is anything I can do about this…”

“You seem rather concerned about the slaves,” says Yunzi, glancing at you with a strange look in her eyes.

“I was, for all intents and purposes, a slave. Bought by the Emperor and placed in his son’s hands, my life was no longer my own from that moment onwards. I do not regret it one bit, of course, but having Shun as my master made me realize that I had it lucky in comparison to the other slaves. Even a slave deserves a good master. These Black Dragons are not, and I doubt their clientele are any better.” You sigh. “I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Forget it.”

Yunzi giggles lightly in response, her clear laughter suddenly reminding you of that rainy night in the Ashina camp. “I didn’t expect to hear those thoughtful sort of words from you. I almost see you in a new light.”

There is another rap at the door. Is it the slave girl again?

“Mistress? Mistress?” calls out a nervous voice, repeating herself. “Are you there? It’s me, Xiaoqi.” It is a girl, but not the slave that had brought your dinner. Yunzi narrows her eyes, suspicious. The both of you get up quietly and pad towards the door. With a sudden movement, she throws the door open and you pull the newcomer inside, holding her firmly by the wrist. Yunzi closes the door just as quickly as the girl stares at you in fright. She is young, perhaps of Cao’er’s age, and possessed of a wide-eyed innocence that induces strong feelings of protection in certain types of men.

“You’re not my mistress,” she murmurs. “Wait, I know your face! You’re-“

“He’s the pervert Man Tiger Pig,” explains Yunzi seriously. “Be careful, girl. He’s so perverted that if he touches you, you will become pregnant.”

“It doesn’t work like that!” you retort exasperatedly.

“I-I don’t want to be impregnated!” cries the girl as you let her go. She sinks to her knees, sobbing as she touches her belly. “I-Is it too late?” You grit your teeth – you have an idea who she is. “You’ve seen me before, right? Was it in Luoyang?”

The girl stares at you defiantly. “I’d rather die before being impregnated by a man!”

You can only get impregnated by a man in the first place – you almost shout out, but restrain yourself. Yunzi is looking away, feigning innocence. “Come on, help me out here,” you sigh. “Please.”

“Oh, if you insist,” she says smugly, and kneels down in front of the younger girl. “Xiaoqi, was it? If you don’t answer my questions, I’ll get him to touch you all over. Aaaall over, from your pretty hair to your tiny toes. You’ll be pregnant with twins, maybe triplets.” She begins whimpering in terror. Yunzi smiles – sadistically, you think – before asking, “Who is your Mistress? Is it Liu Chanfeng?”

“Y-yes, it is. Do you know her? I thought she would be here, some wandering scholar told me that she would be in the guest rooms.” She must have met Xiahou Yu somehow. You do wonder what your friend is planning. “If she isn’t here…” Xiaoqi’s face drops in despair. “The dungeons, then? That’s a bit hard to get to… I knew I shouldn't have trusted a man! Oh, Mistress, I have failed your teachings!”

“Second question,” continues Yunzi. “Do you belong to the Wunan Sect? How did you get in here?”

Xiaoqi nods her head. Before she can offer any further explanation, however, there is yet another knock at the door. “Xu Jing, are you there?” It’s Hei Zuolong.

“Hide!” you hiss. The frightened girl is shoved under the bed unceremoniously by Yunzi, who then swiftly drapes a blanket over the gap.

“Xu Jing?” he asks again.

“Just a minute!” you shout out. You walk to the door and open it. The weasel-like man is standing there, grinning. “I am sorry, but I heard the screams,” he leers unapologetically. “Far be it for me to intrude on your personal time with your wife, but I have to bring you some good news. Your colleague is already here. It was a surprise to me too, but he arrived early.”

“Is that so?” you say. This might make things harder.

“That is so,” says a smooth voice. A young, delicate looking man steps out of the darkness, dressed in dark blue finery. “I will speak with this man alone, Zuolong.”

The master of the Black Dragon Society lowers his head slightly in response. “As you wish.” Casting you a suspicious glance, he retreats without a further word, keen to get away from this agent of the court. The young man looks at you, then at the room. “May I come in?”

“Of course,” you reply. “Go ahead.”

He does so, stepping in elegantly with his hands folded behind his back. You get a whiff of a sweet perfume as he passes by you – it smells familiar. In the well-lit room, you realize that the man is more of a boy; he looks about your age. He looks at Yunzi, then at you. “Well well, this is interesting,” he smiles. It is the smile of a viper, poisonous and threatening. “The Holy Maiden of the Fire Cult is travelling with the disciple of Zhang Jue. This is unexpected.”

Yunzi takes a stance, scowling at the Imperial agent. “No,” you warn, your hand stretching out. “Don’t.” There is something about the guy that makes your hair stand on end. Though his posture is casual, you get the feeling that he is always ready to strike. This man is a dangerous killer – she would be putting herself at too much risk if she started a fight.

“A smart decision,” he murmurs, still with that smile playing about his lips. His gaze is penetrating and deep; it makes you feel like a rat confronted with a hypnotic snake. “Now, we all know that you aren’t really a member of the secret police, Xu Jing, so do not waste our time with any attempts to claim otherwise.”

“I wasn’t going to,” you say, although you were going to try.

“Where did you get that crest, I wonder?” he muses, “No matter. I will investigate that later. You probably waylaid one of our men and killed him before picking it up anyway. No, what really interests me is that you recognized it for what it is, when by all rights some uncouth fist-fighter wouldn’t and would probably just pawn it off for money. In fact, you knew enough about it to impersonate a member of the secret police convincingly enough that Hei Zuolong was almost taken in… Just who are you, Xu Jing?”

“An unabashed man-lover,” says Yunzi before you can reply.

“I thought I was a pervert!” you exclaim in surprise.

“Oh, so you admit that you are a pervert?” she asks, cocking her head to one side in a mocking manner.

The Imperial agent laughs. It looks like your exchange with Yunzi hasn’t lowered his guard any. “You two are so entertaining. Now, let’s be serious. I will not be distracted. You know too much about us to be some normal pugilist, Xu Jing. I am certain you are not a member of the secret police, or any agent of the court.”

“How can you be so sure?” you ask.

“I have my ways,” he chuckles confidently. “You know, your name does sound familiar. Perhaps-”

“Speaking of names,” you say, “you haven’t given me yours. Wait, it’s alright. No need to tell me. I think I can guess.” You sniff the air again, and look at his features. There’s no mistake about it. “You’re called Ball-less, right?” This agent is an eunuch. You’ve spent enough time around them to tell.

“That is an apt description,” he says, still calm and smiling despite your crude provocation, “but that is not my name. I am Gao Ying.” You have never heard of him before, though his age means that he is your peer. You have no doubt that he was trained to kill just as you were, though. Gao Ying shakes his head gently. “Anyway, that does not matter. I have made my conclusion. You are a dangerous man, Xu Jing. Your prowess and cunning combined with your knowledge of the court’s internal apparatus makes you a threat to the security of the empire.”

“That is a pretty big conclusion to jump to, my friend without balls,” you say.

“For someone of your caliber, there are only two paths you can take,” replies the eunuch. “Friend or foe of the empire. Tonight I will decide which you are-“

“I’ve had enough! I can’t breathe!” shouts Xiaoqi from under the bed, surprising everyone. A small round ball rolls out from her hiding place and begins spewing choking smoke everywhere – the lass brought along a smoke bomb. Good for her. Gao Ying begins coughing, holding up his sleeve to his nose.

There is a loud crash as the wooden window frame is shattered. You hear a loud commotion from outside – it cannot be because of what just happened in the room as the noise appears to be coming from far away. Perhaps Yu has started something? A shadowy figure – Xiaoqi – darts past you in the smoke and leaps out the window. “Come on, Jing!” shouts Yunzi as she follows the girl. You begin to move, but the eunuch shouts out.

“Wait! A man of your talents is wasted wandering the land like this! The times are changing. With your strength and smarts you could play a vital role in renewing this country! I said that I wanted to determine whether you are friend or foe – now I am asking you this: my prince has great need for talent like you. Will you join us?”

You pause in your steps. You know you should be fleeing through the window right now, but you cannot help but ask. “Which prince?”

Through the smoke you can faintly see the silhouette of Gao Ying, but you have the feeling that he is staring right at you, seeing you clearly.

“So, you know enough of the Imperial family that you would take an interest in which prince I serve. Another reason that I must decide your allegiance here,” he says amusedly. “Of course, I serve the only prince that matters, the only person that is worthy. The Crown Prince Li Shun.”

Could he be lying? You do not know. You have been away from the palace for far too long, but when you left this Gao Ying had never been part of Shun’s entourage. Of course, many things can change in three years…

***

A. You blow off his offer with a snarky response and leap out of the window. Best make your escape while the smoke still helps to obscure you.

B. You reject his offer and flee, but mention that you also serve the Crown Prince; you get the feeling that if this man regards you a foe, you will have made a terrible enemy.

C. You give in. This is a chance to get back into the palace circles and meet Shun again. And on the off-chance that he is lying for some reason, you might be able to turn this into an opportunity to spy on one of Shun’s enemies and help him from within.
 

四十五 · Icy Heart

Icy Heart

You decide to throw the eunuch a bone. “What a coincidence. I’m also here on Shun’s orders.”

“It is what I would expect you to say,” replies Gao Ying confidently. “If you think that can fool me-“

“My name is familiar, isn’t it? Think. When did you start serving at the palace?” You begin inching towards the window.

“Eight years ago, but… do you mean-“

“Exactly.” With a grin, you leap through the window. “Wait!” shouts Gao Ying. As you clear the sill, something small zips past your ear, vanishing into the darkness. You land clumsily – the fall is not high, but you are in no condition to perform any acrobatics – and spring to your feet quickly before the eunuch can give chase. Yunzi is in front of you waving agitatedly. “What took you so long, you turtle?”

“Go, go!” you shout, sprinting towards her. She stretches out her hand; you grab it, realizing that you can’t make it over the wall alone. With her help, you clear the fortifications safely. You run for the protection of the trees the moment you land on the other side. With any luck, they will not find your trail.

***

“Three years ago there was an attack on the Ashina tribe that you participated in. You were planning to assassinate the Crown Prince Li Shun. Who ordered it and why?”

As expected, Xiahou Yu had successfully freed Liu Chanfeng and met up with you in the woods. The five of you, including Liu’s apprentice, had put a fair amount of distance between yourselves and the fortress before being forced to stop and rest; the night was not getting any younger, and to continue moving would only worsen everyone’s fatigued condition. You decided to take that chance to question the woman you had come here for.

Liu Chanfeng glares at you while Xiahou Yu watches on, his face impassive. Though she seemed frail from her imprisonment, her cold and sharp demeanour was as intimidating as you remembered, and her beauty undiminished even by the mark on her face. Then, she lets out a mad laugh. “You came all the way here and freed me to ask me this? Men are so foolish. I will tell you if you desire to know that much… I certainly do not owe them anything but hatred. I received my mission from the Hei brothers of the Black Dragon Society… that was back when I was still useful to them. Take it up with them if you want to know who gave them the orders, though it was probably either the Lady Wu or Grand Eunuch Li. The older one was there that night, gathering riders from another tribe. The mission was to take the Crown Prince into custody, not kill him. Why did we elect to do it all the way out in Tujue territory, involving the Ashina? I do not know. Figure it out yourself. There. That is all I have for you.” She says nothing more, turning her gaze up into the sky.

Liu Chanfeng seems to be telling the truth. You turn away from her and stare frustratedly in the direction of the fortress. There is no way you will be able to approach the Hei brothers for a while – it looks like you would have to pay them another visit at a later time. Perhaps if you had not shown your hand so early…

Suddenly, a hail of arrows flies out of the dark, without warning.

“They’ve found us!” shouts Xiaoqi, jumping up in a panic. In your eagerness to interrogate Liu Chanfeng, you had failed to detect the approach of your pursuers. Xiaoqi hurls her round smoke pellets towards the direction of the arrows to cover your escape. Surprisingly, Xiahou Yu scoops up a protesting Liu Chanfeng in his arms in a decisive manner and bounds away at high speed. He might not be a good fighter, but you realize that his qinggong is at a superb level, probably a lot better than yours. As you turn to retreat, a stray projectile flies at you out from the smoke. You instinctively flinch away – that is all that saves you from having an arrow through your head.

Your left eye, however, is not so lucky.

A blinding pain assails the left side of your head as the sharp tip of the arrow skims across your eyeball. You resist the urge to scream out, biting on your lip as you clutch your burning eye. Warm, sticky blood is oozing from between your fingers. Stumbling off, you wave away Yunzi, who seems alarmed at your injury. “Run, go! We have to shake them off again!” The Black Dragon Society appears to have some good trackers amongst their men – just your luck.

Making a clucking noise of dissatisfaction, she turns and flees. “Don’t fall behind,” she calls out.

You run until you catch up to Xiaoqi, who yelps when you grab her by the collar. “One of your smoke bombs. Quickly!” She looks confused until you plunge your hand down her robes, searching around for what you want. Xiaoqi leaps back with a girlish yelp but you have already gotten what you need. You give her a gentle kick to the rear, urging her to catch up with the others.

There is no way about it. If you are to stop their pursuit, you must find a way to turn the tables on them. Sighing, you run behind a large tree before quietly clambering up it. Though you cannot see out of your left eye right now, your other senses still work. Calming yourself, you keep your ears open.

How many are there?

Six? Nine? No, more than twelve men. Skilled fighters – it would not be a good idea to confront them head-on. You listen to the sound of leaves and twigs being crunched underfoot.

Two of the men walk with quieter steps.

They are probably the trackers. You place the round, chemical-filled container between your teeth, holding it gently so that you don’t break it. Then, you slowly draw your wodao and the Yuchang Sword, a weapon in each hand.

They would be passing beneath you soon - in this darkness, with your injured eye, your sight is almost useless. You would just have to rely on your other senses and your instinct.

The trackers would be at the front of the pack. Keeping a low profile, your silhouette melds with the branches and the leaves. They would see you if they knew where to find you, but it seems that they are not thinking of looking up. They pause below the tree, looking at the obvious tracks you made on purpose.

“Strange,” you hear one of them say, “one of these tracks leads away-“

You do not give him the chance to finish. Dropping down from the branches, you cut him down with the wodao – the keen blade splits him from collarbone to his last rib. You attempt to stab at the other tracker, but he deflects the Yuchang Sword with a lucky parry despite his panic. The mercenaries shout out at the sight of you.

This is as far as you go; staying here would be the death of you. You would just have to satisfy yourself with the death of one tracker and scaring them. You laugh maniacally. “Come after me and one of you will be next!” Dropping the smoke bomb, you stamp on it, hard. It erupts into a large plume of obscuring smoke, and you flee without looking back.

***

Your gambit worked; their pursuit slowed down though it did not cease. You rejoin the others at a small cabin south of the fortress, near Shennong Forest; Xiahou Yu had pointed out the gathering location should any of you had gotten lost. Finally you could rest.

With the dawn, however, came new problems. After bandaging your eye – you step out into the cheerful, sunny open only to find Yu and Chanfeng arguing. Before he can react, she strikes at him with her fingers. The scholar freezes in position, and you start to move towards them, wondering if she is planning on harming your friend.

“Stop right there,” she snarls. “Are you going to stop me from leaving too?”

“Are you?” you ask. “Why? Yu has gone through so much to find you.”

“That is his business,” replies Liu Chanfeng. “I did not ask him to come find me. I am… thankful that am I now free, but I cannot tarry here. I have to free my sect sisters… Xiaoqi’s friends, before they are sold into slavery.”

“You are going back to the Black Dragon Society? That is insane,” you exclaim. “No wonder Yu did not want to let you go.”

“They do not sell the slaves here - they will drug them, disguise them as foreigners and transport them up north, to a place called Youxia City. I just have to strike there.”

You shake your head. Though Yu is frozen, you can see the pleading look in his eyes. You have no doubt that once he is freed he will attempt to follow her.

“What are you going to do? Make me submit by force, like the brutish male that you are?” sneers Liu Chanfeng. You scratch gently at the bandage around your left eye – it still hurts you terribly. From what you have heard, Liu Chanfeng is not in the best shape from her imprisonment, but right now neither are you.

Yunzi and Xiaoqi exit the cabin. “What’s going on, mistress?” asks Xiaoqi as she trots over to Chanfeng. “We are leaving,” replies her mistress curtly. “Are your things packed?”

“B-but Sister Yunzi promised to teach me some moves!” complains the girl.

“What’s going on, Jing?” asks Yunzi as she comes to your side. You look at her, then at Xiahou Yu, and finally at Liu Chanfeng.

***

A. You ask Yunzi to help you subdue Liu Chanfeng. You are really in no condition for any duels right now, though you are only doing this for Xiahou Yu’s sake.

B. You let her go on her way, and attempt to convince Xiahou Yu to not go after her once he is unfrozen. You are not sure if he will listen, though.

C. You offer to go with her. Youxia City sounds like a fun place, and if it’s to free her sisters from slavery it is for a good cause.
 

四十六 · Encounter on the Road

Encounter on the Road

“Go get her!” you say, pointing at Liu Chanfeng.

“What?” frowns Yunzi. She looks at you as if you are mad. “She’s trying to run off! No time to explain, just subdue her!” you say. Yunzi gives you a pitying look, but runs towards Chanfeng anyway. Recognizing her hostile intent, Chanfeng immediately takes a stance and meets Yunzi head on. The two women begin their fight while you look on. Chanfeng’s poor condition has her hard-pressed to find a response to Yunzi’s swift attacks, but somehow she manages to dodge the strikes by the skin of her teeth. This would be a much more equal match if she had not just escaped from imprisonment. As they continue exchanging blows, you move towards Xiahou Yu to free him.

“Xiaoqi, help us escape! Quickly!” shouts Liu Chanfeng suddenly, realizing that she cannot hold out much longer.

“Y-yes, Mistress!” shouts her faithful disciple. The girl runs towards the fight and places one hand in her robes – she must be looking for yet another of her trademark smoke bombs. If she pulls it off Liu Chanfeng will have the opportunity to escape. This takes priority. Turning away from Yu, you sprint towards Xiaoqi’s back just as she passes you. Taking advantage while her guard is lowered, you scoop her up from behind and sling her slight body over your shoulder as she screams in fright.

“Let me down!”

“Haha, no!” you laugh. “Just sit quietly and watch. A lady shouldn’t interfere in a proper duel.” You carry the struggling girl away from the fight. “No! I’m going to be defiled!” She doesn’t seem to be listening to you. Crying out in panic, she slaps you on the back.

It hurts more than you would expect. In fact, it feels exactly like she just used the Yuhua Duqing Palm on you.

“Oh, sh-“ You feel the familiar thorny qi digging its excruciating way into your body. It looks like you underestimated her. You drop Xiaoqi as you sink to your knees, your internal wounds reopening painfully. Coughing up blood, you fall flat on your back, staring up at the sky. It is a very clear sky. You feel like you could get lost in that blue expanse…

“Uh oh, did I kill him?” mutters Xiaoqi.

“No,” you manage to grunt out, fixing your eyes on her. She leaps back with a yelp. You try to get up, but find that you are unable to even twitch a finger. This might be bad. Xiaoqi looks at you warily and attempts to turn away, but she is stopped by a hand on her shoulder. It’s Yunzi. Xiaoqi freezes up like a little herbivorous animal.

“So, did you get her?” you ask, looking up at her from your comfortable spot on the ground.

“I didn’t get her… she fainted by herself,” shrugs Yunzi as she gestures behind her. Craning your neck with tremendous effort, you can just about make out Liu Chanfeng collapsed on the ground, though with more elegance than your own posture. “She overexerted herself trying to keep up with me,” continues Yunzi. “Not a very satisfying match, really. She wasn’t in good condition. What’s the matter with you anyway?” She looks over you, turning her head to the side. Then, she looks at Xiaoqi. “Wait, no, no need to tell me. You tried to molest Xiaoqi and she fought back? Was asking me to go after Liu Chanfeng just a ruse so that you could abduct an innocent girl?”

“That’s exactly right, big sister,” says Xiaoqi with conviction, somehow having found her courage back. “I managed to take down this beast in man’s clothing.”

“If you keep saying that, one of these days I’ll really do it. Look,” you sigh, “Just go undo Xiahou Yu’s immobilization, then find something to bind Liu Chanfeng. We need to talk.”

***

“Thank you again for stopping her,” says Xiahou Yu gratefully. “In her condition she should not be rushing anywhere, let alone after Black Dragon Society mercenaries.”

“It’s not me you have to thank. Yunzi was the one that did most of the work.”

“Don’t be so modest, Jing. It was your idea.”

“How did you convince her anyway?” you ask. “I’m shocked that she stayed after that.” Attempting to reason it out with Chanfeng had been useless in the aftermath of the fight. Suddenly Yu had told everyone to leave him and Chanfeng alone for some time so that he could persuade her. He had gotten a small jar of wine from somewhere too. You wonder if that factored in the persuasion. Surprisingly, Liu Chanfeng had agreed to accompany your group as far as Emei the next morning. She seemed reluctant to do so, but whatever Yu said, it seemed to have convinced her.

“She’s not an unreasonable woman,” says Yu calmly, as if the argument had never happened.

“Only you would think and say something like that about that woman,” you reply.

“Ha, maybe,” laughs Xiahou Yu cheerfully. “Now, finish up the food.” Yunzi had categorically refused to take care of you, Xiaoqi wouldn’t come near you, and Liu Chanfeng would probably rather die than feed a man, and so the job of being your caretaker while you were paralyzed fell to him. He lifts the spoon to your mouth, but the sudden shaking of the wagon spills the thin gruel.

“Riders in the distance!” shouts Yunzi.

“The Black Dragon Society might have caught up,” says Xiahou Yu worriedly. “I’ll go take a look.” Due to your unfortunate affliction they had been forced to procure a wagon to transport you. It was not surprising that the Black Dragon Society would be able to follow your trail like this, though you had hoped they would have given up once you exited the Xiangyang region.

No such luck, you suppose.

Resting on the bed, you keep your ears open and your breathing steady, listening to the happenings outside. You hear the hooves of horses striking the ground, though there are too many for you to keep an exact count. Perhaps twenty to thirty. They seem to be approaching from different directions… there are two groups. There are shouts, and a brief scuffle with weapons drawn. Then, you hear one group breaking away, their sound of their horses receding further and further from you. Some muffled conversation begins to take place outside the wagon.

After a while, Xiahou Yu climbs back in, followed by a cheery, cute girl with short hair.

“Good day,” she grins, “I’m sorry to interrupt while you are in your convalescence, but it would be remiss of me not to introduce myself to a fellow traveller on the road.” Even though her words are formal and polite, she gives off an affable air.

“This is Miss Song Lingshu, the head of the Qingcheng Sect,” introduces Xiahou Yu. “She and a band of Qingcheng disciples scared off the bandits just now. I thought you would like to thank her personally, brother.” You try not to let the surprise show on your face. This is not what you expected Song Lingshu to look like. “I-I’m grateful, Miss Song,” you stammer. “I have long heard of your name and the fame of your sect. To think we would be saved by such a great person…”

“Oh, don’t start with that,” laughs Song Lingshu. “I am not one for exaggerated talk. It was nothing, I was just following the principles of justice that my dear father taught me – to help the people wherever I go.” Strange, that is not what you know of him. Song Jiangke probably did not practice what he preached. “Your father must be a truly admirable man then,” you say. She does not seem to catch the hint of sarcasm in your voice; a look of sorrow crosses over the girl’s face. “Yes, he was… but he is no longer with us now.”

“I… see,” you say carefully. “I am sorry to hear that. It must be a great loss to you.”

“Well, it falls to me to uphold his legacy now, and continue the fight for justice. One cannot mourn forever,” she replies, smiling brilliantly. It looks like her optimism and cheerfulness cannot be suppressed for long.

“What brings you all the way out here anyway?” you ask. She had not participated at the youth tournament, having had to stay in mourning over her father’s death. The girl explains in a carefree manner, “You see, I just took over as head of the sect. I thought I would travel to Wudang to pay my respects to the Grand Taoist Wang Zhengchong. He is the leader of the pugilistic world, and as a young leader it is my duty to pay obeisance to my elders. I was just coming back from there.”

“Did you manage to meet him?”

“No,” she sighs, her shoulders drooping. Here is a person that clearly wears her emotions on her sleeve. “He is in seclusion. I did manage to speak to some other old guy – “ Suddenly she turns red as she apologizes. “Sorry, I misspoke! I mean, the acting head, Master Daoshi! I’m sorry. My father used to try and teach me proper etiquette, but it has been quite difficult for me to keep to those lessons all the time.”

“If he is old and a man, then you did not speak falsely,” you say. “I am sure Wudang’s masters wouldn’t go so far as to deny their own age and gender.” Song Lingshu laughs brightly. “You are an interesting person… you remind me of Huashan’s Young Master Bai.” You try your hardest not to make a face of loathing at the sound of Bai Jiutian’s name. How in the world do you remind her of that guy?

The Qingcheng head continues, “I have heard that you are headed to Chengdu. Would you like me and my fellow Qingcheng disciples to escort you there? I think it would be safer. The roads are rife with bandits nowadays.”

“Oh, no, we couldn’t possibly ask you to do that,” you say humbly. “As the leader of a great orthodox sect, I am sure you are busy enough that you would not want to be slowed down by us.”

“We are headed in the same direction anyway. So, what do you think? Wait, I haven’t got your name, have I?” She gives you that cheerful grin again. You glance over her shoulder, at Xiahou Yu. He nods – he is agreeable to it. The decision is yours to make, however.

***

A. You accept the escort offer. The roads are dangerous, that much is true, and in your current defenseless state any extra assistance, even from an orthodox sect, would be helpful.

B. You reject the escort offer. Though she may have good intentions now, you do not know if she will remain the same if she knows your true identity, or that of Chanfeng's, who has a bit of notoriety of her own.

***

1. You reveal your identity as Zhang Jue’s disciple up front. You would prefer to be truthful rather than for her to find out later; you do not want to start off this acquaintanceship with a lie. It can be left up to her whether she wants to escort you or not then.

2. You do not reveal your identity. It is probably wiser to just pretend to be some sick boy seeking treatment; as Zhang Jue’s disciple you are disliked by most of the orthodox fraternity. If she knows of your connection to Master Yao, things might be even worse.
 

四十七 · Return to Emei

Return to Emei

“I really do appreciate the offer, but before that there is something you must know.”

“What is that?” says Song Lingshu, smiling. Your demeanour changes, a cocky grin spreading across your face. “Are you sure it is okay for the head of Qingcheng to be helping Zhang Jue’s disciple?” She laughs loudly and turns to Xiahou Yu. “That’s a good joke! You didn’t tell me your brother is such a prankster… is he?” Her expression becomes doubtful as she sees Xiahou Yu looking rather disgruntled.

“I wish it was. I am the Man Tiger Pig.” You confess your identity, giving her a serious look. Song Lingshu’s laugh fades as she glances awkwardly at you. “Seriously? I mean, I don’t really understand why anyone would lie about that, but… oh, this is just weird.” She scratches her head, frowning. You notice that her manner of speech has become decidedly more boyish and informal as she gets more perplexed. “Are you really that guy?”

“The one and only, though as you can see I’m in a bit of a tight spot at the moment.”

“If you are really him, it would be bad for me to help you. I mean, you’re the disciple of the Southern Maniac and everything! My reputation would be ruined! Ah, this is so confusing!” she groans.

“What’s so confusing?” you ask, starting to get confused yourself.

“Well, you’re clearly injured, and in need of help. If I didn’t help you I really couldn’t live with myself, but if you are the Man Tiger Pig I shouldn’t be helping you...” Her voice trails off and you can almost see the gears working behind her head. “Forget it,” she says finally.

“If that is how it is, I understand. ” You knew that there was a likely chance she would refuse to help if she knew your true identity. “You would get into trouble with the other orthodox sects if they found out, after all.”

“No, that’s not it.” Song Lingshu shakes her head. “I mean, I’m not going to think about it too much anymore. You’re injured and I’m going to escort you. There’s no need to consider anything else. Whether you are really Man Tiger Pig or not doesn’t matter.”

“Are you sure?” You are mildly surprised at her decision.

“Of course! I help because I want to do what is right, not because of what people are called. I promised to help you before I knew who you were, and that was because I sensed you are a good guy. Even if you are the Southern Maniac’s disciple, nothing has changed from five minutes ago. I’m pretty sure you’re the sort of guy who’s kind at heart,” declares the girl confidently. Something about what she said sounds familiar…

“Hm, if that’s the case, I graciously accept your offer. I’m in your debt,” you say. If she’s willing, you have nothing against it.

“No need for thanks,” smiles Song Lingshu. “Now, we should probably get going. I’ll drop by later to chat. I know it’s wrong of me to say this as head of Qingcheng, but you just won’t believe how boring the disciples are sometimes. See you soon!” She ducks out of the wagon as quickly as she came, leaving you and Xiahou Yu behind.

“She’s a chatty one, isn’t she?” you remark. “I can’t believe you actually told her your true identity,” sighs Yu, his shoulders sagging. “For that matter, I can’t believe it worked!”

“It was a gamble,” you admit. “I didn’t know how she would react, though I was hoping that she was one of those genuinely optimistic people that sees the good in everyone.”

“You mean like yourself? Knowing a kindred spirit, that sort of thing?” Yu laughs for a while before he seems to realize something. His laughter stops and his face turns sombre. “That’s not right, is it? You aren’t a very optimistic person,” he says suddenly.

“Hey, I’m always thinking positive,” you grin. “That’s why I can take so many gambles.”

“I don’t know,” Yu disagrees. “It just seems more like you don’t care what happens to you, rather than being optimistic. Anyway, I’ll also be riding outside for a while. Get some rest while you can.” As he leaves the wagon, it begins to move slowly. You are on the road again.

***

True to her word, Song Lingshu returns to accompany you inside the wagon, and often. It seems that she finds your company preferable to that of her own sect members. By her account, they seem to be a rather bland bunch who can only see her as the leader of Qingcheng and not as her own person. On your part, you find her rather affable and easy to talk to.

“You know, I always thought your master was just some murderous nutcase that lost control by practicing unorthodox martial arts. From your stories, that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

“Yeah, most people think that, and I don’t blame them. It is rare for most people to meet someone that can kill a man as if they were crushing an ant, and Master Zhang is one of them.” You had regaled her with tales of your experience as Zhang Jue’s disciple, including the time when the two of you went after some hapless pirates that had decided to raid Maniac Island, not knowing who it belonged to. “I suppose the world is very wide, and there are different forms of justice,” she says thoughtfully, but adds excitedly, “I still believe in my own path as the right one, though!”

Just then, Yunzi climbs into the wagon, holding a bowl in her hand. “Hey, dinner is ready...” She stops upon seeing Song Lingshu there. “Ah, am I interrupting?”

“No, not at all!” replies Lingshu cheerfully. “Are you here to feed him?”

“Of course not,” says Yunzi coolly as she glances at you. “I was just bringing the dinner. This man needs to learn how to feed himself.”

“He still seems too weak to hold the spoon.” Lingshu turns to look at you. “Well, I will help out with the feeding then. I used to do it for my sick mother.”

“Do as you wish. I’ll just leave the bowl here then.” Placing the bowl down on the floor of the wagon, Yunzi leaves before you can say anything. Lingshu picks it up. “You know,” she says, “your friend Xiahou Yu initially introduced her as your wife. That doesn’t seem to be the case.”

“Of course not,” you say calmly. “The heavens will rain blood before I marry that shrew.”

“That is not a nice thing to say.” She stuffs your mouth with a spoonful of hot gruel. “I thought you had a reputation for chasing after every girl that crosses your path?” You swallow before replying indignantly. “That is not true, and even if it was, I definitely wouldn’t go after that girl. How about you, then? Doesn’t the fair maiden of Qingcheng have a man in her heart?”

“Well…” she replies tentatively, suddenly shy despite her usual boisterous behaviour. “There is one guy.”

“Oh, do tell,” you say, grinning. “This should be good.”

“Right, keep it a secret from my fellows in Qingcheng,” she whispers theatrically. “Bai Jiutian.” You try to keep yourself from spitting the gruel all over her face at the mention of his name. “Seriously?” you choke.

“Yes,” she continues, mistaking your tone, “It’s a bit silly of me, I know, but I’ve always liked him… A-anyway, enough of that! Let’s talk about something else.” You do so, thankful that she wasn’t going to start reminiscing about how dashing Bai was.

The wagon continues to travel slowly but with little incident as the days go by – if there was any pursuit, the sight of the Qingcheng contingent seems to have kept them away. It looks like the Black Dragon Society or the secret police might not be keen to engage in open conflict with the orthodox sects for now. By the time you reach the foot of Emei Mountain, you have regained enough strength to walk, though anything more strenuous would inflict excruciating pain. You sit on the outside of the wagon, watching the others prepare for the ascend.

“Young mistress, we will depart for Qingcheng first,” says a tall, bearded man, who appears to be her right-hand disciple. “Please return as soon as you are able.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” says Song Lingshu. “I haven’t been to see Yifang in a while, so I’d like to catch up with her. I’ll see you soon, Uncle Mao.” The man nods and turns away, leading the rest of the disciples in the direction of Qingcheng. That’s right; Song Lingshu is Yifang’s childhood friend. There is something else you are interested in, however – her Uncle Mao. You have a hunch about this, and approach her. “Uncle Mao?” you ask. “He seems rather commanding. Is he related?” She shakes her head. “No, he’s just my father’s good friend. Mao Sanjiao is one of the best men in Qingcheng. He took care of me often while I was growing up. That’s why I call him uncle.”

You only smile and nod.

You definitely have to talk to Yu and Chanfeng about this when you get the chance.

***

When Song Lingshu and Yifang meet, the Qingcheng girl immediately puts her hand on the Emei nun’s shoulder and sweeps her off, talking about justice excitedly.

So that’s where she really got all her fanciful notions from.

Next, Xiahou Yu went for his private audience with the Abbess, together with Liu Chanfeng and Xiaoqi. He wants to arrange for a safe haven for them here, though he has confessed to you that he is going to ask Chanfeng to skip the part where she becomes a celibate nun.

It is just you and Yunzi left in the visitors’ hall, and she seems slightly glum for some reason. After a while, you ask, “Are you okay?”

“Of course. There is no need for your concern,” comes the reply. “I am just counting the days until I need to return to the Fire Temple. I have been away too long.”

“Are you worried about them?”

She doesn’t respond. You are undecided whether to probe further when Cao’er finally arrives. Surprisingly, she’s followed by Chi Qilin – you didn’t know that she would be here. The two of them enter the hall with a spring in their step. Upon seeing you, Cao’er runs forward and greets you by jumping into your arms. “Jing!” Qilin whistles approvingly. “My my, it looks like someone was really missing you, Xu Jing. Oh, naturally, I missed you too.”

“Hey.” You muster up a greeting though Cao’er’s embrace is squeezing the life out of you. “I-I can’t breathe.”

“…oh, sorry.” Cao’er lets go and steps away, looking at the floor. “You don’t look good… help?”

“Yeah,” you say. “I’m going to need to rest here for a while.” Cao’er’s face brightens up, happy that you’ll be staying. “…good… I have new things to try…” Something about that worries you a little, especially since Qilin is grinning widely like she knows what is going to happen.

“I see you haven’t been idle in seducing helpless young girls,” remarks Yunzi from the side. Before you can retort, Cao’er walks up to her. “…so, you are number four…”

“Number four? What do you mean?”

“Um… I’m first… then there is Qilin… my sister… then you are number four, right? …or did you want to be the first wife? We can negotiate…”

Yunzi turns beet-red upon hearing Cao’er mutter those words innocently.

You do not want to recall the fight that came after, especially after the devious Qilin slid herself into the mix and began adding oil to the fire.

***

Cao’er had said that your recovery would be painfully slow, but Miecao had appeared with a small satchel; it contained precious golden fox leaves. Song Lingshu had left them with the Abbess before she left, saying that she was not sure whether to give it to you directly, but would like the Abbess – who she thought wiser than herself – to decide whether or not you deserved the help. “I suppose Qingcheng would be rich enough to afford it,” says Miecao acidly. Being a strict nunnery, Emei wasn’t exactly swimming in money.

The leaves were definitely a tremendous help; though you had needed to use every last leaf, under Cao’er’s expert and tender, if slightly dubious, care, your physical recovery was complete within a month. Your neigong, however, was a different matter. It was out of her expertise to heal – you suppose you would just have to wait for it to recover on its own. After consulting with Miecao about the toad demon incident, she had instructed one of the more spiritual nuns to write you some talismans just in case there were any problems with your body. They looked somewhat different from the one the exorcist Master Zhong had given you, but hopefully they would have the same effect if required.

Then, with less than three months to the Fire Cult’s challenge, things began moving. First you received news that Luoying Manor had been burnt to the ground by the Emperor’s troops. Lady Ji was missing, and the land had been turned into a temporary base for Tang soldiers.

Shortly afterwards, even worse news came.

The Emperor had been poisoned and fallen into a coma. The blame was put on Tulu Huodu of the Wudu Cult, and an army of ten thousand had been dispatched to exterminate them. Leading the army was the Crown Prince Li Shun – as the favoured heir it seems that the court had pressured him to take personal responsibility for the attack on his father.

Qilin’s face had paled when she received the news – this was the first time you had seen such a scared expression from her. She ran off to her room to begin packing immediately. At the same time, Yunzi decided that she would also be returning to the Fire Cult – it seems that with the fresh troubles going on in the Central Plains, she needs to go back and see what the temple has in mind.

“I will be staying here for a while until Chanfeng is more stable,” says Xiahou Yu later that night. It seems that her ordeals have left Liu Chanfeng traumatized even though she tried not to show it, and it will take a while longer in a safe environment before Yu felt she was ready to travel. In the meantime, the two of you had been asking the nuns about Mao Sanjiao of Qingcheng – there is little you can find out about him except that he had been sworn brothers with Song Jiangke and is one of the best fighters in the Qingcheng Sect. He did not seem to recognize Liu Chanfeng on your journey here, but you cannot be sure.

The Fire Cult’s challenge is not far away now, but there are a few urgent matters you need to follow up on.

***

A. You decide to follow Yunzi back to the Fire Temple. She had said, once, that if you were curious about that organization she could bring you in for a look. She had not elaborated much on it, but you think that she might actually be a bit pleased if you went.

B. You will follow Qilin to the Wudu Cult. Qilin seems convinced that her uncle was framed. Besides, if the army attacks it will be an extremely dangerous situation for Shun. Tulu Huodu is not one of the Five Greats for nothing, and though he may not be able to defeat an army of ten thousand, if Shun is poisoned there…

C. You choose to stay in Emei to recuperate and practice your martial arts in preparation for the Fire Cult challenge; you are really behind on your training. Since Qingcheng is not far away, you could also pay them a visit and see if you could find out more about Mao Sanjiao.
 

四十八 · March on Guizhou

March on Guizhou

You sniff the air. The weather is becoming cooler – autumn is here. It had been summer when you left Maniac Island. The Fire Cult’s challenge would take place on the winter solstice, some months away. Strange, that a group that identified itself with fire would pick the coldest time of the year. You stoke the campfire slowly. “You know, I thought you’d have chosen to go with the Fire Cult girl,” says Qilin suddenly, sitting opposite you. “Why didn’t you?” Cao’er is busy preparing some medicines, her back to you, but you notice her movements slowing down. Though she does not say anything, she is probably listening for your answer too.

You had parted ways with Yunzi back at Emei, though not without her reminding you that you owed her a rematch at the Fire Cult’s challenge, when you would hopefully be fully healed. It was a promise you hoped to keep – this time you’ll finally beat it into her head that you are the superior fighter, once and for all. Then, you had chased after Qilin. “Is it so strange that I’d want to come here?” you ask with a disbelieving chuckle.

“Yes. I really didn’t think you would actually offer to accompany me,” says Qilin seriously. Then, a small, sly grin reveals itself, and she asks teasingly, “Or did you actually come here for my sake? Oh dear, have you fallen for me?”

“Ha, you can keep on dreaming about that!” you laugh. Though that is probably not too far from the truth – you were also here because of Shun – you would rather die than admit that you came to help her. She would probably be even more insufferable if you admitted to caring about her wellbeing. A fleeting emotion crosses Qilin’s face for an instant before dissolving into her familiar, mischievous look. “Well, I was just kidding. You wouldn’t come for my sake, I know that. It must be the Crown Prince… I can think of no other reason.”

“I’m not sure what you are talking about.”

“Oh, come on. Remember what Lady Ji said that night at Luoying Manor? I’m not stupid, you know. I can make some pretty good guesses. You had a noble’s education, you came from the palace, and you chose to came here once you heard about the Crown Prince. So, what’s your relationship with the prince? Are you two… you know… like that?” She makes a rather vulgar gesture for a girl, grinning cheekily.

“No! Nothing like that,” you reply, suddenly flustered as the memories come back to you. The chambermaids had told you many tales of decadent royal princes and their male companions during your night training, and you had been prepared in body and mind to heed such a request if it was made, yet Shun had never asked.

“It’s okay…” Cao’er speaks up suddenly. “Even if Jing is… like that… I will accept it.”

“I already said that it wasn’t like that,” you grumble. Qilin laughs at your discomfort, pleased at having found another way to assault your psyche. “Anyway,” you say quickly, trying to change the topic, “I checked out the situation from a few of the nearby villages this morning. Here’s how things stand at the moment…”

The three of you had arrived before the army began their attack. Qilin had told you that the Wudu Cult headquarters were nestled within Wudu Gorge, which itself was hidden somewhere within a vast sea of bamboo trees. You are in that forest right now, following a path only Qilin knew. The closest settlement to the Wudu Cult was Chishui Town; that is very likely where the ten thousand soldiers would make camp, building a temporary fort on the outskirts of the town as their base of operations in this region. Shun is here, without a doubt, but he is also accompanied by General Lu Bu, an experienced military man who had been a decorated veteran of the Tujue war.

“Do we know when the attack is going to start?” asks Qilin.

“They’re still scouting, but given their manpower it is only a matter of time until they find it. If I were your uncle, I would have used this time to evacuate. Do you think he has done that?”

“I don’t know,” says Qilin, biting her lip. “He can be a bit stubborn at times. Besides, where would we go? Not counting the families, the Wudu Sect has more than five hundred members.”

“You could scatter amongst the villages, hide yourselves there… no, that might not work.” You catch your mistake quickly. As far as you know, Shun had come here to exterminate the Wudu Cult.

That meant only one thing – if the Wudu members hid amongst the people, the Tang army would operate on the assumption that the villagers were harbouring enemies to the throne.

They would launch a real campaign of extermination. Pulling back on your oft-forgotten knowledge of politics, you manage to remember some important facts, and realize that this would be easybecause it was Guizhou. The local population in this particular region of Guizhou was largely Miao, and there had always been proposals for settlement of the area with actual Han bandied about amongst the officials.

You do not know if this was a factor in the decision to mobilize, but you cannot rule it out.

“You are sure that the Wudu Cult would never do such a thing?” you ask Qilin.

“Of course not!” replies the girl indignantly as she puts her hands on her hips. “Uncle Huodu said that there is not enough gold in the world to pay for the trouble we would get into for poisoning the current Emperor. I cannot believe he would do something so stupid, knowing just how stupid it is!”

“What about the other members of the sect? Ones that you don’t know that well? It might be enough to entice them – they could think that they would be able to take the payment and run.” Of course, you suspect that if the conspirators actually found a lesser member of the Wudu Cult perform the deed, it’s quite likely they would ensure all trails leading back to them were removed… thoroughly. Whoever was hired would not find a happy ending.

“None of them would be good enough to do the deed,” remarks Qilin bluntly. “The current Emperor Taisheng was an extreme paranoid in recent years. The only ones with enough skill to get past all that security and poison-testing would be my father and my uncle. No, it would be easier for someone already in the palace to betray the Emperor and strike.”

That could happen, but it would need every Grand Eunuch and much of the first-ranked Ministers to agree for it to even succeed – basically, the Emperor would have had his entire court united in wanting him dead, or at least comatose. You are not sure if that is possible… but you cannot rule it out.

Then, of course, there was yet another possible answer: the immortality pills that Emperor Taisheng was so fond of taking. His pursuit of immortality was nothing new; many Emperors, upon realizing that they would not rule forever, delved into alchemy and superstition to find a path to eternity. None of them have ever succeeded. From your herbalism training, you had found out that many of the pills that the Emperor took were likely to be toxic. You wouldn’t be surprised if he had ended up poisoning himself.

Still, there was too little to go on for now. You would have to find some more leads before you can come to a conclusion about this matter. Despite your misgivings about Emperor Taisheng’s character, he was still the one that plucked you up from poverty and brought you into the palace. You think that you should at least attempt to uncover the truth, as best as you can.

“How far is your home from here?”

“We should reach the gorge by tomorrow,” says Qilin. “Chishui Town is in another direction, but even closer. What do you plan to do? Do you want to come with me so I can introduce you to my father, or do you want to visit your beloved prince? If you are going to Chishui, I will meet up with you there after I check back home. It might take a day or two, though.”

***

A. You will follow Qilin all the way to the Wudu Cult. It is probably best that you speak with these expert poisoners and get an idea of what they plan to do about the impending assault, as well as their opinions on this poisoning.

B. You travel to Chishui Town; the Tang fort is built right next to it, and the Crown Prince will likely be within it. You would like to find out what the military's plans are first, and Shun will probably be easier for you to persuade.
1. You will attempt to sneak into the fort under the cover of darkness, using your stealth skills to enter his lodgings undetected.
2. You and Cao’er will put on an act of being wandering, patriotic physicians to gain entry. You’ll try to contact Shun from there.
3. You boldly declare your identity at the gates of the fort and request to see the Crown Prince.
 

四十九 · The Wudu Cult

The Wudu Cult

“I’ll go with you.”

You savour the rare look of genuine surprise on Qilin’s face. It looks like she had been expecting you to go to the Crown Prince as your first order of business.

“What’s the matter, I thought you wanted me to meet your father?” you grin. A bit of colour comes into her cheeks as she replies, slightly flustered. “O-oh, right. Of course. That’s right. I’ll need to introduce you so that you can take responsibility.”

“Take responsibility… for what?” You aren’t aware that you had done anything that needs taking responsibility for, but she just hums a little tune and ignores you.

***

The next day, you arrive at the gorge. Qilin leads you down a long flight of slippery, narrow steps hewn from the steep rock walls on either side of the stream. Small thickets of tall bamboo occasionally get in your way – you are forced to use your qinggong to skirt around the trees to continue onwards. “Is this the only entrance?” you ask, lightly leaping over a missing step.

“No, there is a guest entrance from a large cave further downstream, and another underwater passage which we use to transport supplies. I’ll let you see it later,” replies Qilin in front of you. Judging from the difficulty of this terrain, it is unlikely the Tang soldiers will be able to attack from this location. You mention that to Qilin, and she laughs, agreeing. “The entrance inside the cave is hidden by a secret mechanism that only members of the sect know how to operate, and it is impossible to for anyone to hold their breath long enough to travel the underwater passage.” It seems like any attack will much be harder than you had first thought – the army would not be able to use their full numbers to bear, and you are certain that the Wudu Cult would have laid traps to further deter intruders.

As you round a particularly tricky bend, the headquarters of the Wudu Cult comes into view. The buildings are perched on impossible spots all along the both sides of the sheer gorge, linked by long iron chains and wooden planks. They appear to be extensions of chambers in the rock walls. “The steps continue on to lead to an entrance hall, but here I usually take a shortcut,” explains Qilin. “You can try keeping up, or go on ahead to the entrance hall.” She takes on a rather challenging tone, smiling at you. Saying that, she jumps off the rock stairway. Gracefully leaping across the bamboo trees that dot the area, she then bounds up a cliff and lands on top of one of the buildings.

“What is she, a mountain goat?” you mutter. “Cao’er, what do you think?” If she couldn’t pull this off, you would walk with her to the entrance hall. Cao’er nods. “…no problem. I can do it.” You raise your eyebrows, impressed at the quiet confidence in her voice. “Well then, let’s do it!” You throw yourself off the steps and aim for the nearest tree. As you land on the bamboo, you kick off – it bends a lot more than it did for Qilin, where it had barely budged. As a result, your subsequent leap is unstable. You gain less height than you had hoped.

Angling for the nearest rock, you decide to use an alternate path; your qinggong won’t be graceful enough to follow Qilin’s exact route. You stick close to the cliff, skirting the side of the gorge as you make small leaps from outcrop to outcrop quickly. As you reach the final stretch, you realize that you are out of footholds to get you closer. It would be embarrassing to get stuck up here. You leap upwards, using your Shouwang Claws to help the climb until you find yourself hanging from a rock.

There, this height should be sufficient. Concentrating on your feet, you kick off from the rock wall and make a powerful leap away from the cliff. You soar through the sky. The jump brings you a good distance across the gorge, clearing almost half of its width. Making an agile somersault in mid-air, you flip around and land on your feet, albeit a little heavily. You’ve made it.

When you look up, Qilin is laughing at you. “What was that all about? You took almost as long as it would have to just follow the steps!” You bristle as she continues. “Now, Cao’er was good. She found an even faster way that I’ve never seen before.”

“It’s nothing… it was just a more efficient way,” replies Cao’er. “…if you saw it too, you could have done it, Jing…”

“Well,” you sigh, getting up and dusting yourself off, “you’ll have to teach me later.”

***

Like father, like daughter.

“So you have finally decided to take responsibility for my daughter? Oh, no, I’m just kidding. Don’t get so nervous,” grins Chi Tianxie with a twinkle in his eye. You are in the study of the Scarlet Scorpion, second-in-command of the Wudu Cult and renowned as a powerful martial artist in his own right. Dressed in the colourful clothes of the Miao, he gives off a casual impression of a ruffian, with his untamed beard and receding hairline – you must admit, he is not what you expected given the tests he had sent Qilin on. “I approve of you, though. You look just the right sort for our ranks, with that hair and that eye-patch,” he nods happily. “You can start by calling me father-in-law, or just father if you prefer.”

“Father!” complains Qilin, “This isn’t the time for your silly tangents!”

“I’m not sure you’re one to complain, Qilin,” you quip. “You tend to do the same when it suits you.”

Chi Tianxie roars in laughter. “Yes, I have taught my daughter well, haven’t I? It looks like you are going to fit right in, Xu Jing!”

“Father, about the Tang-“ Qilin tries to get the conversation back on track but her father raises his hand. “I know, but we have to wait for Huodu to get back before we can decide on anything.”

It looks like the Western Snake isn’t on the premises at the moment.

“Where is Uncle?” asks Qilin.

“Hm, well…” Chi Tianxie grins fiercely, as if appreciating the setup for a joke. “I’ll let him tell you when he returns. He should be back in the evening.” You get a slight feeling of unease – what if Tulu Huodu had gone ahead to Shun’s camp and struck first?

“In the meantime, the three of you have travelled a long way. Rest and relax. You might not get a chance in the coming days,” continues the Scarlet Scorpion. “By the way, that young lady there, you are Shunshi’s apprentice, right?”

“…yes. It is a pleasure to meet you, Mister Chi…” says Cao’er nervously. Scratching his beard, Chi replies, “Hm, I think I still owe that old man some books for that debacle in Guangzhou. My study is yours, read whatever you want.”

Cao’er brightens up instantly and manages to mutter some words of thanks before turning the full powers of her concentration on the numerous poison, herbal and medical tomes lining the shelves of the study. With a cheerful grin, Chi Tianxie leaves the study, warning Cao’er not to open any drawers just in case. She nods obediently. Meanwhile, Qilin pulls you off on a tour of the Wudu Cult. Talking excitedly all the while, she shows you the places where they cultivate herbs in trays and rear poisonous animals in tanks – the cult members seem pleased to see their young mistress finally bring a boy back home: ‘When is the wedding?’ appears to be a common question for them to ask, which you learn to deflect skilfully. It seems that there are also practice dummies for acupuncture points. You remember your studies with Master Yao, and the book he gave you. The tour manages to give you some new insight, allowing you to reach a breakthrough.

You look at Qilin, eagerly explaining the properties of the dangerous-looking scorpion in her hand like a little girl. For once, she is not attempting to be a seductive, teasing older lady, and it is refreshing to you.

“This is what you really are like, huh?” you say, leaning on a railing that overlooks one of the many waterfalls that line the gorge.

“What do you mean? I’m always like this.”

“You seem happier. More open.”

“Well,” she replies indignantly, “this is my home after all. It’s where I can relax and only worry about the poisons. Ah, that reminds me. I do have to tell the chef not to add any experiments into your food, he can get so over-zealous at times…”

That’s right – you had almost forgotten. The Wudu Cult is a gang of poisoners who would do anything for the right price. No matter how friendly or carefree they seem, they still trade in death.

Evening arrives before you know it, and with it, dinner.

You are invited to eat together with the Chi family; Qilin and her father and Tulu Huodu’s spouse – Qilin’s aunt and her father’s sister – Chi Huishe. You had wondered why Chi Tianxie was not the heir apparent, and Qilin had told you that the succession was historically matrilineal. Chi Huishe had been the leader of the Wudu Cult, but upon marriage she had yielded the position to her husband – this was exceedingly rare, though no one spoke out against it as they all respected Tulu Huodu’s supreme skill at poison. However, as they had not conceived any children, Qilin was designated as the successor.

All of you are waiting for the head of the family to return before tucking in. You have been poking at your food for the past ten minutes, wondering if it was poisoned. “Huodu is not back yet?” asks Chi Tianxie. Chi Huishe, a beautiful woman in middle age who bears a strong familial resemblance to Qilin, just smiles. “He’s here.” She flicks her eyes towards the door. As it opens, a tall, old man of about seventy enters – you are surprised. You had heard that he should have been younger than Chi Tianxie. Then, you notice that he is wearing the armour and cloak of a Tang general.

“My dear, you forgot to remove the disguise,” remarks Chi Huishe irritably.

“My apologies,” croaks the old man as he walks towards the table. He closes his eyes and concentrates, and his features rearrange themselves, taking on a younger texture and pallor. He removes the helmet, showing a bald head underneath. His features are non-descript – the only thing that strikes you are his eyes, which seem to be a strange shade of gold. As he sits down, you get up, Cao’er following your cue.

“Xu Jing, the disciple of Zhang Jue, greets the leader of the Wudu Sect with the utmost respect,” you say, bowing deeply with your hands clasped together. Cao’er does the same, muttering an almost unintelligible introduction.

“The Southern Maniac’s apprentice. I see. I have heard that my niece managed to make your acquaintance. You have built quite the reputation for yourself,” says the Western Snake calmly. “Do not stand on ceremony. Sit.” It seems more of an order than a polite request, but you do so without complaint. Looking at the Great Pugilist opposite you, you realize that he feels like the exact opposite of Zhang Jue – Master Zhang, even when still, emanated a strong aura of dominance and killing intent. Tulu Huodu, however, appeared to be a void… a blank. You could not read him one bit.

“So, brother,” begins Chi Tianxie as everyone starts eating – you more tentatively than the others – “what news do you bring?”

“The prince is undecided still,” says Tulu Huodu quietly as he places his chopsticks down. “It seems that he has already located the entrances to the sect with his own resources some time ago, but he is yet to share it with his soldiers.”

“Is he still holding out for something to change?” asks his wife.

“No, he is wondering whether he should force a change in the situation himself. Of course, he has not told me what he is planning yet. We should be prepared for all eventualities, including betrayal.” The Western Snake is cold and calm, measuring his words carefully.

The exchange stuns you. It almost seems as if Shun had been working together with Tulu Huodu.

“I am sorry to interrupt, Master Tulu, but you have met with the Crown Prince just now? Is he actually an ally of yours?”

Tulu Huodu turns his golden gaze to you, holding it there uncomfortably. “Yes and no. This is the second time we have met, and we merely find ourselves in the same boat for now, nothing more.”

“Ah!” exclaims Qilin suddenly. “You mean during the tournament, uncle? That was your business?” He nods. “Yes. I had to go to Chang’an instead of Luoyang because of the Prince. He needed to consult me about the immortality pills that the Emperor was taking.”

“Was he asking for an antidote?”

A scary smile floats across Tulu Huodu’s lips. “Of course not. He was asking me to estimate how much longer the Emperor had if he continued ingesting those pills. From the sample he managed to procure, I gave him an estimate, but I could not make a proper diagnosis without access to the Emperor himself… and that is slightly bothersome even for me. Still, that does not matter now; the Emperor’s collapse has happened far sooner than both I or the Crown Prince had expected.”

You ponder the odds, and ask, “Could someone have poisoned him, then, on top of the immortality pills?”

“It is possible, but improbable. It could simply be that the Emperor was in worse shape than I had thought,” says Tulu Huodu simply. “At any rate, someone has leaked our first meeting to certain factions in the court. That is why the Wudu Sect was quickly named the culprit. I am sure you understand why, Qilin?” He turns his attention to his heir, testing her. Qilin swallows her food and looks at her bowl of rice, as if willing the white grains to give her an answer. You already understand the reasons from your experience with court politics, but it would be poor form of you to interrupt. Besides, you think she can do it.

“On the off-chance that you really have aligned yourself with the Crown Prince, this would be a perfect way to force him to destroy his own ally, be destroyed by his ally, or be painted as the culprit behind his father’s poisoning, should he find excuses not to act?” she offers, after some time. That is the same conclusion you had come to. Tulu Huodu nods approvingly. “Correct. If he even thought of pushing the blame onto a scapegoat, they would bring up his meeting with me as evidence he poisoned his father. He would not have time to build up a convincing case.”

“Politics is so troublesome,” grumbles Qilin.

“That is how the world works, dear daughter,” says Chi Tianxie. “What do we do next? I suppose killing the Crown Prince would not solve anything?” You wince inwardly at this blunt talk of assassinating Shun. Tulu Huodu shakes his head. “Even if I wanted to, he is well-guarded. There appears to be a master of stealth around his person, someone who I could barely sense. I can easily defeat that man in a fight, but he could detect my arrival long before I made it to the Crown Prince’s side. I would be exposed and surrounded quickly. It would not really solve anything but give the Court an excuse to send a hundred thousand men the next time even if I manage to succeed, and I would much rather have the Crown Prince than any of his wastrel brothers anyway.”

“Then, we run,” says Chi Huishe.

“Yes, that is the most sensible option. We should retreat and hide, biding our time. I have established plenty of safehouses the families can use,” replies her brother. They seem to have been more prepared for this than Qilin had expected.

“What about the people living in this area?” you ask, knowing that should the Wudu Cult go missing, Shun may be forced to put villages to the sword just to root out the cultists.

“What about them?” asks Tulu Huodu emotionlessly.

“If they cannot find you, the army will kill them in order to drag the Wudu Sect refugees out into the open,” you say. “You would just be getting them into trouble.” The Western Snake laughs coldly, a strange glitter in his eyes. “Then that is their misfortune. My concern is with taking care of those who follow me… there is no room in this venture for misguided nobility. This is amusing; I had not expected a disciple of the Southern Maniac to say such a thing!”

“It is not an easy thing for us to do, but we have always lived a relatively self-sufficient lifestyle,” explains Chi Tianxie. “We do not owe the villages and towns in Guizhou anything.”

“They do come to us for remedies and medicines, and we have kept bandits away through fear even though it was only in our self-interest,” Qilin says. “Father, Uncle, in some ways they look up to us. I have been in the villages. They do not dislike our presence, but if we withdraw now and leave them to the slaughter, they will hate us.”

“You are entirely correct, Qilin,” says Chi Huishe, “but do we have any other choice? Or would you rather the entire sect be slaughtered? Even with all of our advantages, we cannot defeat an army ten thousand strong.”

“All of this is premature,” says Tulu Huodu suddenly. “The Crown Prince has arranged for another meeting in Chishui, two days from now. The evacuation will be nearly complete by then, but what happens next is entirely up to him.”

“Luring him away from his army, eh?” grins Chi Tianxie.

“No, that is not my intention, and Li Shun is not fool enough to fall for that. If he is confident enough in his safety to make the proposal, he must have considered everything thoroughly.”

“So-“ you begin, but Tulu Huodu cuts you off. “If you want to come along, Xu Jing, feel free. I am sure you would like to see the Prince again. No, there is no need to be surprised. I am not that stupid.”

“If you know I am working for the Crown Prince, why talk about your plans in front of me?” you say, confused, “Are you not afraid that I would report to him and betray you?” Besides you, Cao’er seems entirely unconcerned, focusing on her food.

“Would you? Once you marry Qilin, all of this will also be yours in the future. Why sabotage your own powerbase like this?” replies Tulu Huodu without batting an eye. “Though we may be facing a crisis, it is nothing that will last. People with our expertise will always be in demand. We will survive, and return stronger than ever. You would do well with us.”

“Wait, what, I didn’t… Qilin, what have you been telling them?”

“I didn’t say anything,” she says meekly, not looking you in the eye for once. “I’m not ready to marry anyone just yet.”

“My daughter really didn’t say anything,” laughs Chi Tianxie, “but she would not have brought a man home, into this place, if she wasn’t serious. At least, it shows that she really trusts you, and I can tell you that is as rare as the silver snowdrop, Xu Jing. Well, that is not important right now! At least I can see that you don’t think it is. Huodu, do not scare the young ones like that.”

The Western Snake closes his eyes and shrugs. “The both of you could do far worse than each other.” When he puts it like that, in his rational, calm way, he almost seems convincing. “No matter. Qilin, you will come along with me for the meeting. After that, you will leave Guizhou until everything blows over.” He phrases his words firmly and coldly. The normally chatty Qilin bows her head and only says, “Yes, Uncle,” realizing that this is not the time for further questions.

***

After the dinner, you find yourself wandering around the cult’s buildings. The scenery is beautiful even at night; the moonlight sparkles off the waterfalls and the sight and sound of the bamboo trees waving gently in the night breeze is soothing. Cao’er follows behind you, engrossed in a book she had taken from the Scarlet Scorpion’s study. Suddenly, you hear the sound of screams for help and cries of battle from the top of the gorge. “Cao’er, I’m going to check it out-“

“…going with you…” she mutters, as she tucks the book away. There’s no stopping her when she’s like this. You nod.

Using your qinggong again, you reach the top of the gorge. There you find one injured Wudu member, and one dead. “Ah, it’s the young master!” exclaims the girl tearfully, cradling her dead friend. You are not sure when you had become the ‘young master’, but now is not the time to right her misconception. “What happened here?” you ask, though looking at the scene it is clear that they had been attacked.

“T-Tang scouts! We were patrolling and spotted them, and they attacked us to get away,” says the girl. She points to the direction of the trees, where the scouts would have went. Looking closely, you can just about make out their tracks – these were not highly skilled woodsmen on Yoriwaka's level. Shun had kept the location of the cult a secret from his men, but it did not rule out them discovering it themselves.

“How many were there?” you ask.

“Six, maybe seven… I don’t know. They caught us by surprise... they were too quick.”

“Do we go after them?” Cao’er asks, tugging at your sleeves. You look down at the Wudu Cult buildings – torches were being brought out. The other cultists would be here soon.

***

A. You go after the scouts. You might be able to take them alive, or you might not, but they cannot be allowed to get back to their camp. Shun’s parley with Tulu Huodu is in two days’ time – you will not allow anything to stand in the way even if they are soldiers serving your liege.

B. You will let the Wudu Cult do their own tracking. You will not participate in the killing of Tang soldiers who were only doing their job – raising your hand against loyal subordinates of the dynasty has always been anathema to you. Let the dice fall where they may.

C. You take this opportunity to flee towards the Prince’s camp, following the trail of the scouts while pretending to be trying to stop them. You need to find out what he has planned, and tell him about the Wudu Cult’s own plans for evacuation.
 

五十 · Royal Reunion

Royal Reunion

“…I can get them from here,” mumbles Cao’er. You had managed to stay on the trail of the retreating scouts. They had paused for a while to get their horses, allowing you to catch up to them. There are seven of them – a bit more than you think you could handle without allowing any to slip past you. Standing a good distance away, Cao’er rummages around in her pack and brings out a half dozen polished little stones. Taking aim, she flicks the stones at the soldiers. You recognize the technique – Master Yao’s Tanzhi Divine Skill. The stones fly with unerring accuracy, hitting three of the scouts in the tianzhong and mingmen points in their back. They topple over, unconscious. Their comrades shout out in surprise, but to your amazement they recover quickly, drawing their crossbows and aiming into the darkness. It looks like these men have been well-trained. You push Cao’er down, telling her to stay quiet – you do not want any stray bolts hitting her.

Then, you rush out, a swift shade bursting out from the darkness. If you wait a second longer, the remaining four men will mount their horses and flee. There is no time to hesitate. You drive your fist into the temple of the first scout you reach, felling him before he can get a shot off with his crossbow. As you make for the other men, the horses whinny, rearing up suddenly before falling to the ground, kicking in protest. Taking advantage of the chaos, you pounce upon two of them from behind, sinking your claws in around their spine. They convulse and fall to the ground, incapacitated by the pain.

The last scout turns to face you with a yell of desperation. A cloud of soil scatters in front of your face – the soldier has grabbed a handful of earth and thrown it. He moves faster than you expected, managing to get into the blind spot of your missing eye while you are distracted. You hear the sound of his sword being unsheathed. The slash comes unseen. You turn your head on instinct, wincing slightly as the blade travels past your cheek smoothly, leaving behind a shallow cut.

You retaliate with an upwards strike. Warm blood splashes over your hand; you feel your opponent’s flesh give way. There is a ripping noise, and you rend his sword-arm clean from his body. The arm twitches in your grasp as you look at the writhing, screaming soldier apologetically. “Sorry,” you say, “I didn’t mean to do that.” Dropping the arm, you call Cao’er over to treat the soldiers as best as she can.

“That was remarkable.”

A bodiless voice rings out throughout the dark bamboo forest. You look around you, but all you can see are the shadows of rustling leaves. Suddenly, a man drops out of the trees, landing right besides you. You attack, startled, but he stops your fist without even a hint of effort. He laughs, and you realize that it is Tulu Huodu. “You are like a beast that requires taming. I would not have expected any less from Zhang Jue’s disciple.” Pulling your hand away, you step back and bow. “Master Tulu, I apologize for my offense.”

“Your attack did not offend me. Be at ease.” The leader of the Wudu Cult looks around at the aftermath of the battle and nods. “I see you left some of them alive. Good. You did well… they may have gotten away if you did not lend us a hand. My followers will be here soon to take care of matters. You may return and rest.”

“Thank you for your consideration. Are they to be taken prisoner?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” replies Tulu Huodu, and he says no more on the subject.

***

Chi Tianxie had insisted that you spend the past two days talking with him – it seems that he had plenty of questions about the sort of wife you would be keen to have. You had dodged what you could and nodded along while he extolled his daughter’s virtues. Qilin, on the other hand, cleverly hid somewhere to be free from her father’s meddling, bringing Cao’er along for company.

Still, the day of the meeting comes before you know it.

Chishui Town turns out to be a small, sleepy place nestling comfortably besides the river it was named after. To your surprise, you see soldiers laboring around the town; some were bringing in crops, while others were perched on top of roofs and mending holes. There were even some soldiers digging irrigation ditches in the fields. It was not the scene that you had been expecting. It looks like Shun had not been keeping his men idle in the camp, but had instead sent them out to assist the townsfolk in their menial tasks.

You wonder what Shun is planning…

The inn that was designated as the meeting place is devoid of customers. There are no soldiers guarding it either. Feeling slightly nervous, you follow Tulu Huodu up the stairs. Qilin is here upon his orders, and of course Cao’er is by your side, but the Scarlet Scorpion and his sister had remained behind at the Wudu Cult, directing the evacuation. They had moved quickly after the scouting party was discovered, scattering towards huts and cabins all over the countryside.

Finally, you reach the room where Shun is waiting. Without so much as a knock, Tulu Huodu pushes it open.

Shun is alone in the room.

The Crown Prince has grown a lot in the time that you were not by his side. Though the two of you had always been of the same height as children, he is now nearly half-a-head taller than you are. His boyish brashness is gone, replaced by the quiet confidence of one who is used to command. He is sitting in front of a table on which a chess set has been laid out; as Tulu Huodu enters, the prince does not bother getting up from his chair. He flicks his eyes towards him, and then at the people behind him. When he spots you, however, his glance pauses for a while, and his eyes widen in recognition. Then, he gets up, knocking the chair back in his haste.

“Jing! My brother!” he exclaims, arms held open. Tulu Huodu gives the two of you a curious look as you step forward to embrace the prince, a wide grin on your face. “As I thought…” “…yes…” You hear Qilin and Cao’er whispering to each other, but you ignore them for now. “What are you doing here – no, what happened to you?” asks Shun as he looks at your eye-patch and hair. “I did some training so that I could come here and push you down to second-most handsome man in the room,” you explain. The prince laughs, slapping you on the shoulder. “It must be a very interesting story. Tell me more about it later.” Giving Tulu Huodu an apologetic look, he says, “I am sorry, but he is an old friend. I could not help but be carried away.”

“No matter,” smiles the Western Snake thinly as he takes a seat after bowing to the prince. “I am surprised that you acknowledged him so easily, Your Highness. I would have thought that you would be more… circumspect about this issue.”

Shun returns the smile. “Since he came along with you, I am sure you know of his connection to me. There is no need to hide.”

“It is as you say, Your Highness,” says Tulu Huodu with a deferential nod.

“Before we begin, Master Tulu, I need to inform you that the seven men you sent into my camp have been taken into custody safely. I will return them to you after this, unharmed,” says the prince matter-of-factly. He looks down at the chessboard and moves a piece forward, as if challenging the Western Snake to a chess match. Tulu Huodu arches an eyebrow, the only sign of surprise that he gives, before making his own move, accepting Shun’s challenge. “I am afraid I cannot say the same for the scouts they pretended to be. Two of them did not survive, while the others have been broken in mind. Still, I am impressed that my followers were caught, Your Highness.”

“I would not march all the way down here without taking precautions,” says Shun quietly as he sips from his cup of tea. “It is a shame about the soldiers, but such is the price of lies. There is no room for regret in the path I am about to take. Is the evacuation complete?” His chariot takes a stray horse.

Tulu Huodu is still – very still – as he chuckles softly. “You continue to surprise me at every turn, Your Highness. Yes, it is.” Moving his pawn, Tulu Huodu takes the chariot. In truth, it had still been ongoing when you left the Wudu Cult this morning, though they estimated that the process would be complete by the end of the day.

“I see,” says the prince, lifting another chess piece and placing it down in a strategic position. “It seems I am fated to put the people of my own country to the sword, one way or another.”

“Are you really going to go through with this, Shun? It won’t help you find the Wudu Cult members,” you say. “I know that if you do not you will be deemed an unfilial son, but something tells me that by doing so you will fall into your enemies’ trap all the same.”

“Oh, yes, I underestimated them,” sighs Shun. “I only needed to trip up once for them to gain a leverage over me. As it is, there is no perfect solution to this situation. No matter what I do, innocent people will die, and the longer I delay, the stronger my enemies get.”

“So, I take it that you have your answer, Your Highness? You will begin burning Guizhou to the ground, village by village?” asks Tulu Huodu, countering the prince’s moves on the board.

“No.” The exchange of chess continues, and though you try to follow it, you have not played in too long; the prince’s chess skills seem to have far outstripped yours.

“Then, you plan to defeat me?” Tulu Huodu’s horse places Shun’s general in check.

“Of course not,” denies Shun. “No one here could stop you from killing me, and I happen to be rather fond of my head.” The general moves, evading the horse.

“I happen to prefer your head where it is, too. Your death would be troublesome,” agrees Tulu Huodu as he presses the advantage on the chessboard. “What do you plan to do, then?”

“We force a change in the situation. There is only one way to do this,” says Shun, smiling wanly as he pushes a piece forward, past the boundary on the board denoting the Chu River. “Rivers are there to be crossed. If the threat of being deemed unfit for the throne by some corrupt officials is all that keeps me from doing what is right for the people, I am not fit to be Emperor in the first place. Checkmate.”

Tulu Huodu looks down at the board and murmurs, “The flying general. You plan to…”

“The Emperor must die.”

Raising his hand, Shun smashes his own piece down on the opposing general, shattering the enemy piece. “I will take the throne by my own hand.” Tulu Huodu leans back, his eyes glittering with admiration. “Your ambition will serve you well, Your Highness, but can it be done?”

“This is reckless!” you blurt out, aghast at your prince’s treasonous speech, but Shun shakes his head. “It is a gamble, yes, but for me it is already a do or die situation. Should I capitulate to their whims now and carry out a massacre, I will lose support from the connections I have cultivated, and as long as my father is alive, they may claim to speak on his behalf. If they are going to call me unfilial, and a traitor, I would be better off living up to those names. After all, when I become Emperor, they will start to sing a different tune.”

Looking at you, Shun continues explaining his plan. “In my absence from the capital, should the Emperor sadly pass away, my brothers will begin their bid for power instantly. They cannot afford to wait and see what I do this far south… they will attempt to claim the throne for themselves. However, as the Crown Prince my legitimacy is set in stone. My father’s will cannot be changed. It may be forged, but I have taken pains to ensure that will not happen. If they refuse to acknowledge my rule, they will be deemed as traitors.”

“And when you ascend, people will stop caring whether or not you actually did poison the former Emperor,” remarks Tulu Huodu.

“That is right. The people are only concerned for a comfortable life and a just rule,” says Shun.

“What of the army? I am sure your brothers have military backing of their own. How would you even assassinate the Emperor in the first place? If it was so easy, the others would have done it already.” You are not yet convinced that this is the best path to take, if only because you do not want Shun to be responsible for the death of his own father. You are aware that there is little love lost between the two of them, but still, they are flesh and blood.

“I have not been idle these past few years. I have secured backing from a great majority of the generals and military prefects in the country, but given the circumstances I believe they may want to wait and see whether I am worthy before throwing their lot in with me. I expect them to stay out of this when I make my move. This will not be a repeat of the war my father participated in, if you are worried about that.” Shun speaks with confidence, tossing and catching one of the chess pieces.

“As for ending my father’s life, I can have men in place quickly. As it so happens, I finally managed to wrest control of the secret police just recently. The only reason the Emperor is still alive right now is because his death would bring me to the throne, and that would be a galling prospect for many of my brothers. Even though they have no love for our father, they would fight tooth and nail to prevent me from ruling. I must admit, this happened a lot sooner than I expected. It would take me a few weeks to prepare, and even then I do not have the manpower to make it a certainty. The assassination itself may very well fail. As I have said, it is a gamble. Just the sort you would like.” He grins.

You sigh. It does look like he has thought about this carefully.

“If that is the case, the Wudu Cult will assist you in this endeavor,” says Tulu Huodu calmly. “We will not strike at the Emperor ourselves, but we have people in and around the palace in Chang’an that will keep an eye out for your agents.”

“You are not going to have them collaborate directly?” laughs Shun.

“Of course not. That would risk exposing them. Some will come to help should things not go as planned, and they may perform some simple tricks with food and drink, but nothing more. Your men should be capable enough to do their job alone in the first place.”

“Oh, I would hope so,” says the prince.

“What if… the assassination fails?” you venture.

“I lose my agents and my support, though the latter would vanish anyway should I dance like a puppet here in Guizhou. If I am unlucky, the fallout leads to the army withdrawing their support from me, in which case I can fully expect to be enthroned on the end of a pike,” says Shun cheerfully. “If my luck is good, I retain some military support, and will be able to clash with my siblings on the battlefield. That is a war I am confident of winning, eventually. If the assassination occurs successfully, however, I have a contingency in place that will allow me to take the throne with minimal bloodshed. That is what I am aiming for.

He sighs, suddenly looking rather tired. “Honestly, this would have happened sooner or later. It is just that my father had the unfortunate timing of going into a coma before I was ready. That is why the risks are high, not only for me, but for the empire itself. I could stand my ground here and do nothing, but the longer I wait, the more time it gives the others to spin their plots. I have been caught flat-footed this time, but with my father's death, everyone will be on unstable ground instead of just myself. Then, I can only trust that I have made sufficient preparations to come out ahead. This is the only chance I have. I have heard stories of your exploits, Jing. I will not order you around, but…”

He looks at you, and you can hear the unspoken question. Will you assist him?

***

A. You cannot bring yourself to do this. Though you know the consequences will be dire should Shun’s gambit fail – he may die, or plunge the entire country back into a war – it is too risky and ungrateful since the Emperor himself brought you in once before. You will help in any other way you can, but not with this patricidal plot.

B. It is not like you have to strangle the Emperor with your own two hands; both the assassination and Shun’s plan to defeat his rivals will occur almost simultaneously, and there are other parts of the plot you can help with. You will assist him with his attempt to take the throne. The country will be the better off for it, Shun will be the better off for it, and even you will be the better off for it, in the end.
 

五十一 · Another Path

Another Path

“Really? You haven’t bedded them? I’m surprised!” laughs the prince. The two of you are catching up and exchanging stories late into the night, accompanied by wine. Qilin and Cao’er had retired to another room to give you two room, while Tulu Huodu had returned to the Wudu Cult to brief his men.

“What do you take me for, some libidinous maniac?”

“I did think you were the sort that did anything that moved. Certainly the chambermaids were full of assorted tales as proof. Are those girls that unattractive to you? I thought they were rather fetching, myself.” Shun grins as he downs another cup of wine, his lips loosened by the drink.

“No, it’s not that. It’s just that…” You cannot find the words to express how you feel at the moment. Shun gives you an evil grin, wagging his finger. “Ah, I get it. I understand. You can’t get it up if they mean something to you? Virginity is a state of mind, and you are a virgin when it comes to serious relationships, eh?”

“What?”

“Better get over that mental block, my friend, or else some poor girls are going to be really disappointed in the future.”

You throw a cup at him, missing his head by a fair distance as it breaks against the wall. The Crown Prince laughs. “Just like old times,” he grins happily. “Anyway, so the plan is divided into two main parts?” you ask, attempting to change the topic. “Back to the plan, huh?” sighs the prince wearily. “Yes. First my agents will ensure that the Emperor passes away peacefully and naturally. Then, once his passing is announced, a good majority of my brothers who think they qualify for the throne will rush into the palace. There will be bickering, though whether bloodshed will ensue is still up in the air. When they are all gathered in one place, all thoughts of caution thrown to the wind in their blind ambition, we will capture them and secure the palace for my arrival.”

“In order for it to be perfect, however, you need a further distraction. Something – or someone – that will pull their attention away from your men maneuvering behind the scenes, and ensure that they are all gathered in one spot…” you say, leaning against the table.

“Yes. I would prefer that you take that role. Leave the Emperor’s death in my hands.”

“Are your men on that side trustworthy?”

“Yes,” he says confidently. “Of course, if you really do want to assist in the assassination, I will not say no. Your presence will make me relieved either way.” Shun looks down, muttering, “It will all soon be over at any rate.”

“Are you sure about this, Shun?” you ask.

“Of course. What other choice do I have?” His voice is pained – as he looks up at you, you realize that he had been putting up a front when dealing with Tulu Huodu. Only now, when it is just the two of you alone, could he relax and be true to his own heart. He is not as sure of his path as he seemed to be even though he has resolved to carry it through to the end. “If I could wait for him to awaken I would, but that would lead to pointless deaths of innocents in the meantime. Better to sacrifice his life for his country. It is more than he has ever done in all his years in power anyway,” says Shun bitterly. The both of you fall silent.

After a while, you break the silence. “Do you really need him dead? What if he just disappears?”

“What are you talking about?”

“What if his pills truly turned him immortal, and he ascended into Heaven?”

Shun stares at you. “Are you drunk? Those pills don’t work! We know that!”

“But no one would dare to claim otherwise, right? It’s the same reason why you cannot just say he did himself in,” you say, inspiration flooding into your mind. “So… if he goes missing in a way only an immortal could, say, from his chambers which have been barred from the inside, and leaves behind a note of some sort saying that he is now in the Celestial Palace and he is very happy, and everyone should follow you as the new Emperor… what would happen?”

Shun bites his lower lip pensively. “I… I don’t know. It’s crazy. It just might… There would be arguments amongst the brothers until I manage to return anyway, but it would certainly reduce the number of siblings willing to make a bid for the throne. What are you thinking of, anyway?”

“If you do not truly want to kill your father, you do not have to, Shun. There are plenty of retired emperors amongst your own ancestors. Emperor Zhaozong, Emperor Shunzong, Emperor Xuanzong, Emperor Ruizong… even the founding Emperor, Emperor Gaozu himself, chose to abdicate and allow his son to rule. It would be no surprise for Emperor Taisheng to retire to Heaven as an immortal, which is a far better place than any of the other emperors went to in retirement,” you explain. “There is precedent… and the best part is, no one can say otherwise. All we have to do is kidnap the Emperor. It is a good thing he is not conscious… I mean to say, his spirit is communing with the Jade Emperor and has temporarily relinquished its mortal shell.”

“Kidnap the Emperor!” Shun can only laugh in disbelief. “Stealing him away from the Imperial Palace is far more difficult than ending his life, Jing. Where would you even put him, afterwards? Is there any place safe enough to hide him until he reaches the end of his life?”

“I happen to know an island paradise in the southern seas… I assure you, the Emperor will not know the difference.”

This time, Shun’s laughter is from genuine amusement. “You… Jing, you really are something else. Always… always you turn all my logic on its head and show me another path. Oh, how I wish I could go with this plan. It would be so much more fun. So much less troubling.”

“Why won’t you?”

“Because I cannot trust anyone besides you to carry it out. Having the Emperor disappear is one thing… having him alive, and possibly waking up someday… that is something I cannot entrust to just anyone. I can only trust you with it. You are the only one in this world I can trust to act according to my heart and not what you think is best for me. As your brother I know you mean well and it is a plan that I think would be wonderful, but as your prince I dread the consequences should you fail. Do you know what that means?”

You understand what he is saying. Succeed or fail, this plan’s responsibility will lie on your shoulders… or rather, your head. That is the only way Shun can afford to justify allowing you to carry out this mission both to himself and to his agents in the capital that are awaiting his orders. The assassination is the less risky path, compared to getting away with an unconscious Emperor from the middle of the Imperial Palace, but still…

***

A. You will participate in the assassination attempt. The agents may need backup if things go wrong, and having them get away unnoticed is the most urgent detail of the entire plan. Here is where your attentions should be focused.

B. You act as the distraction, as Shun wishes. This should be a relatively easy task, though no less risky – you would have to face his brothers and laugh in their faces. It would be rather interesting to rub their royal pride in the mud.

C. You persuade Shun to carry out Operation Immortal. Let the Emperor Taisheng be known forever as the one who had succeeded in attaining immortality and the wisdom of the universe, and then send him off as an addition to Zhang Jue’s collection of oddities.

***

While preparing for the mission, Chi Tianxie and Yoriwaka have offered some training as help. The Scarlet Scorpion, seemingly eager for you to gain a better impression of him and his daughter, approaches you with several suggestions:

A. Wudu Fushun (Five Poisons Taming, 五毒服馴) The ability to tame and train the five principle poisonous animals of the Wudu Cult - the snake, the centipede, the toad, the scorpion and the spider - to do your bidding. Real experts are said to be able to use these animals as scouts, and even command an army of them.

B. Ruanhong Zhusuo (Crimson Spider Silken Ropes, 軟紅蛛索) A technique that relies on the Wudu Cult’s specially treated spider silk, which is as tough as steel. The threads can be used to enhance offense or defense in equal measure when wrapped tightly, and are extremely effective at binding enemies when unravelled.

C. Qinggong upgrade: Through incorporation of the Wudu Cult’s own qinggong, you manage to raise your skill. (Qinggong +1, Kuanglang Step upgraded to +3 Stealth, +2 Agility)

***

Yoriwaka, impressed at your loyalty to the Prince on undertaking this dangerous mission, has offered more help so that you may succeed at your task and return alive.

A. Reikan upgrade: Upon further instruction from Yoriwaka, Reikan now increases your perception by a greater amount. (Reikan upgraded to +3 Perception)

B. Kagemi. (影身, Shadow Body). A method of silent moving that melds well with your Kuanglang Step – Kuanglang Step will increase to a higher level, allowing you to be undetectable to all but an elite few. (Additional +2 Stealth to Kuanglang Step).
 

五十二 · Disappearance of the Golden Emperor

Disappearance of the Golden Emperor

Prince Li Jiawu of the Great Tang Empire frowned, his thick fingers tapping irritably on the polished wooden desk. He stared at the eunuch in front of him before finally letting out a great sigh and granting his servant permission to leave. The eunuch’s face was flushed with relief as he bowed and departed the prince’s chambers hastily.

“What do you think about all this… nonsense, Grand Eunuch Li?” He turned and glanced at the elderly statesman, who was reclining on a comfortable couch, attended to by two child eunuchs of his own. “Hm?” Grand Eunuch Li raised his distinguished head and smiled. “This matter of Emperor Taisheng ascending to Heaven?”

“Yes, of course. That is the matter to which I refer.”

“What of it?”

Prince Jiawu forced himself to swallow a retort at the Grand Eunuch’s disrespectful, mocking smile. It would not do for him to lose his temper – the Grand Eunuch’s backing was essential if he was to make sure that brat of a Crown Prince tastes defeat. “Do you not think it curious?” he said. “Even my mother, Lady Wu, has been picking up such gossip from the servants, and she has expressed her concern to me numerous times.”

“Yet we cannot stop them from talking, Your Highness,” drawled the eunuch as he raised his wrinkled hand for one of his attendants to massage. “It is an open secret that the Emperor had been seeking the fruits of immortality. If you were to insist on stamping out all talk of him succeeding… that would be rather naughty. Rest assured your brothers would spin it to your disadvantage.”

“But they are claiming to witness all these little omens happening all over the place! Incense smelling sweeter than usual, a shower of rain from a clear sky-“

“Patience, Your Highness.” The Grand Eunuch spoke crisply, cutting the prince short. “If you are concerned that this is the Crown Prince’s plot, planned in retaliation for sending him to Guizhou, there is no need to worry. My best agent has informed me that the Crown Prince is still agonizing over how to resolve his problem down south. He has no men to spare to meddle in Chang’an.”

Prince Jiawu looked unconvinced. Scratching his beard, he leaned forward on the table. “You mean… Gao Ying?” He whispered the name hesitantly, as if to say it out loud would invite some form of trouble. “Can we trust him?” Grand Eunuch Li shook his head. “Trust no one. This is a lesson both Grand Eunuchs Wei and Wang will learn very soon. They still believe he is working for them, when in truth he is working for me. I do not trust Gao Ying, but there is no benefit to him betraying me. We are all men of the world. We deal in tangible matters… certain rewards. After all, Your Highness, once the Crown Prince falls you are closest to the throne. It will not be long now. Soon we will be ready to tighten the vise around Li Shun’s neck.”

“Yes. Yes, you are right, Grand Eunuch. As usual,” said the prince with some measure of relief. “I am sure-“

An urgent knock at the door interrupted his words. “Who is it? What is it?” snapped the prince, his patience of late already tested sorely by the incessant rumours of his father’s ascension flooding the palace.

“Your Highness, prince! I… er…”

“Spit it out, servant!” grumbled Prince Jiawu as he got up from his desk.

“It’s news… from the palace physician, Your Highness. The Emperor seems to have awakened.”

The prince took an involuntary step back, his face paling. “W-what? Are you sure?”

“Your Highness, that was what the physician claimed,” came the reply. “P-perhaps you would want to see for yourself?”

“What is the surprise, Your Highness?” asked the Grand Eunuch calmly. “Though the palace physician assured us that the Emperor’s own actions have led to a coma, he also said that he was not certain if the Emperor would ever wake again. There was always a chance of this happening.”

“Yes, I understand,” replied Prince Jiawu, calming himself as he puffed his chest out. “The throne will be mine sooner or later. I must present a proper face to His Majesty. Come, Grand Eunuch, let us be the first to greet the Emperor.”

***

“Father, are you there?” shouted Prince Jiawu. There was no response – nothing had changed from the moment he arrived ten minutes ago. The door was locked, though the lights were lit. With a snarl, he turned to the physician. “You told me that His Majesty was awake. What is the meaning of this?”

“B-b-but Your Highness, I did see his silhouette through the windows. I tried opening the doors but he grunted at me. Then, I smelt sulphur. Your Highness, you understand very well that His Majesty dislikes people entering his quarters when he is performing alchemical experiments!” protested the physician fearfully as he shrank back from the angry prince.

“Oh, brother, what is this? Were you threatening Father’s personal physician?” Prince Jiawu cursed his luck as he saw his younger sibling arrive with a cocky grin. “This is none of your business, Zhuangchen.”

“How can it be none of my business?” laughed Prince Zhuangchen. “I heard from some sources that Father was awake. With all these recent rumours of him ascending to Heaven bodily… well, you know I just had to take a look. I am sure the rest of our siblings will be here quite soon.” Prince Jiawu narrowed his eyes, glaring at his younger brother. Could he be the one who had spread those rumours? It was possible, thought Prince Jiawu. Zhuangchen was a conniving little bastard, like his mother. Lady Wu often complained about the two.

As the two princes waited impatiently in front of the doors to the Emperor’s personal chambers for their father to respond, more and more of their siblings arrived. There were princes and there were princesses, and they began calling out to their father, begging for him to say something.

“It looks like it is going to be a long night, my friends.” Grand Eunuch Li bowed to the other Grand Eunuchs, a fair distance away from the royalty. The Grand Eunuchs Li, Wei, Wang and Zhao – the real powers behind the government – would not have missed this for the world, despite their advanced age. As the minutes ticked by, Prince Zhuangchen spoke up. “This could be dangerous. What if His Majesty has collapsed again?”

The royal siblings looked at each other worriedly. “Well…”

“If he hasn’t, and you broke in, he would be quite angry,” muttered the young Princess Taile. The one unspoken thought running through most of their minds was if it was okay to just leave the Emperor to his own devices. After all, even if he died… Grand Eunuch Li sidled to the perplexed Prince Jiawu and whispered in his ear. He broke into a brief grin before loudly declaring, “I will take responsibility for this. We break down the door. It is our own father! Should we not be concerned? This is not the time to worry about his wrath – I will suffer it gladly if it means he is healthy and well.”

Saying that, he threw his strong body against the door. It creaked, but did not fully give way. The Emperor’s chambers were well-barred. He tried again. The perplexed guards and his siblings began to help out in a rare show of brotherly cooperation. Finally, the door was thrown open and they stumbled into the room.

“Father! Father, where are you?” shouted Prince Jiawu as he strode around the quarters, looking for the Emperor. It was a large chamber, complete with its own study and the Emperor’s alchemical benches. There was a large cauldron boiling over. The stink of sulphur filled the air, and the heat was unbearable. Dozens of royal princes and princesses fanned into the room, looking for the Emperor, but he was nowhere to be found.

“This is impossible. How can he not be in here?” Princess Taile peeked under the large royal bed, but saw nothing except dust. “The door was barred and we had to break it down. Where would Father have gone?”

“He must have been here until recently,” said Prince Zhuangchen, looking at the cauldron, his gaze calm and calculating. “The fire was lit not an hour ago. Could he have left before we got here? Physician, you were here, were you not?” His question was phrased accusingly, as if the physician could be guilty of some deception.

“Impossible,” said the physician nervously. “I-I was in front of the door all this time! I never left! The guards could testify to that!”

“I am afraid Father could not have left before we got here,” said Prince Qi, looking more closely at the cauldron. “Do you see how this boiled down? I know a bit of alchemy myself. The cauldron was probably lit no more than ten minutes ago. That means it was done while we were all outside.”

“It could be that Father heard us shouting and became annoyed,” murmured Princess Taile. The royal siblings started muttering worriedly. They knew the Emperor tended to have a temper when he was interrupted with his alchemical work. “Then where is he right now? That is the question, isn’t it?” asked Prince Zhuangchen testily. “Perhaps he went out of the window,” ventured Prince Qi.

“This is the third floor,” sighed Prince Jiawu. “At his age he would really have to be an immortal if he managed to pull that off.” There was a deep silence as everyone in the room stared at him. They had all heard of the rumours. Prince Jiawu scowled back. He was feeling a growing sense of disquiet in the back of his head. “A-anyway,” he continued, trying to take charge of the situation, “The windows are all closed. There would be no way for someone to close it if they had jumped out.”

He tugged at his robes – he was feeling rather hot. It looks like his siblings felt the same; the hot cauldron and that foul smoke coming from it was making the room very uncomfortable to be in. “Let us order an all out search of the palace and retire to Lengchang Hall to discuss what happens next,” he said. There were quick calls of agreement – none of them wanted to be in the room any longer.

***

Prince Jiawu had always found the cool fans of Lengchang Hall soothing. He did not get to enjoy it for long, however. Scant minutes after all of them had arrived, a messenger ran in. The Emperor had been spotted. They instantly rushed out of the hall, to the front of Linde Palace. As he ran, Prince Jiawu found his steps unsteady. It must be the tension and the stress, he thought. It had been a long night after all, and he had had little rest this past month.

His feet stopped. He looked up.

That was the Emperor, floating in mid-air.

There was no doubt about it – though he could not make out every detail of the man’s features in the night, he saw enough to be certain. He was in his royal robes, his hands outstretched.

“O sons and daughters of the wise Sage Emperor Taisheng!” A beautiful female voice resounded around the courtyard, apparently coming from thin air. It was a voice that lodged itself firmly inside Prince Jiawu’s skull, beguiling and attractive yet authoritative. “You are blessed indeed to witness this moment of your father’s ascension.”

“What is this? Who are you?” Prince Qi called out.

“I am the Queen Mother of the West, Xi Wangmu. I have been the patron of your father’s research over the years, imparting the knowledge of immortality unto him. And now, forty nine days after he succeeded in synthesizing the Elixir of Life, his transformation is complete,” declared the voice. “Behold, descendants of Huang Di, the birth of a new immortal to join the celestial ranks!”

There was a bright flash in the sky. Golden light flooded his sight. Prince Jiawu averted his eyes, pained from the glare. As it subsided, he saw that many of his siblings had fallen to their knees, kneeling before the strange sight. He found himself inexplicably doing the same. The voice continued, “With the Emperor Taisheng’s ascension, his earthly throne is now vacated. The Jade Emperor has decreed in his wisdom that the succession shall be performed in accordance to the laws of the dynasty and the express wishes of the great Taisheng. There will be no strife, only peace.”

Prince Jiawu stared into the lights, trying to gather his thoughts properly. The atmosphere was overbearing – he found it hard to think. Was this divine presence? He would not know, as he had never been in a god’s presence before, but it had to be.

“What does that mean?” asks Princess Taile, looking up at the floating Emperor in confusion. The Emperor waved his hand across the gathered crowd in response and shook his head. The voice spoke, “Emperor Taisheng has selected his heir years prior to his ascension. His name is known to the people, and he will be next to rule after his father. The Crown Prince Li Shun has now succeeded the Mandate of Heaven from his father, and will rule as wisely as his forebears had. Thus Heaven has decreed.”

“But-“ Prince Zhuangchen attempted to speak out, but another flash of light sent him back to the ground, prostrating in front of the gods.

“The Will of Heaven is absolute and just,” said the voice sweetly. “Stay strong on the path of virtue, O sons and daughters of the Sage Emperor. Remember, the gods are always with you…” There was one last flash of golden light, brighter and more painful than any that had come before it, as the voice faded away. He thought he could almost see the visage of a beautiful heavenly maiden within that light. When Prince Jiawu recovered his sight, he saw the Emperor’s robe fluttering down from the heavens. It fell, together with a clattering sound – staggering to his feet, he saw a wooden tablet, inscribed with writing.

The siblings got up, looking around in awed confusion. Prince Jiawu picked up the tablet and began to read from it, in full view of his siblings, the Grand Eunuchs, and a gathering of servants and guards.

It was a divine mandate that declared the succession of the Crown Prince Li Shun to the throne of the Great Tang Empire.
 

五十三 · Fall Into the Darkness

Fall Into the Darkness

“’The gods are always with you’? Where did that come from?” you laugh, helping Qilin down into the tunnels. The three secret police assigned to help you were moving ahead, guiding the way. She giggles. “Hey, it worked, didn’t it? Did you see Beardie’s face when I started speaking? He seemed like he was about to start drooling.”

“Beardie – ah, Prince Jiawu, that stinker,” you say. “I was paying more attention to the Grand Eunuchs. They all looked like they were about to keel over and die from the shock. Pity they didn’t.” Qilin skips ahead, clearly in a good mood. “Well, thank you, Xu Jing.” She grins, giving you a demure bow. “This is the most fun I’ve had in ages. We should do it again sometime.”

“I think once is quite enough, Miss Chi.” Gao Ying steps out from a side passage smoothly, placing himself between you and Qilin. He plucks a torch from the wall, looking at you. “I am pleased to see that you made it here with no trouble, but we should be going as soon as we can. This is not a successful plan yet.”

“Don’t you ever lighten up? Where is Cao’er? And the Emperor?” you ask – Gao Ying is the only person you see. The eunuch’s lips twitch slightly, apparently amused by something you said. “They are waiting in front; I sent them slightly ahead to save time. Do not worry, they are safe. Come, let us hurry and join up with the others.”

As Gao Ying turns away, Qilin falls back to walk by your side. “Do you think he’s going to kill us? Should I stab him in the back?” she whispers. You wince at how boldly she is making the suggestion, before noticing that she’s actually grinning at your discomfort. “Stop fooling around,” you hiss back.

“By the way, Xu Jing,” says Gao Ying calmly without turning around, “Why did you suggest this plan?”

“You ask that only now?”

“I am just curious. Your reasons would not have affected my decision to assist anyway.”

“Well,” you say, scratching your head, “Shun wouldn’t really want his father dead if there was any other way.”

“You do realize the dangers of keeping Emperor Taisheng alive, don’t you?” says Gao Ying. “If he should ever awaken…”

“He would find himself at Master Zhang’s dinner table, probably dressed up in some strange outfit,” you reply promptly. “Yes, I did consider those consequences, but once we get him to Maniac Island it would not make a difference.”

“I agree.” Gao Ying’s answer surprises you for a moment. “Once there it would not matter if he was dead or alive. Then is it not simpler to ensure he is just dead, instead of going all the way to Yinhu Island? For example, in these tunnels, any amount of accidents could happen…”

“What would you tell the Crown Prince, that his father slipped and cracked his head against a rock?” you snap.

“Perhaps,” replies Gao Ying. “He would see through me and understand the necessity of it. The Crown Prince is a wise man, a man far greater than you and I. He is the only one who can bring order from this chaos the country is embroiled in.”

“He is still a man, Gao Ying. He has emotions. By nature he is as far from cruelty as I can imagine. If he has to murder his own father to take the throne it will kill his own heart.”

“That is why he has me,” says the eunuch fiercely. “I work in the darkness while he walks in the light. I will do whatever is necessary to ensure the security of his rule. He does not need to know about the deeds I commit to keep him safe, and he will not ask. That is the understanding I have with His Highness. Can you say the same of yourself?” You can feel the strength of Gao Ying’s conviction from his words. It is a loyalty that is admirable, something that you had to respect. It is the loyalty of a tool, burning its own life up for the sake of its master. Something that you should have – something you had… but when did your feelings begin to change?

Up ahead, you notice a group of flickering torches. As you approach, you see Cao’er. She beams happily and runs to you. The Emperor is lying on a stretcher, looking dead to the world – though with Cao’er here, that is not likely at the moment. Gao Ying stops in his tracks, looking at the Emperor. Then, he shakes his head. “You are a dangerous existence, Xu Jing,” he says suddenly and softly.

“Yes, I’ve been called that in bed, something I think you wouldn’t have any experience with,” you reply jovially. “Oh? You’ll have to show me after this,” croons Qilin seductively into your ear, butting in where she is not needed. Gao Ying only laughs dryly. “Your humour falls short of the mark today.” He turns around to face you. “You make the Crown Prince soft. Your presence endangers his capability to be a proper monarch. I fear that you will drag him into the morass of failure.”

“Hey, that sounds rather threatening,” you say. “Please don’t tell me you are going to say something stupid like, ‘I have to kill you for the prince’s sake’, or anything like that?”

Gao Ying stares at you, silent. Then, he speaks.

“I-“

The sound of rattling chains disturbs the darkness.

“Well.” You sigh. “I guess this was going too well.”

There is an unearthly moan, a weak and pathetic noise. Though it is soft, it echoes through the tunnels – you have no idea where it is coming from. Every single person is frozen to the spot, wondering which way they should go. The sound resolves itself into words… you can just about make out a name.

Li Ming.

Emperor Taisheng’s name.

As the moan dies off, it is replaced by another rattling of chains, louder this time.

A strong, freezing wind blows forth, snuffing out the torches.

Then, without warning, the screams begin. “Cao’er! Qilin!” You shout out to the girls, trying to get to them in the darkness. You find Cao’er’s hand first and grab onto it, pulling her close to your side. She clings onto your arm immediately. You can barely make out a dreadful silhouette, blacker than the dark of the caves, tearing apart men with its long, lanky limbs. The stench of blood thickens in the air. “Li… Ming!” it howls, striding for the Emperor. Suddenly, a burst of light fills the tunnels. The thing moans in pain, staggering back.

“Ha, I still had one of the light-making satchels left!” exclaims Qilin exuberantly. “Get the torches!” shouts Gao Ying. The secret police retreat and begin lighting up the torches as they go. As the darkness recedes, you see the assailant shivering, panting in front of you. It is a man after all… his hair is long and tangled, and his beard matted. A large, iron vest is clasped over his chest – dozens of thick needles have pierced it through. His limbs appear to have been broken and set back together wrongly multiple times, healing in such a way that it must pain him even to move an inch. Heavy iron manacles shackle his wrists and ankles, and the rusty chains appear to lead down a side tunnel. Are they still attached to something?

You had no more time to ponder, however, as he lets out a scream of fury. Gao Ying attacks immediately, striking with his fingers almost faster than you can see, but the madman blocks all of his attacks effortlessly, deflecting his blows as if he were toying with a slow child. “Take the Emperor and go!” he shouts to his men. If he ever had wanted to kill the Emperor, he certainly does not have that inclination now – it would be easy to leave the stretcher and let this strange person do the dirty work. As the secret police grab the Emperor and make a run for it, the madman screams the Emperor’s name again, distracted.

With a jerk of your fingers, you unleash the spider silk threads. The madman is still between you and the way out: with his overwhelming bloodthirst, there is no way for you to get past except to go on the attack. You throw them around the madman’s neck and arms, pulling tightly. His arms are forced apart – as he turns his face to you, you see to your horror that his eyes have been sewn shut and his nose cut off. Gao Ying does not waste any time – drawing a dagger, he tries to plunge it into the man’s neck, but the wind begins to blow again, colder and stronger. The torches flicker and die for the second time. You realize that the wind is flowing from the madman – his qi must be immense. The eunuch is blown off his feet, his dagger clattering to the floor. The madman breaks the threads that have been said to be stronger than steel. Then, with a frustrated roar, he strikes the side of the tunnels.

The earth shudders.

Rock and dust begin falling from the tunnel ceiling as the supports tremble. This is bad. The ground shifts underneath your feet.

There is a loud cracking noise as the floor falls away. The madman plummets first, a victim of his own mindless rage. In the darkness you find it hard to move, unable to find steady footing anywhere you go. You hear Qilin scream, her figure swallowed up by the darkness. You cannot tell if she is alright, but before you can even worry about her your feet find empty air.

You drop, Cao’er clinging onto you desperately like a baby monkey.

As your hands scrabble desperately for purchase, you manage to grip onto a soft, sandy outcrop, which begins crumbling as soon as your fingers sink into it. The sudden stop jerks Cao’er off. “…ah…”With a tiny yelp she begins to fall, but you react quickly and grab her arm before she is lost.

Your grip begins to loosen. It is only a matter of time before you fall. Your feet try to find a surface to kick off but fail – it seems that you are in a bad position.

As your fingers finally close around nothing but loose soil, a hand seizes your wrist. In the gloom you are unable to see who it is.

“Xu Jing! Can you use your qinggong to climb up?” It’s Gao Ying… the last person you would have expected.

“No! I haven’t learnt how to kick off thin air!”

You can feel him straining, but after a while he says,“…You are too heavy. I cannot pull you up.”

“There's two of us, eunuch. You should have trained your strength,” you snarl. His grip begins to slip…

***

A. With all your strength, you toss Cao’er up, telling the eunuch to take care of her. The motion will likely result in your fall, but at least she should be safe. You’ll just have to find a way out after you reach the bottom.

B. You let go of Gao Ying’s hand. Knowing Cao’er, she might actually decide to jump in after you and get hurt on the way down. It might be better for her if you shield her now as the both of you fall.
 

五十四 · Underground Exploration

Underground Exploration

“Up you go!” You swing Cao’er up with all your might. As the girl’s hand slips away, her fingers frantically try to catch yours. Gao Ying catches her quickly, understanding your intention. At the same time, your handhold falls away almost immediately, crumbling into nothingness. You plummet, shouting, “I’ll come for you soon! Keep yourself safe until then!” She cries out something in return but you cannot make out her words.

***

You pick yourself up from the ground, battered and bruised. The fall had been a terrible experience. It was only through your agility and instinct that you avoided having your head caved in on the way down – the wind rushing past your ears changed subtly in tone whenever there was a dangerous rock headed your way. Looking up, you yell out to Cao’er. Your shout echoes upwards and is smothered by the dark. You wait, but no response comes. Gao Ying might have dragged her away, or it is too far for your voice to reach her; you do not know which. You cannot even see where you fell from.

The air is dusty from the collapse of the tunnels above, but cold and humid. You can hear the sound of running water far off in the distance. As your eyes become more accustomed to the dark, you see faint, glowing streaks of green light running along the walls. Going closer, you run your hands along the surface and take a closer look. It is moss – a particular type you have read about before in one of the books that Master Yao burnt, as was his habit. Scraping the moss from the walls gently, you gather a small mound in one hand, casting just barely enough light for you to navigate by.

Holding your hand out in front, you begin walking towards the water.

You barely take a few steps before you step. In front of you you can barely make out the silhouettes of a a few people collapsed on the floor. You draw closer, allowing the pale glow of the moss to light up the bodies. The blood and entrails are dark in the green light; they are the agents that were killed by the madman just now. You wonder where he is… it would probably be too much to hope that the fall killed him. At least you have not heard any rattling chains.

Further ahead, you see a familiar outline.

Qilin.

You rush over to her side, taking care not to drop the moss. She is slumped over on the ground. You touch her shoulder and shake her gently. “Hey,” you whisper. “Are you okay?” She does not respond. Turning her over, you see that the side of her head is painted with blood. She might have hit her head somehow as she fell, causing her to land poorly. One of her legs is twisted at a bad angle and bleeding profusely. You talk to her again, trying to rouse her gently. Her lips part and close in a soft murmur, but her eyes do not open.

You have no choice; you will have to stabilize her condition before you can move her anywhere. You gather more moss and place them on the ground to give you enough light to work by. Loosening Qilin’s tunic, you expose her bare shoulders. The pressure points next to her shoulder and neck would help stem the blood flowing from her head. Taking a deep breath, you hit those points quickly. She stirs slightly and moans, but does not awaken. You take off your outer tunic, tearing it into pieces for bandages. After wiping away the blood on her head, you wrap up the wound.

Next, you turn your attention to her leg. You carefully cut away part of her trousers around the affected leg, baring it to the thigh. Wincing at the amount of work you would have to do, you run your fingers along her leg, examining it for any breaks in the bone. You find none, but the injury is serious nonetheless. You grit your teeth and get to work stopping the blood and bandaging the wound. After setting the limb properly, you lean back and let out a sigh. You know whatever you did was just a temporary measure; the best thing you can do right now is to find a way out before Qilin’s condition deteriorates.

You manage, with some difficulty, to tie the unconscious girl to your back. Scooping up the moss, you begin to make your way further in, always heading towards the sound of running water.

After some time, you come to the source – it turns out to be an underground waterfall running through a large cavern. You bend down, cupping up some water. The water is cold; probably drinkable. Massive amounts of moss are growing all over the walls of the cavern, lighting up the entire place with an eerie, greenish glow. A few ripples in the pond seem to indicate that there could be fish or other animals living within. At the far end of the stream, you see the entrance to another tunnel. You would have to cross the stream to continue exploring. You put your hands behind you, wrapping them around Qilin’s waist to ensure she doesn’t fall off. Taking a few steps back, you break into a sprint and leap. Your jump takes you across the stream; your feet skid against the wet, slippery rock as you make it to the other side, but you manage to keep yourself upright.

The tunnel ends up being a long and winding path. Here and there you hear scuttling rats, but they do not appear in front of you.

Finally, just as you were getting tired of the trek, you reach the end of the tunnel; it opens out into a large, circular chamber. You hold up the moss, examining the room with its light. The center of the chamber is dominated by a large boulder, wrapped around with thick chains. The top of the boulder is hollow; water has collected inside. Is the top of the chamber exposed to the elements? That is the only explanation you can think of right now – that rain water is what has filled the boulder. Here and there you see piles of little bones and some larger ones mixed within. Rats, definitely… but you wonder if those are human bones in the mix.

Unlit torches are found mounted at regular intervals along the sides of the chamber; if you found a way of making fire, you could light them up. There is also writing covering nearly every surface of the walls, though the glow of the moss makes it difficult to decipher the words. It looks like they were written in blood, and the writing grows more erratic near one end of the wall. From what you could make out, it seems that these were instructions for martial arts techniques of some kind.

You hear Qilin murmur softly behind you. You stop your investigation of the walls and immediately turn your attention to her. She does not seem to be feeling well – you set her down and examine her quickly. The Miao girl is still out of it, but it looks like a fever has set in; her forehead is palpably warm under your hand.

Since you are also tired out by the events of the day, it would be best to find a place to rest and recuperate, and soon. Further exploration can wait. It would be best for you to stay close to Qilin until she wakes up: you are not about to leave an unconscious girl lying around alone.

***

A. You return to the tunnels where you fell in and camp there. Though food and water will be scarce and the conditions are not ideal for Qilin’s recuperation, if there is a search party that is probably the first place they will look.

B. You set up camp by the waterfall, an easy source of water. Although the air is wet and the rocks slippery, you could probably find food in the water; there are probably cave fish living within. As you do not know how long it would take for rescue to come, you need a more reliable food source.

C. You will remain in the chamber. The environment is more comfortable here despite the bones, and could help Qilin recover more quickly. You will also have more of an opportunity to study the writing on the walls. On the downside, you might have to eat rat for the time being if you should get hungry, and the water in the boulder is limited.
 

五十五 · The Writing on the Wall

The Writing on the Wall

The shadows in the chamber gradually grow lighter as you wait, bleary from the lack of sleep; looking up, you can see the barest hint of light far off in the distance. You can see your surroundings without needing the moss now, but even then the only light that filters down from the top is weak and sickly, giving you little to work with. There appears to be a mesh of some sort in the way, but at any rate it is far too high for you to reach even with your qinggong.

Qilin awakens around what you conjecture to be midday, though the chamber is gloomy enough that you cannot be certain. She gives you a faint smile but otherwise remains uncharacteristically silent, too weak to even speak. Her fever has receded partially – as you check her wounds for signs of infection, you are pleased to see that they seem to be healing well. Still, you are no miracle healer: if you are to estimate how long it would take for her to recover fully, you think it would take the better part of a week.

By the time the light starts to recede again, you are feeling peckish. You hear a slight growl of a churning tummy. It is not yours; you turn to look at Qilin, who seems to be slightly ashamed. “I don’t have any food with me, unfortunately,” you say. “We are going to need to eat, though.” If you weaken and waste away down here from lack of food, escape is going to become near impossible. Qilin would also need to eat to regain her strength. Luckily, you are no stranger to living in the wilderness – your time spent in the jungles of Maniac Island have taught you a thing or two about gourmet eating.

You had heard rats moving around throughout the night; they should begin to start up their activity again soon. Holding still, you focus your senses outwards, relying on your ears and nose rather than your eye.

It does not take long for you to pick up the characteristic squeaking and scuttling. You wait quietly for one rather brave and curious rat to venture closer to you.

The moment it sets its paw within your range, you pounce. Bursting forward, you pin down the rat with one hand, trapping it underneath your palm. You scoop up the struggling rat, ignoring its furious squeaks, and with your other hand you wring its neck swiftly. The rat falls limp immediately, its legs twitching in the air. Drawing your dagger, you set about butchering it for its meat. The taste is bloody and raw, and not half as good as the animals you could find on Maniac Island, but it would do.

Qilin looks at you with apprehensive eyes as you dangle a piece of rat flesh in front of her. She shakes her head weakly. It seems that the choice of diet aside, she is still too weak to chew, and the rat meat is too stringy to swallow whole either. It looks like you would have to find a safer way. “Look,” you say to Qilin reluctantly, scratching your head, “It’s not like I want to do this, alright? I’m just taking care of a patient, that’s all. Don’t struggle.”

You pop the piece of rat into your mouth and chew it thoroughly, making sure to break it down properly. Then, you swiftly cup Qilin’s chin with one hand, stretching her mouth open, and cover her lips with your own before she can push you away. She tries to protest wordlessly as you push the pre-chewed food into her mouth with your tongue. It would be easier for her to swallow the food that way. As you draw back, she involuntarily gulps down the rat meat. Her face has turned a bright red and her eyes are closed as she breathes heavily. “I know you’re not happy about it,” you say apologetically, “but I’m going to have to do this until you get strong enough to eat by yourself.” She does not respond, turning her head away from your sight.

You decide to turn your attention to the bloody writing on the walls to occupy your time. They are divided into four parts – the first three segments appear to detail martial arts techniques, while the last is a testament of some kind. The techniques are recorded in the form of poetry… it would take you some time to understand and interpret them properly.

***

You pick one of the first three segments to begin deciphering:

A. The segment that begins: “In my youth my feet were as fast as lightning and as strong as thunder; therein lay my hope to rival the eight mountains.”

B. The segment that begins: “In my prime I became the unsurpassed Conqueror’s Spear; with spear in hand I pierced the heavens and split the mountains.”

C. The segment that begins: “In my dotage the dark took me; the swooping claws of the bats in their hunt leave their mark both on me and my foes.”

***

The last segment was a relatively straightforward account. As you read it, your heart felt ever more grim. It told you of the identity of the one who was imprisoned in this chamber, and likely the one who had seemed to bear so much grudge against the Emperor.

If you had been in his position, you think that you would likely feel the same.

As if on cue, you hear chains rattling the moment you finish reading the tale. You turn to look at the entrance of the chamber. The powerful madman is crouching there, half-hidden in the darkness, a body slung over his shoulder. From the clothes you identify the dead man as one of Gao Ying’s agents. He throws the body to the ground – to your disgust, it appears to have been partially eaten.

“Cold… dead flesh. That does not taste too good anymore? I like to eat them hot, warm. Warm… is better,” mutters the old man, his face swivelling in Qilin’s direction. You move carefully but quickly, putting yourself in between her and the madman. His mutilated face distorts as he senses your movement. You shiver slightly as you remember the old man’s tale, and whose blood he wrote it in. Steadying your feet against the ground, you take a stance, keeping yourself on guard. You can tell that he is strong… perhaps stronger than your master, even.

As expected, he attacks without warning, leaping at you with a hungry moan. As he whips his misshapen limbs around, the chains fly towards you. You realize now that they were not attached to anything: just extremely long. You take a quick hop, landing on the chains as they pass by and leaping off them. When you hit the ground, however, the old man is already there – he seems to be able to read your movements almost perfectly despite not having any eyes. Hoping to throw him off guard, you shout out his name. “General Yang Xue!”

The old man does respond; he slows down for a second. That is enough for you.

Twisting around, you lash out at his head with a well-timed Chuzhan Fist, launched with all of your strength.

At least, at the very least, you could drive him back, and keep Qilin safe for a while longer.

Before your fist can reach him, his chains wrap around your arm, immobilizing it with ease a bare inch away from his noseless face. With a cackle, the old man grabs your head with one hand and slams you into the ground hard enough to make you see stars. His spindly fingers close around your throat as he draws his head close – the stink of his fetid breath causes you to gag. Then, he sinks his teeth into your shoulder. You grit your teeth to avoid shouting out from the pain.

As you try to push him off, you realize that something is changing within you – the old general is attempting to devour not just your flesh, but your internal strength; his fingers are pressed down where several of your important meridian points should be, in an attempt to open the floodgates. As your qi slowly ebbs away from your body, flowing into his, you find yourself able to manipulate your inner strength again…

***

A. If he is trying to absorb your inner strength, you will try to absorb his. You attempt to counteract the flow of qi to the extent that his begins to flow into yours: due to Yuanshi Hundun’s primordial nature, it should be possible for you to learn how to consume his energy in return and attempt to make it yours.

B. If he wants your inner strength, he can take it: you unleash all of the energy you can muster, pouring it into the old man in an attempt to overload his meridians. Your proficiency at extending qi outside of your body will be tested and possibly pushed beyond its limits.
 

五十六 · Chains in the Deep

Chains in the Deep

I am Yang Xue of Zhejiang. I write this not out of hope but in despair. There is no longer anything left for me but madness.

***

I leave my techniques here, so that they will not be lost. They are all that I can impart from my days in the jianghu.

***

I am here in the depths, bound by chains, my trusty spear sealed underneath the rock, my qi suppressed by the needles that are locked into my pressure points. I have not been more helpless in all my life, but I will survive.

***

I will curse his name for every day I live. He considered me a traitor when I fled from the massacre he bid me commit, but I can not be loyal to such a man. I have found that the Tujue have proven to be more honourable than my people ever were.

***

I was told that it was for the good of the country. That the flow of the ley lines needed to be disturbed by a terrible calamity to bring about fortune and prosperity. I was willing to take on that role. But not like this.

***

I served him for thirty years. We grew up together as children, but adulthood has driven us apart. I do not know him anymore.

***

I wonder what has become of my children. I can only hope he has not gotten his hands on them. I entrusted my daughter to young Bulun, but…

***

I remember that the man who I regarded as my sworn brother, my trusted liege, took away the woman I loved in front of my eyes. He violated her and made me watch, and with his own hands he sewed my eyes shut. He cut her and made me hear her scream, and with his own hands he sealed my ears. He raised her body to my lips and made me smell her death, and with his own hands he cut off my nose.

***

I will live, and escape, and make Li Ming pay for what he has done. He thinks he can leave me here to starve and rot and I will die, but he is mistaken. My dear Yumen had left behind herself as her final gift, the strength I needed to tear the chains from the boulder, and as the means by which I will record my words.

***

Concentrating on the flow of your internal energy, you slowly but surely counteract Yang Xue’s technique, reversing the ebb of qi and drawing it away from him. What he is doing comes almost trivially to you now that you are aware of it: using Yuanshi Hundun, you begin consuming his energy slowly, transforming whatever you can leech into your own chaotic qi. Before you can go any further, the old man realizes what is happening and breaks away, releasing his grip on you. You leap up, but a swift backhand from him sends you flying. You crash against the wall painfully and crumple to the ground. Even with your new understanding of your internal energy, there is no way you can defeat this man at your current strength.

As you crawl to your feet, you see that Yang Xue has turned his attention back towards Qilin. She is awake, and is backing up against the walls. You quickly dart in, putting yourself in between her and the old man yet again. He stops, his posture utterly still.

Tilting his head, the disfigured general lets out a long, terrible laugh that echoes off the walls. “You… care for this girl, don’t you?” he says, his voice hoarse from years of disuse. He seems rather more lucid now, compared to when you met him in the tunnels above.

“Not at all!” you shout back, “It’s because I don’t like you. I’m just not letting you have the meal you want, old man.” He arches his back backwards, a horrible grin on his face. “Youngsters nowadays. You will see. Oh. A year or a month or a week later you will either die to save her, or her to save you. I will sit and watch which will happen. Food… it tastes all the better if you wait for it.”

“Is that all you have left, General?” you ask, challenging the old man. “Just the desire to eat? What about your vengeance?”

He begins shaking violently. It takes a while for you to realize that Yang Xue is giggling silently. “Of course… not. I would rain down a storm of blood on the pugilistic world, if I could! I… and… Li Ming… him too…” His brow furrows, his expression darkens, and you can feel the air beginning to swirl about the chamber. “Why not escape together with us, then, General?” you try, though you are not sure whether setting this mad man loose on the surface world is the brightest idea. Still, you do not think you can find a way out if he gets in your way. Yang Xue titters lightly. “There is no way out. No way out of this madness. I do not need to leave anyway. I will wait for Li Ming to return and to kill him. He will be here one day. He cannot forget me. He cannot have forgotten me. No.”

It sounds like he is a little too far gone to be easily reasoned with. As the old man continues muttering to himself, he wanders into the entrance passageway, half-concealed in the shadows. “But there is one way out,” he says, looking up. “I can throw you up to the bottom of the bottomless pit. Haha. Bottom of the bottomless pit. In fact I can teach you everything, young one. Everything I know. You can be my spear, my weapon to strike at the twisted world of the jianghu. All I need is an offering.”

“Let me guess,” you say, “food?”

“Oh, how did you know?” chuckles Yang Xue.

“Just a hunch,” you sigh. “Do you need me to capture rats for you, old man?”

“Rats?” he spits. “Why would I want to eat that right now? You need to show your sincerity, youngster. An arm will do. Take it from the girl, it is not like she has any use for her limbs right now. It does… more good inside my belly. More purpose. It is only right.” You try to find some words in response to his ludicrous request, but as the chains rattle you realize the old man has already wandered off.

***

As you pondered what steps to take next, you took some time to master the fundamentals of the kicking technique that Yang Xue had inscribed on the walls. The name of the technique was Wuying Leipo Kick (无影雷破脚, Shadowless Thunder-Breaking Kick): true to its name, the moves were fast and powerful, reliant on strong, soaring leaps to attack the opponent with your legs in mid-air without touching ground even once.

“So, are we really going to have to give him an arm?” asks Qilin. In the span of a week she has recovered on schedule, but the both of you were facing another problem. Yang Xue had been coming by and slaughtering the rats for his own consumption. He had made no moves to eat you or Qilin for now, apparently having forgotten his own words, but you were forced to fight him for rats whenever he arrived. Most of the time you lost, though sometimes you managed to steal a rat or two from the old man, to his screaming protests. He never ventured far into the chamber, however, preferring to just suck in the rats physically with his internal energy from afar. The first time you saw a squeaking rat flying through the air, drawn to the man’s palm as if by magic, you could not believe your eyes.

You had been left relatively unmolested besides that, but you could not find a way out no matter how hard you searched. The passages in the caves seemed to be endless – you dared not venture too far lest you found yourself lost. At least you had managed to get a fire going in the chamber, making it a bit more hospitable.

The fish in the waterfall cavern had been too difficult for you to catch in the end; it seems that the pool extends a lot deeper and further underground than you had expected, and any careless attempts to capture them would only send the fish hiding deep beyond your reach. The stream, however, must be flowing somewhere – perhaps it would lead to the outside of the caverns eventually.

***

A. You attempt to approach Yang Xue again for aid in leaving the caverns. If you submit to his request for an arm, whoever gives it would be too weak to escape, even if Yang Xue were to throw them up.
1. You will sacrifice Qilin’s arm, learn what you can from Yang Xue, and escape the cave. You will return for her later.
2. You will sacrifice your own arm and ask to have Qilin escape. You will not have her die down here. Besides, you will then have plenty of time to absorb Yang Xue’s knowledge.

B. You refuse to submit to the old man’s mad request. There has to be a way out of here, since he managed to make it to the upper tunnels previously.
1. You will just have to improve your rat-catching skills in order to survive; you will continue searching for a way out from the tunnels in the meantime.
2. You will take the plunge and jump into the stream, allowing the flow to take you where it will and hoping for the best.
 

五十七 · Cave Life

Cave Life

Having decided to continue with your current approach and remain in the chamber, you find your gaze drawn to the writing on the wall at times, intrigued by the techniques that Yang Xue had devised.

A. You continue to practice the Wuying Leipo Kick, aiming to master as much of the technique as you possibly can. You feel that you might be able to completely learn all of the moves in the technique if you focus on it.

B. Wushuang Xiongba Spear (無雙雄霸槍, Unparalleled Manly Conqueror’s Spear). The spear technique created by Yang Xue during his peak as the all-conquering General of the North, and reputed to be undefeated under heaven. It combines strength, speed and precision to unleash supreme thrusting power, allowing a master of the technique to pierce through any obstacles in his way, be it flesh, rock or metal.

C. Feian Bianfu Claws (飛暗蝙蝠爪, Flying Dark Bat Claws). An aerial technique that imitates the hunt of the bat. It utilizes speed and knowledge of the enemy’s blind spots to strike from above, swooping in with sharp claws to wound the enemy. Due to the speed and unnatural angles at which the attacks are launched, the technique is also highly risky for the wielder.

***

Now that Qilin has recovered, you begin to work together with her in an attempt to scavenge sufficient food for the both of you. The desperate situation you find yourself in forces you to improve very quickly in order to survive.

I. You learn to create and lay traps for the rats using the spider-silk as well as other materials that you can scavenge. (Traps +4)

II. By manipulating the spider-silk and practicing nimble trickery of the fingers, you learn better ways of feinting and capturing your target directly. (Sleight-of-Hand +4)

III. You practice the use of thrown weapons, allowing you to hit the rats from a distance without spooking it. (Thrown Weapons +4)

IV. You make use of your blade to attack your prey, learning how to strike more swiftly and precisely. (Sword +1)

V. You attempt to go head-to-head with the mad old man, chasing him off with your bare hands and feet so that you may capture the rats undisturbed. (Unarmed +1)

(Pick two from the above.)

***

“Well!” grins Qilin happily, “That is quite a haul we have!” The two of you had managed to obtain both fish and rat today. Bringing out a small knife, she deftly skins the animals, having gotten used to the strange diet quickly. “I’ll get the fire started,” you say, going over to the small pit that you had dug in the ground. You had gathered pieces of damp wood that you found lying all over the caves and dried them out. Using flint taken from the remains of the Imperial agents, you managed to get a fire going. You had managed to scavenge a few dozen matches from their bodies, but the torches remained where they were on the walls – you decided that you would save them for an emergency.

You could hear Yang Xue screaming and ranting in the distance; after your first encounter, he seemed to have forgotten the offer he had made, treating the both of you as nothing more than potential food. Though he tried attacking you more than a few times during your struggles over the rat population, you were able to chase him off: the man did not make full use of his immense qi nor his formidable skills. Still, you are careful not to take his condition for granted. Just the other day you had approached him carelessly, thinking that he was deep in the grasp of senility. Unfortunately, he had been quite lucid at the time and laughed at you before launching his attack. You had nearly been killed by a thrust from his hand, and retreated into the chamber while he stood outside and cackled maniacally before slinking away with no rhyme or reason. The hole he made in the rock was still there, a reminder of the strength the old man still had.

“I’m going for a bath,” remarks Qilin after the meal. “You just had one yesterday,” you reply, frowning at her. She smiles sweetly before saying, “A lady must always be presentable. Come on, I need you to wash… I mean, watch my back.” Even if the both of you were cave-dwellers now, hygiene should not be neglected: as an apprentice physician you are only too aware of the dangers of not keeping yourself clean. It would be too risky to split up and go alone, however, so you and Qilin had decided that each of you would take turns guarding the other while they bathed.

Grumbling, you lead the way out of the passage. “Can you hear him?” whispers Qilin. You shake your head. “It should be clear. Let’s hurry.”

When you reach the pool, you turn your back as Qilin undresses. Her pet snake, Xiaoqing, slithers out from the folded clothing and curls around your ankle. You hear Qilin sighing contentedly, starting to hum a traditional Miao tune as she slips into the cool water. “I thought you would have taken this a little bit harder,” you say – she has been remarkably relaxed, considering the situation the both of you were in. “Why should I?” giggles the girl. “Don’t you find this rather nice?”

“What’s so nice about being stuck in a cave with a man-eating madman, with little hope of escape?” It has been nearly four weeks and you had yet to find a way out: many of the tunnels that led upwards had turned out to end in nothing but collapsed rubble. “Well, it feels a bit like married life,” Qilin says teasingly. “We hunt together, have dinner together, and go to bed together.”

“I’m not so sure the heiress of the great and rich Wudu Cult would need to hunt to survive,” you say.

“I’m not so sure I prefer that life over this one,” she replies lightly.

“What, are you rebelling against familial expectations?” You grin, mocking her.

“Not in the way you think, Xu Jing. They would be overjoyed if they knew the two of us had been trapped in a cave together, alone, for weeks. You would be forced to take responsibility for what you did to me.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“Oh, really? You took my first kiss,” says Qilin in a singsong voice.

“I never-“

“You violated my mouth with your tongue,” she continues.

“Look, I had to-“

“You really should be responsible and take the rest, while you’re at it.”

You sigh. “You know that’s not what I meant.”

“Oh, you are no fun at all when you are like this. Loosen up,” she pouts. “I’m getting out.”

You hear the water falling off of her body as she gets up from the pool. Then, you hear her clothes rustling. “I’m done,” she says. You turn around. “Well-“ Qilin is clearly not done at all, and the Miao girl smiles mischievously. “Ha, I got you.”

You keep your gaze focused on her face, trying not to look anywhere else. “So-“

She takes a step towards you with her bare feet, water still dripping off her wet frame. In the dim glow from the cave moss, she looks ethereal, as if she were a water fairy risen from a lagoon. “I am quite confident in myself,” she says quietly as she draws closer. For some reason, you are unable to move: your limbs refuse to heed your brain’s command to leap back. “I don’t see a reason for you to be unconfident,” you reply, a nervous smile fixed on your face, though your mind is feeling rather scrambled by this sudden turn of events. “Oh my, was that a compliment?” she titters. “Thank you.”

“You shouldn’t be doing this,” is the next disjointed sentence that comes out of your mouth.

“I am here, trapped in a cave with someone I like, and death may just be around the corner. I would regret it if I didn’t do this. I might not get another chance tomorrow,” says Qilin unabashedly, kneeling in front of you. She takes a deep breath. “Even then, it took me some time to work up the courage.” You are suddenly very aware of her proximity, of the warmth radiating from her, and attempt to back away. Qilin frowns. “Is it because of the Fire Cult’s Holy Maiden?” she asks suddenly. “No, of course not,” you say. “She has nothing to do with this.”

“Well then, good. Anyway, I am not averse to sharing, you know. I don’t mind being second or even third.”

“Well, I am sure your father would mind,” you laugh nervously.

“Oh, he wouldn’t. He understands all too well that a man can have many wives… or a woman many husbands,” she says, glancing at you from under her long, graceful eyelashes. “Don’t worry, I’m not like my mother.”

“This would be a mistake, Qilin,” you say, trying to justify your refusal through the haze of increasing desire. “I don’t think I’m the right sort of man for anyone-“

“It really is the Prince, then?” She laughs as you shake your head, aghast. “It is a mistake I am willing to make. Even if you cast me aside after this… well, at least I can say I received something from you.” Her smile is both teasing and coy at the same time as she looks down shyly, waiting for your response. You feel your ears burning: you must be blushing crimson at this moment, and you can see that Qilin’s face is similarly red. She did say that she had to work up the courage to approach you like this. Your heart is beating wildly, as if it is about to burst its way out of your chest. If you make a mistake now, there will be no going back…

***

A. You make a mistake, consequences be damned. You'll just have to take responsibility and face down whatever difficulties that come next as a man should.

B. You don’t make a mistake. Given the rather volatile nature of your life, you think it would be better for her if you kept her at arm’s length in the long run. Getting too close to you will not bode well for her.
 

五十八 · Light After Darkness

Light After Darkness

Qilin turns her head slightly, resting on your arm. In the waning light of the fire you see that she is smiling in her sleep. You are not sure if this was the right thing to do, but you feel strangely happy for some reason. As she wraps her arms around you, snuggling closer, you realize suddenly that she had left her clothes back by the waterfall, forgotten in the heat of the moment. You will have to fetch it when she wakes up, but you do not want to disturb her right now. Turning your head in the other direction, you find yourself face to face with Xiaoqing. The green snake is curled up comfortably an inch away from your nose, sleeping just like its mistress.

Just then, you hear a faint scratching noise coming from above. Looking upwards, you see a small shadow silhouetted against the tiny circle of light high up in the distance. There is a clanging noise from that direction, and moments later a piece of a metal grate bounces off the boulder in the center of the chamber.

“Hey, wake up,” you whisper, rocking Qilin’s shoulder.

“…Mmm…do that thing with your tongue again…” comes a sleepy, strange response.

“Oh, I can’t believe- Not now, woman! We have company!” you hiss, more urgently this time.

With another shake, Qilin is fully awake, wrapping the patchwork blanket around herself as she looks around the chamber. You point upwards. Her eyes follow the line of her finger and she says, “Is it help? I think we should still be careful anyway.” You nod, agreeing with her. “You’re right. And in the worst case scenario…”

A rope drops down from above, and a gleeful cackle realizes your fears.

Yang Xue comes bounding into the chamber before you can reach the rope. “There… there is someone else coming from the bottom,” he laughs. “More people for me to see? Could it be him? Is Li Ming coming?” You throw your outer coat around Qilin, who hastily covers herself. Her snake slithers up her legs and pokes its head out from her collar. “Watch out!” you shout, warning whoever it is coming down the rope.

It is not a person that appears, however, but great bales of hay, smouldering at the ends. They catch fire as they hit the ground of the chamber. Yang Xue looks around, confused. Amongst the smoke, taking advantage of the distraction, a person slides down the rope, running towards you.

Cao’er.

The first thing she says as she comes up to you is “…you big stupid idiot!” It is the loudest you have ever heard her speak… though it is still not very loud. “No,” you shout, “you’re the idiot! Why are you here?” Pushing her head down, you vault over Cao’er, intercepting Yang Xue’s outstretched arm with your foot. Just a second slower, and he’d have taken her head off. The madman leaps back, giggling. “You learnt it. You learnt the feet just by reading! That is smart of you, young one. Very smart. Why not stay and learn more? Just give me an arm from one of those girls. Maybe a leg.”

“I’m sorry, old master, but urgent matters bid me decline your kind offer,” you respond. “Besides, I’m not too fond of staying in a burning house.” He gives you an annoyed grunt and turns his withered head towards the rope.

“Ropes snap.” He grabs the rope swiftly, planning to pull it down. Before he can do so, a dozen needles embed themselves in his hand and along his arm, flying down from above. Gao Ying appears, clinging onto the rope with one hand. “What is taking you so long?” he asks calmly. “Hurry.”

“More of Li Ming’s dogs? Don’t think for a second I will let any of you get out of here alive,” says Yang Xue suddenly, his demeanour changing. He seems to be even more wild-eyed than usual, however, and his skin is turning an ugly purple where the needles had hit him. Poison: it might weaken him, even if it doesn’t kill him. He lets go of the rope. The flames on the hay begin blowing towards him as the air in the chamber moves. As the smoke begins to obscure your vision, Cao’er stands in front of you. “…I recognized the needle hole patterns on that vest. I can lock him down even more… escape when he cannot move.” So saying, she draws out six long, thin spikes from her clothes, three in each hand. She draws her arms back to make the throw, but with a shout Yang Xue raises his hands upwards. The ground trembles, shaking Cao’er’s footing.

“We need to keep him occupied!” shouts Qilin, three throwing knives appearing in her hand. She tosses the knives at Yang Xue all at once. He swings his chains; the knives are trapped within the links and snapped with ease. You are already moving towards the mad man – darting between the bundles of hay, you leap into the air once you are in range: you will use his own technique against him.

Your foot cuts through the air, aiming for his temple while he is still distracted by Qilin’s attack. Even without eyes he realizes what you are doing. His arm is raised to block well before your attack arrives. “Using my own feet against me? Good! I will indulge you for five moves!” gloats the madman. You land your kick squarely on his forearm. Leveraging your body’s movement according to the Wuying Leipo technique, you use your position to push off from Yang Xue’s block. You circle around in the air, gracefully turning your movement into another kick launched from the other side of his body. Yang Xue dodges with a laugh, leaning back just enough that your foot scrapes the side of his chin. You hook your leg backwards, striking into his chest with the back of your heel. He does not budge, but again you push off by using his body as a stepping stone. “That is three moves!” he shouts. You do not respond: you’ll let someone else have the next move.

Gao Ying steps in behind Yang Xue, silent and deadly. He throws up both his hands, jabbing at the sides of Yang Xue’s neck, but with a roar the old man leaps into the air himself, evading the eunuch’s attack. He lands with a kick that flings dirt and rock up into the air, leaving behind a hole in the ground: you recognize it as the Earth Splitting Lightning Descent from the Wuying Leipo Kick. When Yang Xue uses it, you can really believe that it could split the earth – Gao Ying narrowly evaded the attack, saving his head from being crushed like a grape.

You leap in for another attack, but suddenly find Yang Xue’s hand in your way. He seizes your throat and picks up Gao Ying effortlessly with his other arm. Immediately, there is the ring of metal as another throwing knife comes flying at Yang Xue courtesy of Qilin. His head snaps back at the hit, and when he brings back forward he is grinning madly, having caught the blade by his teeth.

“Now!” shouts Qilin. You nod. “Got it!” You remember the moves you practiced with her. The knives she had thrown earlier were attached to spider silk, as was the one she threw just now. You had been laying down a pattern with your movements through the air earlier with your own silk: now they intertwined with hers. The both of you pull at the threads, and they spring to life, creating an elaborate web from which he should not be able to escape.

Of course, he would have no problems just breaking it… which is why you had to act fast. Gao Ying thrusts another half dozen needles into the side of Yang Xue’s face, causing the old man to shout in agony. Still he refuses to fall. “Just how much poison am I going to need?” he mutters in disbelief, before he is rewarded for his attack by being flung against the wall.

You make use of the opening to drop to your feet and gain control over the massive web. Twitching your fingers, you shift the pattern to trap Yang Xue’s limbs and neck, and you pull. Qilin too tugs at the silk on her end, further increasing the force exerted. The both of you yank at the threads with all your strength – a normal person would probably have had their head, arms and legs severed at this point, but you were facing a monster. As the silk strings constrict around Yang Xue, you brace yourself. He pulls, causing your feet to drag across the ground. Even though you were using ten times the amount of silk you would normally use, you can feel the taut threads beginning to fray and snap.

Cao’er does not need to be told what to do. She sprints forward, stabbing the thick needles through some empty holes in the vest and into Yang Xue without hesitation and with the utmost precision. With a moan, the former general sink to his knees, his wild eyes suddenly losing their light.

“Quick…” says Cao’er, breathing heavily from the excitement, “…this might not hold him for long… we need to go…” You do not need to be told that twice.

Fleeing to the top of the rope, wondering if you were going to feel Yang Xue’s spindly, bony fingers close around your ankle at any moment, you finally make it without any further incident. The moment you do, more bundles of smouldering hay are tossed into the hole. You collapse on the dirty ground. Even after making it all the way up here, it is still rather dim. Looking up, you see Li Shun and Xiahou Yu.

“Welcome back,” smiles Shun.

“What took you so long, Your Majesty?” you grin.

***

As it turns out, the chamber lay further beneath what had been thought to be the bottom of the so-called bottomless pit. It had been known only to the former Emperor Taisheng and a few of his trusted secret police as well as the builders… and none of them, save for the Emperor Taisheng, were alive anymore. It was only by going through a large pile of secret police records as well as his father’s private notes – one of the perks of being the new ruler – that Shun managed to discover its existence, as well as its purpose.

It seems that Emperor Taisheng had indeed forgotten about the man he imprisoned in the chamber. He recorded in his notes an account of the various punishments that he invoked upon that man in preparation for some sort of twisted Taoist immortality ritual that called for the sacrifice of a true and close friend, after the ritual was a failure he ceased to pay the prisoner any more attention.

As the search in the now collapsed tunnels were not bearing any fruit, he decided to check the chamber out to confirm his suspicions.

“I’m sorry, she jumped in before anyone could stop her,” said Shun, apologizing for Cao’er’s dramatic entry. “And after hearing the account of the encounter in the tunnels, it was my idea to use flaming hay to distract and frighten the old man,” added Yu. “I am sorry to hear it did not seem to work.”

“Don’t worry about it. I'm just glad she wasn't hurt,” you say, though Cao’er had eventually become very interested in why Qilin was wearing nothing but your tunic and some rags. You had darted into Shun’s office for a debriefing, but soon she would be coming to you with questions and demands, you are sure…

“So, how goes the Dragon Throne?” you ask, changing the subject. Shun just shrugs. “Not yet. I am recognized as the de facto Emperor, thanks to your great effort, but obligation demands I decree three months of celebration to commemorate my esteemed father’s ascension to Heaven. My own coronation will only take place after that.”

“I’m sure the people will enjoy the festivities,” you say. Xiahou Yu nods. “It will be a good chance to buy hearts and minds,” he says. "Generosity where it is needed is the mark of a good ruler."

“Ah yes,” says Shun suddenly, “before I forget. Gao Ying?”

“Yes, Your Majesty?” The ever-present eunuch bows, his head kept low in front of his liege.

“Deal with the chamber. Flood it, then collapse it, as safely as you can. I do not want anyone to ever see Yang Xue’s treatise against my father, nor for anyone else to accidentally find out that he was kept alive in secret. That would go against the scenario that we have so painstakingly made a success by tainting his legacy.”

“A very wise decision, Your Majesty. This thought process befits a man of your calibre,” smiles the eunuch smoothly as he bows again. “Your will be done. I will see to it immediately.” He turns to leave, though not before casting you an expressionless glance. After he leaves the room, you lean back in your chair and sigh. “Are you sure you can trust him, Shun?”

“I would trust him with my own life on this,” says your friend. “He will make the best decisions for my path as Emperor.”

“I agree with that opinion, Your Majesty. I think Gao Ying’s loyalty to you is built upon the path of an effective and good Emperor, and so long as you embody that path his devotion is assured,” opines Yu.

“Well, if even Advisor Xiahou says so...” you shake your head.

Xiahou Yu turns slightly red with embarrassment at your use of a title. “I’m not really an official, Brother Jing. That was just what I thought.”

Shun just laughs. “Anyway, there is something else I wanted to talk to you about, Jing,” he says with a wave of his hand. “I have disbanded the secret police.” You raise your eyebrows. “Isn’t that risky?”

“Ruling through fear and terror is not how an effective Emperor governs. My father gave the secret police too much leeway, and subsequently allowed the Grand Eunuchs to make it their plaything. Now that I have wrested control of the department, I plan to make something better out of it,” he says.

“What do you have in mind, then?”

“A new, proper constabulary, answering directly to me. They will not operate cloaked in secrecy, but as emissaries of my authority, invested with the power to investigate crimes and bring offenders to trial and judgment regardless of their stature. Royalty, eunuch, minister, commoner, beggar, slave: all will be equal before them.”

“Except you, Your Majesty,” says Yu.

“Yes, except me. Did you know, Jing, that your friend the scholar has been pressing me to allow this new department powers to investigate and censure the Emperor himself?”

“That would give the head of the department far, far too much power,” you say.

“Yes, it would,” replies Yu, “but if you want it to be truly impartial, there is no reason to exclude the Son of Heaven.”

Shun grins. “If it were any other Emperor you were talking to, you would have had your head chopped off by now, Xiahou Yu. But I do find your suggestions honest and worthy. What do you think, Jing?”

“Why are you asking me this? Didn’t you tell me to stay out of the politics?”

“Well, I need someone I can trust, someone stupidly brave enough to right a Son of Heaven when he is on the wrong path and strong enough that he wouldn't die from all the abuse.” He gives you a silly grin, causing you to flip a rude gesture at him.

“The Grand Eunuchs would never stand for me in such a position of power,” you say flatly.

“They wouldn’t,” nods Shun, “but you don’t need to be the head to keep an eye out for me.”

“Why don’t you ask Gao Ying to do it?”

“He will have other roles to play,” smiles Shun. “As usual, I will not force anything upon you. I would hope that you accept my offer… there are two more months to go till my coronation, and if you were to help me out until then, and beyond, it would be a relief.”

Two more months. As far as you know, the Fire Cult Challenge appears to be just a week away; you are not even sure you can make it to Heihu Valley in time. Still…

***

A. You accept the offer. You will help Shun with building up a trustworthy constabulary. This will be a good way to restore your honour and reputation within the Imperial Palace, as well as to regain your position as his right-hand man.

B. You would prefer to keep your current position… besides, you do have an appointment to keep at Heihu Valley. You decline the offer. Perhaps you may come back to it at a later time, but for now, there are other things you need to do.
 

五十九 · Black Tiger Valley

Black Tiger Valley

On your way back to your quarters, you see Gao Ying in front of you. “I am surprised. I thought you would have accepted His Majesty’s offer,” he says. You raise your shoulders in a shrug. “Still haven’t gotten in to filling in that hole, eunuch?”

Gao Ying replies, “Soon. The engineers need to be mobilized for some reconstruction… I cannot do it with my bare hands after all. It is a good thing I have plenty of free time now that the secret police are being disbanded.”

“Ha! I know him well enough, eunuch,” you laugh. “I am not as smart as Shun or Yu, but I am not so stupid that I do not realize the stratagem of feigning foolishness while keeping your wits when I see it. It was telling when he did not offer you any position in the new constabulary.”

“His Majesty just might not trust me enough to grant me any positions of power,” demurs Gao Ying.

“And again, I said I know him well enough. A virtue of a great ruler is in how he employs men,” you reply. “First make them believe he is an idealistic fool, then let them see the cracks in his camp. How are the preparations going?”

Gao Ying smiles. “Perfectly. Of course, Grand Eunuch Li is suspicious and smart enough to see through the ploy, if there was one.”

“Which would set him up for the second ploy, hidden behind the first. Let your enemies know your next move,” you recite, recalling the treatises you once studied with Shun. You are sure Xiahou Yu knows them well too. “What would that be, the diffusion of your spies and informants in a network now free from secret police control?”

“I am not at liberty to say, Xu Jing,” says Gao Ying, still smiling.

“It doesn’t sound like it is going to be easy. I suspect that the Grand Eunuch will be starting to think two moves ahead, after that little show we put on.”

“Which merely means we will have to be three moves ahead.”

You walk past the eunuch, smiling. “Well then,” you respond, “the warrior will leave the handling of the emperor’s political foes to the scholar and the eunuch.”

“A good decision. Your fight for His Majesty’s continued success will be in other arenas,” comes Gao Ying’s reply from behind you.

“By the way,” you pause and ask, “why did you try to save me from falling?”

“Why, indeed.” He lets out a little chuckle, and begins to walk away from you. “His Majesty passed me a message before the mission began. That is all I will say. I am not yet convinced your influence on His Majesty is the wisest thing to keep around, but for now we are on the same side. Aren’t we?” His footsteps stop.

“Yes. We are,” you answer, and continue on your way without looking back.

***

By the fifth day, you knew you were never going to make it in time to Heihu Valley. On the seventh, still a day away from reaching the site of the challenge, you came across two panicked beggars.

The news was not good. The Fire Temple had been more powerful than the Eight Sects expected. The battle between the Lord of the Temple and the Grand Taoist had drawn in another six heads of the Eight Sects, as well as five of the deadly Amesha Spenta warriors. A cliff had been brought down by the battle, and the combatants’ fate unknown, presumed dead: the beggars were running to send out the word to everyone about the result of the challenge.

For now, the Fire Cult’s contingent was retreating as the outcome had been beyond their expectations too, and the remaining orthodox fighters have rallied together under Bai Jiutian to pursue the cultists.

***

The top of the hill provides you a good vantage point from which you can observe the battle going on below. The orthodox pugilists had caught up with the Fire Cultists, and the fracas had devolved into a melee soon enough. “…I think I can get a better view if we climb up there, Jing,” says Cao’er, tugging at your sleeve as she points to the highest tree on the hill top. Seeing her, you can’t help but redden slightly, remembering what she said to you back in the palace: “…I want the first time to come more naturally… so I’ll wait. It will be more… memorable. When you are ready, Jing.”

You are pretty sure Qilin had something to do with those strange words. You think the two of them are planning something, but you don't know what yet...

Without asking for permission, Cao’er leaps up and sits on your shoulders, her long legs swinging gently on either side of your face. “Come on. Climb,” she orders. “Don’t fall now,” waves Qilin, laughing as she sits under the tree, seemingly unconcerned with the battle raging below.

***

At the top, it seems clear that the orthodox pugilists heavily outnumber the Fire Cultists. Cao’er manages to spot several people known to you engaged in battle. You wonder if you should join in any particular fight…

***

A. Yunzi is fighting the Huashan Twins, and the flow of the fight appears rather even, with no side able to gain the advantage over the other for now.

B. Bai Jiutian is engaged with Vahista, and surprisingly holding his own, though the spokesperson of the Amesha Spenta appears to be gradually gaining the upper hand.

C. Guo Fu is cut off from his Wudang brothers, surrounded by more than fifty Fire Cult fighters and holding them off single-handedly. You do not know how long he can last.

D. A group of Taishan and Kunlun disciples are easily beating back some junior Fire Cult fighters – it looks like there may be some deaths involved soon.

1. You join the side of the orthodox pugilists.
2. You join the side of the Fire Cult.
3. You attack both sides, attempting to force them to stop their fight.

E. You stay out of it, preferring to just stand by and watch, waiting for the fights to resolve themselves and for matters to become less messy before you jump in.

***

When you come down from the tree, you see a surprising sight, putting your plans to join the fray on hold. “Guess who’s here?” says Qilin, turning to you.

“What are you doing here, Brother Xu?” Murong Yandi gives you a pleased smile as he greets you. “That should be my question! How have you been?” You give him the traditional salute, open hand over closed fist.

“I’m doing well, thank you. I assume you came for the challenge?” he asks.

“Yes, but it seems that we are too late.”

Murong Yandi nods sadly. “I suppose so. My master hurried for no reason.”

“You mean… the Sword Saint is here?”

Murong Yandi jerks his head over his shoulder, drawing your sight to the man standing behind him. The Sword Saint is watching the battle below, his hands folded behind him. He is younger than your master, an unkempt, rather bookish fellow with long hair left untied, falling down to his shoulders. His expression is mild and appears to be lost in daydreams, though some would call it serene. A large, black sword is strapped to his back: the legendary Zhanlu Sword.

“Master, this is the Man Tiger Pig, Xu Jing,” calls out Murong Yandi. The greatest swordsman in the world turns around, his eyes half-closed, and says, “Hm?”

“Do you remember that I told you about him? The Southern Maniac’s disciple?”

He seems to become slightly more alert at the mention of your master. “Ah, Jue’s only surviving apprentice? I have heard of you. How fares your master?” he says lazily.

“I think he should be doing well, though last I heard he had sailed for Nippon,” you say politely.

“That must be terrible,” he says with a straight face. “Well, in any case, he is not one to miss a fight. I am surprised he isn’t here yet, but he should be soon.”

You are not sure whether that prediction is a good or bad thing.

“So, Master Shangguan,” you ask, “are you planning on participating in the fight?”

“I am yet undecided,” says the Sword Saint simply. “On one hand, the Fire Cult may be dangerous to the country, but on the other hand, I am not too sure if it is the righteous thing to do, to cut them down like this. Mercy to the defeated is the prerogative of the strong, after all. What do you think I should do, Yandi?”

“You should attack both sides,” says Murong Yandi without hesitating. “With your strength, it would be possible to force them to stop fighting.”

“Sounds like a bother,” laughs the Sword Saint, before turning to you, Qilin and Cao’er. “And what do you think I should do?”

“…up to Jing…” mutters Cao’er as she looks away from the man, while Qilin just shakes her head. “I’m just along because someone would be utterly incapable without my presence,” she grins.

You have already decided on what you would do, but what do you think the Sword Saint should do?

***

A. You ask for him to intervene in the fight; you are interested in his strength, and he could be helpful.

B. You don’t ask for him to intervene in the fight, preferring that he stay out of the battle.
 

六十 · Return of the Taishan Heroes

Return of the Taishan Heroes

Trekking down the hill, you look back, up at the Sword Saint and his disciple. He waves you good luck; he wants to observe the battle a little longer before deciding what to do… if he does anything at all. The man is already yawning. It seems that he is not too convinced that your decision to weigh in on the side of the Fire Cult will bear any significant fruit. Murong Yandi had argued to be allowed to intervene, but his master had held him back, too. He would have to watch from the hill for now.

“Strange, I thought you would have gone for the fire girl from the start,” quips Qilin. “What’s the matter, getting shy?”

“She can handle herself,” you say.”I need to warm up on some orthodox prigs first.”

“Such trust! I’m jealous.” Qilin laughs, and moves closer to Cao’er. “Are we still going with that plan to reel in Number Three? I mean, I thought our darling here was going after her first, so…”

You seem to be hearing something disturbing talk. “Wait. What are you talking about? What Number Three?” Qilin only gives you a smirk, her arm around Cao’er’s shoulder. “…it’s between us girls. You don’t need to concern yourself with it. Go… you have a fight to win…” says Cao’er calmly, pointing ahead of you. She has become a lot more assertive with you lately, though you think it is warranted, given the amount of stress you put her through in the past month. Sighing, you shake your head. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

“Look who’s talking,” retorts Qilin with a grin. “Just go and have your fun, you idiot.”

“Yes, yes, I hear you.” Giving the girls a brief wave, you head down the steep approach to the battle, hopping from rock to rock.

***

The Fire Cultists under attack consist of a group of twelve nubile maidens; somehow Cao’er had neglected to mention that particular point to you when recounting her observations. You do not recognize the fifteen or so Taishan and Kunlun fighters attacking the cultists: they are in their twenties, and you have never seen them before. You make the last leap just in time, throwing a string of silk around a raised sword-arm that is a moment away from striking. With a pull, you send the Taishan man sprawling to the ground in the perfect position to serve as your landing cushion. Your feet land on his back as he shouts in pain.

You look around at the surprised combatants. The Taishan disciple below you tries to throw you off, but a stomp on his spine tames him qui