Chapter 27: A Lesson in the Jianghu
There was only one public road from Shangzhou to Xi'an, with Lan Pass of Lantian County, the famed strategic link between Shaanxi and the southeast, along the way. Of course, that was not entirely true. All roads lead to Chang'an. Even the ancient Romans had sent people to visit the ancient capital. From Shangzhou one could go north to Luoyang and then cut west through Huazhou to Xi'an, only that way was a bit farther.
Wenchang decided to go through Luonan instead of Lan Pass in order to avoid the authorities. Going through Luonan meant he didn't have to pass through Shangzhou. There was a small path that went from Fine Horse Village directly through Luonan and on to Mt. Hua in Huazhou.
It wasn't easy going, however. The precipitous footpath meandered through the mountains, winding through dense ancient forests so thick the sun didn't penetrate through it. Fortunately, there were inhabitants along the way.
They ventured through the snowfall at dawn, making haste and soon entering wild, mountainous country. They rode fifteen miles to a valley surrounded my magnificent peaks that extended to the horizon.
They rode singlefile, the little beggar in the lead. "Brother Wenchang, this valley, called Laozi Valley, extends fifteen miles. Keep a sharp eye, there are some smaller valley openings along both sides. Gotta be careful not to take the wrong path. In spring during the second month after the thaw there is a creek that flows from Azure Dragon Ridge. All we have to do is follow the creek and we won't get lost."
"You're worried about taking the wrong path?" Wenchang asked.
"That's one of the reasons."
"There some other reason?"
"Yes." The little beggar's expression turned more cautious. "If you happen to see or hear anything unusual on either side, just ignore it. Luckily, we're not carrying weapons, so we should be okay."
Wenchang felt what the little beggar had said was odd. "Little brother, aren't there weapons tucked into my bracers? What's wrong with carrying weapons?"
"Your weapons are small. Concealing something like a flute on your person or something like that is not conspicuous, so it should be fine."
"From the way you talk there must be some dangerous, men of the martial fraternity here."
"Precisely. Oh, don't ask for now. Since you're going to be a man of the jianghu yourself, I'll tell you some things about the jianghu you must know."
"I'm eager to hear it."
"First I'll tell you about the top figures in the jianghu. Some of them are good, some are bad; some are bewitching, some strange. You have to know about all of them. In the jianghu there's a four-sentence mantra that lists all these top people, good and bad. It goes like this: 'One Pilgrim, Two Sovereigns, Three Monks Two Nuns, Demon Succubus Androgyne, White Crane Flies High'. These are the main ones, the others are too numerous to mention.
"This mantra refers to thirteen people, old and young, male and female. They are not listed by cultivation rank or skill level. They each have their strong points and specialties.
"One Pilgrim refers to Forsaken Pilgrim Fang Hui of Whitecap Mountain's Misery Valley in Yunyang, Chuandong.
"Two Sovereigns refers to Black Flag Sovereign Chang Jian and Qiu Hen or Endless Valley in Wuling.
"The Three Monks are Master Magnanimous Blissful Monk, Hundred Tribulations Crippled Monk Du Ji, and Blue-eyed Snow Lion Lama Monk Ba Long, the Living Buddha. Crippled Monk is the martial uncle of Shaolin's current sect head, but he disappeared from the jianghu for no apparent reason years ago.
"The Two Nuns are Sacred Formless Heavens Nun and Thousand-Faced Abbess. These two are particularly hard to deal with.
"Demon is Mountain Demon Shan Tang. He's really terrifying. Succubus is Black Succubus Gu Zhen. She's an enchantress who makes men lose their minds and not care about their lives upon looking at her. She's not dark complected, she just wears black clothing like a black widow. It's said she's already well over sixty years old, but she looks like a beautiful young woman. She's incredibly terrifying.
"Androgyne is Outcast Androgyne Young Master Mei Lin. No one really knows what he is. Not a man, not a woman, yet he is a man and is a woman. You'll never get to the bottom of his background.
"White Crane is Seven Spells White Crane Hermit. He might be the leader of the White Lotus Society. He not only knows magic, he also does business with all the other fiends of the heretical sects. His poisonous creams, powders, and pills are staggeringly pricey.
"Flies High refers to Frigid Scorpion Gao Fei, a woman veiled in mystery. Black-hearted and cruel but pretty as a flower. Five years ago she fought more than eight times with Seven Spells, and she's dueled Thousand-Faced Abbess. Seven Spells is as bad as they come, while Thousand-Faced Abbot is a learned Buddhist nun of the light path who hates evil with all her heart. Frigid Scorpion Gao Fei provoked both righteous and evil sides; she's a strange, enigmatic woman. She's also the youngest and prettiest of the women listed. Most of the people listed are unsociable and unreasonable. If you run into any of them in the days to come, best to treat them like the God of Pestilence and steer clear of them.
"These past two years Mountain Demon Shan Tang has been hiding out in Laozi Valley. This guy never stays in the same place for more than ten days, so it's odd for him to stay here for two years. Mountain Demon is an eccentric person; he's actually a righteous talent, just old and eccentric and temperamental. Whoever provokes him will be lucky to get away without losing a layer of skin if he doesn't end up dead. Our only chance for safe passage through Laozi Valley is to not provoke that old eccentric. Just act like we're ordinary commoners and he won't give us any trouble."
As the little beggar spelled it all out clearly Wenchang became more and more alarmed. Just hearing their nicknames made his scalp tingle. But the little beggar couldn't see the look on Wenchang's face. "They're all famous within the jianghu, coming and going unpredictably, drifting from place to place. One might be nearby or providing food for the worms in some remote, desolate area. They've already cultivated to perfection, that's why they've attained special rank as the top masters in the world. First-rate masters are even more numerous. Like Curly Bearded Stranger Wu Xin, Sinister Blade Li Yun, Lone Wanderer Bai Yunshen, Valiant Tiger Zhao Hong, Four Seas Dragon Xia Chengguang, Dragon Banner Dongfang Ping, Thousand-Hand Scholar Shang Letian, Powdered Wolf Zong Jing, etc. Too many to count, all
outstanding first-rate masters of the jianghu. Half a year ago, Four Seas Dragon came through Fine Horse Village with his beloved daughter and caught the eye of the super arrogant and audacious Powdered Wolf Zong Jing. That bastard saw his pretty daughter and got careless, eventually finding Four Seas Dragon's daughter, White Dragongirl and tried to kidnap her on the twelfth peak of Seven Plate Mountain at Lan Pass and nearly lost his life. You weren't a man of the jianghu then so you probably don't know about this stuff."
Wenchang jolted at the mention of White Dragongirl. Was the girl in white I fought with White Dragongirl?
The little beggar didn't notice Wenchang's reaction. "Curly Bearded Stranger got in a fight with Outcast Androgyne on the top of Mt. Tai like ten or so years ago, who knows why. Androgyne's martial arts is not only amazing, his mystical poison is frightening; left Curly Beard about half dead, wanted him to die a slow death. But who'd have figured Curly Beard wouldn't die, but continued to play hide and seek with Outcast Androgyne. Oh! Speaking of strangers, you ought to be careful of the Pilgrim."
"I ought to be careful?" Wenchang asked, surprised.
"Yeah, careful. The Pilgrim in that mantra, 'One Pilgrim, Two Sovereigns'. He's not to be trifled with. You might think he's harmless, like passing fish eyes off as pearls, so you have to be really careful."
"Ah, what kind of nobody do you take me for? No need to worry senselessly."
"Hard to say. There's no seniority in the martial fraternity, no age in the jianghu. Achievements are attained through force, and prestige in the jianghu is won through battle. You enter the jianghu and gradually you might come to realize you're not so special. Oh! Actually it's not that big a deal; Forsaken Pilgrim won't give you any trouble."
"No need to ask why…" The little beggar held his tongue, then changed the subject. "Not only can you not mess with these people, their disciples and sect elders and such are all terrifying people who are difficult to deal with. You must be extra careful; if you mess with the little one the big one will surely appear, and then there'll be no end to it."
"I have no reason to mess with them," Wenchang said calmly. But he was a bit surprised. If Valiant Tiger Zhao Hong and Thousand-Hand Scholar were only first-rate, why would he ever dare mess with these other masters of the martial fraternity? Anyway he had no reason to mess with them.
"Heehee! Wrong again," the little beggar laughed. "Perhaps you think if you don't bother them they won't bother you; in that case the world would be a peaceful place. That's absurd. Take me getting involved in Fine Horse Village for example. As a man of the jianghu, it's only natural I step in to help right a wrong. Am I supposed to stand by and watch someone ambush another with a concealed weapon and just do nothing? I stepped in to uphold the code of the jianghu. And how could I just do it halfway? And so I got mixed up in this predicament, made enemies with the Five Uglies of Mt. Hua, and have made a mortal enemy of their master, Priest Celestial Void. Heehee! Can you say I was wrong? When did I ever start anything with them?"
"In that case, it won't be easy making it in the jianghu!" Wenchang sighed with emotion.
"But it's also true that as long as you're bold yet cautious, vigilant and intelligent, adaptable to circumstances, and hard-hearted, then what have you to fear? Brother Wenchang, don't despair. Carve your own path, fearless, advancing courageously, and you'll accomplish much in the jianghu and shine among the martial fraternity. You and I became like old friends right away, so I hope you won't mind me talking so boldly and presumptuously?"
"I'm grateful, little brother," Wenchang said.
They rode seven or eight miles as they chatted, reaching the midpoint of Laozi Valley, but nothing unusual had occurred.
They went around a spur of a mountain and the valley broke to the right, the sky opening up as they came to a basin where mountains converged on all sides. It was much more spacious than before. In other words, it was a valley intersection, the four mountain spurs jutting out to form a 十-shaped mountain valley. The valleys to the left and right were narrow and steep with tall cliffs. The valley floor was packed with at least fifteen to sixteen feet of snow. The snow on the cliffs was thick and ready to fall if shaken. It was a magnificent sight, but if it collapsed its power would be astonishing.
The little valley on the left ran due west. A dozen horses were huddled on either side of the cliffs to get out of the snow, nervously whipping their tails and stomping their hooves. Saddle and horse were all there, but there were no people.
"Eh, why are there a bunch of horses there?" the little beggar said.
"They probably entered the little valley there on the left," Wenchang said.
"It's none of our business," the little beggar said. "Let's get out of here."
They spurred their horses to the mouth of the intersection and saw there was one person in the little valley on the left. He was digging a hole in the snow, half submerged in the hole. They would not have seen him had they not gone to the intersection because the hole was just inside the mouth of the valley, not viewable from any other vantage point.
The man looked domineering with big round eyes, a wide nose and mouth, and a 八-shaped grey mustache, quite intimidating. He wore a long, padded sheepskin coat, the front of which was shiny with grease, extremely sloppy. His blue pants had been mended in several places and his straight-seam boots were old and shabby. One look and it was clear he was a middle-aged vagrant down on his luck, yet from his ruddy face it seemed he was not a traveler at the end of his rope.
Next to him was a shiny, burnished iron staff, thick as a duck egg and six feet long. The head was thick and the tail pointed, with several burl-like nodules along the shaft. It looked to weigh at least forty or fifty catties, a very heavy implement.
He half-lay in the hole, continually raising a dark brown wine gourd to his lips, the light in his eyes deep and vigorous as he eyed the little beggar and Wenchang over the wine gourd. He didn't move. But as soon as he saw the face of the little beggar he suddenly cried out and jumped up.
The little beggar's face sank and he jerked on the reins and shouted in a whisper, "Let's go! Our enemy is here." His horse took off before he finished speaking.
"Little devil! You're not getting away unless you sprout wings." The strange man roared and grabbed his iron staff and shot forward, not only amazingly fast, but he didn't even leave any footprints in the snow.
Wenchang had been in the rear. He spurred his own horse on after the little beggar, but he was naturally slower due to the other's headstart. He raced thirty feet before the strange man caught up to him and roared, "Outta the way! Gimme that."
An unprecedentedly strong force of air from a palm hit him and Wenchang felt his blood and qi seethe. Luckily he was preoccupied with riding and had stooped forward so it wasn't a direct hit, but he still saw stars and went limp.
He was not about to let someone knock him over suddenly like that. He gritted his teeth and took it and slid to the left the best he could and shot his right fist out.
The strange man, still holding his iron staff, landed on the back of the horse. He laughed wildly and kicked with his left foot, hitting Wenchang's right fist. His staff shot out like a flash and poked. Wenchang's left palm holding the reins felt like it'd been struck by a hot poker. He let go of the reins as his right hand was hit by what felt like a thousand-catty hammer. His hand felt like it was broken, the pain shooting straight into the bone. He shook all over and lost strength in his legs, no longer able to hold his place in the saddle. He dropped off and landed flat on his back.
The strange man grabbed the reins and nimbly vaulted in the saddle. The horse whinnied and took off after the little beggar.
Wenchang had been thrown from the horse, no more strength to control his movements. It had been too quick and the ground was too close. He slammed into the snow and was sprayed in the face by loose snow kicked up by the horse as it sped away. He rolled five times before coming to a stop.
The loose snow was too deep so he wasn't injured by the fall, but his hands hurt like hell. It was a moment before he was able to get up, and he was not able to hit back with his concealed weapons.
By the time he struggled to his feet the two horses were already three to five hundred feet away. He clenched his teeth in anger and exercised his hands as he ran toward the mouth of the valley where the other horses were. He planned to take a horse and give chase, not only to help the little beggar ward off the enemy, but also because everything he had was on the back of that horse in the saddlepack. Losing the horse meant losing the saddlepack. How could he roam the jianghu with no money?"