Chapter 35: Haunted Ruins
It wasn't easy for horses to run in an icy forest, but the five riders were highly skilled, crouching close to the horse's back as they gave chase. If the horses could pass through than so could they. But they lost Wenchang's trail after three or four miles. They called out and assembled with the other three riders and searched the area for a while, gradually coming to a slightly hilly wooded area.
As they reached the foothills, a rider reined in and said in a low voice, "Fall back, brothers."
"Why?" one of them said.
"Isn't that the haunted ruins of Mysterious Altar Temple? How can we go in there?"
The other seven looked toward the hill, but it was pitch-black. The trees around them were tall, though light still glittered off the snow on the tops of the trees; down below it was so dark you couldn't see your hand in front of you. At the highest point was a huge, tall, ancient snow-covered tree, plainly visible from a long distance away, very eye-catching.
A rider turned his horse and said fearfully, "Let's get out of here, quick… We'll wait outside for him…"
The eight horses turned and fled and before long the retreating hooves were no longer audible.
Wenchang had hid himself in the woods. He had to flee; there was no way to take on so many. When he first entered the woods he thought he saw a black flash off to his right, but he couldn't be sure, and there was no time to stop and check as he ran like mad into the woods.
He used the dense vegetation to conceal himself in great haste. His pursuers were looking for his footprints in the snow, so of course they couldn't find him.
He was hidden in the woods at the southern face of the hill. He could just make out the eight riders leaving to the northeast. He let out a huge sigh, but he still didn't dare come out and continue back down the public road. After a long time he was still not sure if the men from Northwest Escort Agency had left or not, but he had to see to be safe. He went around the hill to the left, walking rapidly to the southwest. The brambles and brush had been covered by snow so it was easy to walk over them.
He had gone a mile or so when he suddenly heard a groan not far ahead. It was very weak, like the horrible last gasps of a dying man or animal.
He felt his hair stand on end because the groan was too ghastly. The night was black as ink, an ill wind soughing through the trees and whistling over the branches. The snapping of twigs underfoot was already spine-chilling. He was more courageous than most, but he was losing his nerve a bit in this mysterious, unpredictable place. The groan had come too suddenly, and in this environment it was particularly jarring.
He stopped and crouched and concentrated his gaze. In the reflected light off the snow he could see twenty feet or so ahead, but after a careful look he could see nothing.
He perked up his courage. What am I afraid of? Am I really going to be frightened by a strange sound?
He slowly stood, pressed close to a tree. Suddenly a large, ice-cold hand touched the back of his neck.
"Ah!" he yelped. He flinched, crouched, then spun around and threw a chop.
The chop connected with an odd sound and something fell to the ground.
The tree branches shook and snow and icicles fell, sprinkling him as he heaved a deep sigh. He mumbled to himself, "Damn! I'm too jumpy. When did I become such a coward?"
He had touched an icicle, though he thought it had been someone attacking him from behind.
His yelp echoed back from the wooded hill and took a long time dissipating.
"Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah…" It was his own voice echoing back.
"Weird," he said to himself. "Why is there an echo in such an open area? There must be some large empty structure up there. Let me take a look. Maybe I can find a place to stay the night."
He calmed his nerves and took out two steamed buns he had bought with his twelve coppers and ate as he walked up the hill.
After thirty or forty feet, two dark shadows shot out from either side, close to the ground. There was a rustling in the icy slush.
He hurriedly stuffed the buns back into his robe and was about to run away, but it was too late. The dark shadows were already on him.
There are two common responses people have when in the face of impending crisis. One is to go limp and scream and wait for death. The other is to face it head-on and fight for one's life. His response was the latter.
He dropped toward the left and kicked with his right, sweeping the nearest shadow in the midsection. It cried and flew back thirty feet and slammed into a tree trunk and stayed down.
He moved off to the side about ten feet away and smelled something raw. He heard a pounce and squared up against the other shadow which was just turning to him to attack. "Godf*ckingdammit, it's two ravenous wolves looking for trouble."
It really was two wolves each about six feet long, with brown bellies and black backs. They were so thin their ribs were sticking out. He had kicked the one and killed it. The other one pounced on him.
A wolf would not normally attack a human so rashly. They would usually stalk behind their prey, appearing and disappearing in order to make their prey lose its nerve. They would gradually close in and wait for the chance to strike. It was not unusual for them to trail their prey for ten miles or more. If the person had a weapon they would howl as they trailed in order to attract other wolves to help in the hunt, the more the better. It was terrifying. Ravenous wolves out in heavy snow might be in packs of two or three hundred. You can imagine the result if they ran into a person.
Ordinarily, wolf packs would not appear close to towns. These two wolves must have been solitary wolves come down from Zhongnan Mountain, crazed from starvation and therefore ready to attack anything for food.
Wenchang didn't hear any howls so he knew there was not a wolf pack nearby. One or two wolves were no big deal, so he wasn't worried.
The other wolf attacked ferociously. He dodged to the side, bent down, and chopped his hand down, snapping the wolf's legs as if they had been cut with a knife. The wolf fell howling and rolled on the ground. It was tough and fearless, but had weak legs; it couldn't withstand Wenchang's full strength.
He stepped forward and kicked the wolf in the belly and sent it flying twenty feet. "Let me put you out of your misery."
After killing the wolves he continued on for fifty or sixty feet until he heard a groan that sent shivers up his spine. It was coming from not far ahead.
He stopped and alertly pressed himself behind a large tree. He collected himself and peeked out. Not far off a dark figure lay under an ancient tree. Suddenly he saw legs squirm twice. Heavens! It was a dying man.
He made sure there was nothing suspicious around, then hurried up and grabbed the person. "What's wrong, brother?" he asked urgently.
The dark figure was an old man over sixty wearing a ripped jacket, his grey hair a dirty mess. A straw rope was tied around his waist and a beggar's pouch hung from his shoulder. A dog-beating staff lay on the ground ten feet away. He was near death, his body not only dirty but also very smelly.
The old beggar seemed to be conscious. He groaned and said feebly, "Let… Let go, don't… don't worry about… me…"
Wenchang made a decision and reached out and touched the man's forehead. It was scorching hot, though the beggar's hands were ice-cold. "Sir, you're sick. You need help."
"No… Don't…" He did his best to struggle.
"No, you have to listen to me. You won't last out here for long. I have to find someone quick to make you some ginger soup to ward off the cold."
Earlier, his voice had echoed off the hill. There must be some wealthy family's villa up ahead, which means there would be people. He ran off in that direction.
But he didn't notice under a nearby tree two strange pairs of cold eyes watching his every move, then following him closely.
They were two big, strange men wearing leather jackets inside out, the fur on the outside the same color as the snow. They carried swords on their backs and followed close behind Wenchang like a ghost. The wind was strong and their steps were light so they made no sound as they followed. He didn't know anyone was behind him.
The two strange men talked in low voices only each other could hear. "It's a child fresh on the scene, but he's skilled and agile."
"Third Brother, how do you know he's a newbie?" the one on the right said.
"Yang Family Village's Northwest Armed Escort Agency is famed far and wide. In this area of the north, even the agency's dogs are three levels higher than normal people. That kid had the nerve to tweak the tiger's whiskers and not only fight them, but also rob them. He's simply wet behind the ears, a completely clueless kid. A fearless, inexperienced fool. No wonder master took a fancy to him. This time we might have found a useful wronged soul."
"Third Brother, the master's secretive actions are not only unfathomable, but also really rebellious. What's Divine Spear Yang Hu anyway? Just eliminating a few people will be enough to ruin his reputation."
"Fourth Brother, do you mean to tell me you don't know who's backing that bastard Yang Hu?"
"Surely you know Blue-eyed Snow Lion of Mt. Wutai?"
"Huh? You mean that savage La…"
"Yes, Lama Ba Long, the Living Buddha. He's bastard Yang's son's master."
"Shooting Rainbow Iron Claw Yang's master?"
"It's absolutely true. Of course, the master is not really afraid of Ba Long, the Living Buddha; there's other reasons."
"You'll find out later. I'm not too sure myself. Anyway, the less we know the better. The more we know the more chance for something bad to happen to us."
"Third Brother, you're confusing me."
"Confused is best, much safer. In short, from what I know this matter involves Black Flag Sovereign. We'll know what it's all about soon."
"Third Brother, I really don't want to follow that 'not male, not female…'"
"Quiet! You crazy? If you have a death wish you can slit your own throat, but don't drag others into… Ah…"
They both fell at the same time, wailing, but their voices were thin. A white robe had fluttered behind them at some point. A person of average height looked at them and said in a sinister voice, "This gentleman doesn't want anyone who doesn't want to follow him, or who knows too much. Let me help you two."
Then he was gone. The two strange men on the ground were also still and silent.
Wenchang's hearing was excellent. Even though the wails were soft, he still heard them. He stopped in his tracks and turned to look.
He suddenly felt a large hand press an acupoint on his right shoulder.
He had always been jittery and quite vigilant. He twisted his shoulder abruptly; from the corner of his eye he could see clearly it was the old beggar's hand. At the same time, he looked into the old beggar's flashing eyes. They were not the eyes of a dying man.
He relaxed his arm and threw off the old beggar, who's fingertip just missed him, brushing across his chest with heavy force. And it burned.
In the same instant, the old beggar shot out his left hand and kicked his thigh and pulled and they both fell down. It was a violent hook; Wenchang felt like his thigh had been hit with a massive hammer and he was unable to keep a foothold and also fell.
The old beggar leapt up quickly, laughed, and kicked the other leg.
Wenchang was furious. He had tried to help the man and instead had been tricked. How could he not be angry? He rolled on the ground and dodged the kick, then jumped up and prepared to counter.
Too bad! His left leg was a bit hurt so he was slow, plus the old beggar was more skilled.
Everything went black before him as he was tagged in the jaw with a heavy blow, followed by a string of smacks as he took four more punches, the last one hitting him in the jaw and making him dizzy. Then a heavy slap to the side of the head made him stumble ten feet and he lost consciousness. Before he blacked out he felt a roaring in his ears, then heard the old beggar's wild, satisfied laughter.
The old beggar grabbed him and searched his clothes. He put the five ingots of gold and silver in his beggar's pouch and took off Wenchang's travel bag and rummaged through it. Aside from two packs of backup concealed weapons there was just an acupuncture needle kit.
The old beggar stuffed the bag and the travel permit he had stolen from Wenchang's person into his beggar's pouch and whistled softly, then picked Wenchang up and went up the hill.
A low voice suddenly came from the darkness. "Return the travel bag and travel permit where they were and tie his hands and feet like we planned."
The old beggar stopped and bowed respectfully in the direction of the voice. "As you wish, master."
At the top of the hill was a plateau about a mile wide covered with a dense, ancient wood. Ancient green pines unwithered by the bitter winter. In the middle were three ancient, bare pagoda trees. North of the ancient pagoda tree was a fortified village, the enclosing walls collapsed, forlorn and desolate. It looked like no one had repaired anything in decades.
Inside the dilapidated walls were some ruins, a few broken-down buildings. Collapsed bricks and broken pillars were scattered and crisscrossed. Near the southern end were five huge collapsed palace halls, wobbly walls still towering with massive, uneven stone pillars. One could tell how magnificent it once was. The second storey of the building in front had half collapsed, and though the doors and windows of the lower level were completely destroyed, rubble scattered everywhere, one could still go inside to get out of the rain.
It looked to be a large temple. Two peeled idols still stood at the foot of the stone steps leading to the main hall, the other two already fallen and mostly buried under the snow.
Thawing season was nearly here and since there were no rats or foxes hiding in the tattered halls, nor any bats flying around, it was completely quiet aside from the bitterly cold wind whistling through the cracks of the walls. The gloomy, somber atmosphere put one on edge. Forget about at night, even during the day no one dared come here.
The old beggar, carrying Wenchang, disappeared into the dark, dilapidated main hall.