Chapter 108: Disorienting Formation
Jun Huang's breathing was too shallow for Nan Xun's liking. He felt his chest tighten in fear. He had always found Jun Huang to be aloof to the point that she seemed untethered to the world; now he was terrified that she would truly part from it.
It took some time for Jun Huang to focus her mind enough to whisper to Nan Xun, "Apply some salve on the wound for me, please. I… I can barely lift my hand."
Nan Xun nodded. He searched through her rucksack and found both salve that could accelerate healing and salve that could cleanse poison. He cleaned up her wound before gingerly applying the salves. He then bandaged her ankle with a square handkerchief. His forehead was covered in sweat when he was done.
The guards weren't close enough to Jun Huang to get a good look on her injury, but Nan Xun was. From the two holes made by the snake fangs, he could see tender flesh underneath the skin. It rattled him deeply. His experience as a general was the only thing keeping his fingers from trembling. His jaw had been tightened throughout the process.
"You should rest," said Nan Xun.
Jun Huang looked up at the blue sky through the cracks in between the tree branches. She then looked down at her foot. Frustration welled up in her heart. For the first time, she resented her body for being weak. Even though Nan Xun had offered her comfort, she refused to let herself become a burden.
She got to her feet and inhaled deeply. "That won't be necessary. Sitting here won't do us any good. The venom has been cleansed. I should take a walk to promote circulation. Come on. I won't drag you down."
She picked up a sturdy branch and used it as a crutch to help her walk.
The guards shared an astonished look. Nan Xun clenched his fists. He knew Jun Huang was stubborn. Her resilience had enable her to keep moving despite her pain. He was both impressed and worried. He jogged up to her.
One of the shadow guards said as he looked at Jun Huang's back, "If I were him, I would have given up on walking. Gentleman Feng is indeed an extraordinary man."
The others nodded in agreement.
Nan Xun had heard the guard's comment. He too found Jun Huang to be more competent than a great majority of men. A dignified and untouchable woman who was too possessed by revenge to be likened to a celestial being, but too graceful and aloof to be a mere mortal. She defied simple classification.
The walk uphill was a punishing one. The higher they got, the more steep the hill became. Without proper training, a slight shift of one's body could lead to a painful death.
Jun Huang had trained herself with Nan Xun's help, but not for long. Her injury made it difficult for her to walk on flat lands, let alone this endless stone steps.
Sweat streamed down from her forehead. Nan Xun looked down at her and saw that her ankle was swelling. He took Jun Huang's hand and led her to sit down on the side of the path. Jun Huang didn't resist.
"We need to dress your wound again," Nan Xun said in a steely tone.
Jun Huang only realized then that her ankle was swollen and her blood had seeped through the handkerchief. After merely the time for an incense stick to burn, the white fabric had been turned red. It was concerning.
She sighed and looked up at Nan Xun. "Do you have any liquor?"
Nan Xun was bewildered, but that didn't stop him from directing the question to his shadow guards. One of the guards turned out to have a bottle of liquor in his possession. Nan Xun took it from him and handed it to Jun Huang. He assumed that she was going to drink some to dull her pain, but Jun Huang did something he did not expect her to do.
She pulled out the cork and took a deep breath before pouring the liquor over her ankle. White hot pain shot through her nervous system and assaulted her brain. She ground her teeth together to endure this pain that many would not be able to bear.
"What are you doing?" Nan Xun grabbed the bottle and yelled at her, his eyes shot with blood.
Jun Huang looked up to meet his eyes, her face had gone pale and her lips white. She took a shaky breath and slowly said, "Alcohol is best for cleaning up wounds. It can prevent infection. I know what I am doing."
Nan Xun frowned. Of course he knew alcohol could be used to prevent infection. Soldiers like him poured liquor on their injured parts all the time. He also knew how painful it could be. It was the kind of pain that burrowed inward until it reached the bones.
He didn't intend to hand the bottle back to Jun Huang. Her eyebrows furrowed as she braced for the sharp pain in her ankle. Her fingers tightened and her nails bit into her palms. It took a good while for the pain to receded.
The wound had turned pale and the bleeding had stopped. Nan Xun took a swig of the liquor to suppress the bitterness spreading from his heart. He took the bandages from one of his guards and again carefully dress Jun Huang's wound.
Once that was done, Nan Xun pulled Jun Huang onto his back without a word. Jun Huang knew any arguments from her would only slow them down, so she kept quiet.
Pouring liquor on her ankle had been the last resort. There wasn't anything else she could do to make herself recover faster. It would be unwise for her to insist on walking at the risk of infection.
When she was a test subject to her master, she had endured pain much stronger than the snake bite. However, at the time she never felt the pain as keenly as she did now. Was it because now she had Nan Xun at her side?
No matter how strong-willed she was, in the end, she was a regular human.
Her leg had gone numb. She lay boneless against Nan Xun's back. Nan Xun felt a sense of melancholy in his heart. He could smell the faint fragrance coming from Jun Huang's body, but she was so light it was as if she didn't exist.
They walked. Jun Huang was worried that she might weigh Nan Xun down, but every step he took was steady. He didn't even break a sweat.
At the end of the stone staircase was a steep cliff. Another dead end. Nan Xun gently let Jun Huang down.
Jun Huang looked closely at everything in her view. Finally, she spotted something. She pointed at the distance. "Look. Isn't that a house?"
Nan Xun and the guards turned to where she was pointing at. There was indeed a house hidden in a bamboo forest. The house itself was made of bamboo as well. A more impatient man would have missed it.
"That's where we have to go," said Jun Huang.
Nan Xun nodded. "We'll have to find a way there." He was cautious as he led Jun Huang down the stairs. She pulled at his sleeve as they made their way back down.
Jun Huang had mentally mapped out the route they should take. She was confident that they would be able to find their way to the bamboo house. After a day of travel, however, she noticed that something was wrong. Her eyebrows drew together.
"What?" Nan Xun stopped beside her and asked worriedly, "Are you in pain?"
Jun Huang shook her head and pointed at the parasol tree near them. "We have been here before."
That got a reaction out of the guards. They looked over at the tree. Only after Jun Huang pointed it out did they realize that they have been going in circles.
Alerted, they paired up and entrust their comrades to watch their backs. They put their hands around the hilt of their swords, ready to draw their weapons should something happen.
Jun Huang didn't think the root of the problem was as simple as a physical threat. She had a theory, but she couldn't be sure if she was right. After a moment of silence, she told Nan Xun, "Leave a mark here. We'll go in the opposite direction."
Nan Xun nodded. He drew his sword and made a cut on the parasol tree. Blood-like liquid seeped from the cut. It looked eery in the dim light.
Jun Huang's expression remained impassive. She dabbed her finger in the liquid and smelled it. The red looked offensive against her pale, almost translucent fingers. Nevertheless, there didn't seem to be anything out of ordinary.
"Let's go," said Jun Huang. She stepped over the wilted branches on the ground and went in the opposite direction.
After about the time for an incense stick to burn, they were right back at the parasol tree Nan Xun had marked. The guards were flabbergasted. Some felt their hair stand on end. They had witnessed countless deaths, but they had never experienced something this bizarre. One of them asked in a shaky voice, "What… what is happening? Can it be that there is… there is something of the occult here?"
Jun Huang huffed. "No, I don't think so. I think we have entered a disorienting formation. This may be Mister Ji Bo's welcoming gift for us."
Her tone was light, but inside her heart there was a storm. She stared at the parasol tree Nan Xun had cut earlier, trying to find anything out of ordinary. Her instinct told her that this tree was the center of the formation. It must be the key to their escape.
Realization struck her suddenly. She looked up at the top of the tree. There were a number of bird nests there. At first glance, the nests seemed perfectly normal, but if one looked closely, there was a fracture in the illusion.
Normally, bird nests were made of twigs and wilted leaves. These nests, on the other hand, looked like they were an extension of the branches themselves. No parasol tree would naturally grow out a nest. The nests must have been the reason they were trapped.
She looked back at Nan Xun and pointed at the nests on the tree. "Can you bring the nests down?"
Nan Xun didn't know why she asked him to do so, but he nodded anyway. He drew his sword and leaped onto the top of the tree, using the branches as his stepping stones. A few slashes, and the nests dropped to the ground.
A puff of pungent smoke went up. Everyone covered their noses as the smoke spread through the whole area, making it impossible for them to even see their own hands.