Chapter 37: The Tunnel
Up ahead he saw a light and around the corner. He snuffed the lantern out and pressed to the wall and peeked around the corner to see.
It was a corridor running laterally. Two men holding torches were walking from the right, chatting as they walked.
Wenchang waited for them to pass, then followed them, staying about seventy feet back, creeping closer as the corridor rose gradually. He paid listened carefully to their conversation.
He still felt there was someone following him, but he couldn't detect anyone.
The two men were dressed the same as the guard had been. They walked side by side, unaware someone was behind them. They were talking at a normal volume, their steps calm and unhurried. The man on the left said, "Brother Zhao, do you think we will send that kid the old beggar captured under guard to Heartbreak Cliff. And when?"
Brother Zhao snorted. "No, Brother Sun, he won't be sent to Heartbreak Cliff."
"Huh? We’re not sending him to Black Flag Sovereign?"
"What makes you think we’d send him to Nine Palace Fortress at Heartbreak Cliff?"
"That kid looks just like Mountain Demon Shan Tang's henchman that appeared in Laozi Valley. Sovereign already dispatched a general order to have him captured. Why would he not be sent to Heartbreak Cliff?"
"Haha! Brother Sun, you think us Endless Valley men have to do what Black Flag Sovereign says?"
"The steward intends to hand the kid over to Northwest Armed Escort Agency to curry favor with Divine Spear Yang Hu. Then Chief Yang can send him to Nine Palace Fortress on Heartbreak Cliff; isn't that killing two birds with one stone? Then both will pay us a reward, isn't that great?"
"Alright, whatever, in the end he'll still be handed over to Black Flag Sovereign."
"Hehe! You just don't get how ingenious it is. If we take him to Heartbreak Cliff, won't that just reveal that Endless Valley and Heartbreak Cliff are working together?"
"Brother Zhao, you mean that our Endless Valley head and Black Sovereign are cooperating?
"That's right. This has been going on in secret for a long time. Everyone knows Endless Valley and Heartbreak Cliff are both towering organizations in direct opposition to each other. Haha! But no one knows they’re working together in secret to root out each other's enemies so those stupid jianghu idiots will take the bait. What name would that Northwest Escort Agency chief have among the jianghu if he didn't gang up with Black Flag Sovereign on the sly? So it's clear that among the dark and light paths of the jianghu there's dark and light, and not-light and not-dark. Nothing surprising about that. And those who dare to oppose us, such as Forsaken Pilgrim of Misery Valley and Outcast Androgyne Young Master Mei Lin, sooner or later will be done for. Enough talk, let's get going."
The more he heard, the more alarmed Wenchang became. Shit, so now I've made enemies with Black Flag Sovereign and Endless Valley? This is bad! If I want to survive, looks like Forsaken Pilgrim or Outcast Androgyne are my only options. There's nowhere left to seek refuge.
But he had grown up under hardship; he was staunch and unyielding, never considering to seek refuge with anyone else. He had decided to roam the jianghu alone, to conquer the world on his own. Disgust toward Black Flag Sovereign and the master of Endless Valley formed within him.
These men are with Endless Valley, he thought. They're nothing. According to jianghu rumors, Qiu Hen, the master of Endless Valley, is an eccentric of the martial fraternity. Although he has a violent reputation, he's actually one of its finest, righteous figures. Who would have thought he'd be colluding with Black Flag Sovereign to enrage both sides and set up a trap to massacre dissidents? In this jianghu netherworld the human heart is mysterious and frightening. It's getting more and more dangerous for me.
He followed ten feet behind. Light flared behind him as two more torches appeared from another side path, leaving him no place to hide.
"Who's there?" the men behind him called.
The two in front spun around. "Eh? So you got out, fella? Take this!"
The men in front and behind, five total, four torches, blocked both directions as they closed in on him.
Wenchang's heart froze. He drew his dagger and palmed three silver-plumed darts. A whistle streaked forward. Life and death was at stake, there was no room for him to shrink back in fear. His only option was to kill to protect himself.
By the time the two men had drawn their sabres the darts had already penetrated their hearts. Wenchang arrived and grabbed a torch, then threw it behind him, splashing reeking oil. The three behind him yelped and ducked out of the way.
Wenchang grabbed the two darts and picked up a sabre, roared, and the sabre became a spinning rainbow. One man thirty feet away screamed as the sabre sank into his chest.
He picked up the other sabre and fled. One of the three men was dead. They threw down their torches and gave chase. “Get him. I’ll beat him within an inch of his life.”
Faint voices echoed in the tunnel as disordered footsteps came from the shadows in all directions.
Wenchang was in a panic, taking whatever path he came to, running in the dark. He slammed into a wall several times. You can imagine the helpless state he was in. Of course, he was looking for a way out, but that was easier said than done. He could only follow the direction the two men had been walking.
His pursuers were closing in, and he heard footsteps approaching rapidly up ahead.
He felt someone close in on him from the left, then a flash of flames. He pressed close to the wall, on tenterhooks, getting ready.
There was a flight of stone steps leading upward. Three black-clad men with torches were running down, each wielding a sabre, torchlight glittering off the blades.
The tunnel was narrow and with the torchlight there was nowhere to hide with them facing him head-on. He knew he couldn't hide. He who strikes first prevails, he who strikes last fails. Now was the time to fight. He launched his attack, not waiting for the men to get down the steps.
He roared, startling them and tripping them up.
They held their sabres out in front with "Five Flowers Covering the Top", protecting their heads as their sabres flashed. But the lead man had no time to defend; rapidly descending the steps, he met the gleam of a sabre.
He cried out as the point of the sabre ripped across his chest, the bottom of a lung pushing out through the wound as blood shot out. His sabre fell, his torch fell, and then he fell.
Wenchang was like a crazed tiger. At this deadly, critical moment, he grasped the principles of ruthlessness, accuracy, and speed, attacking quickly to end it quickly. He ran up the steps, passed through them, and continued on.
The second man was busy brandishing his sabre, bearing down on him menacingly.
The third man raged and stuck his sabre out from the side, stabbing.
Before the torch hit the ground and was extinguished, Wenchang could see the situation clearly. He knocked away the second man's sabre with a clang, then swept his sabre effortlessly and lopped the man's head off in a wink of light.
He continued up, no time to thrust his sabre, so he twisted to the left to avoid the third man's jab. He spun again, sabre close to his waist, and used "Jade Belt Around the Waist", spinning past the man on his left, blade following his spin.
The tip of the blade ripped through the man's waist and blood spurted out.
The man slashed at the same time and left a line of blood along Wenchang's back. Luckily, there was not much strength in the slash so it was only a superficial flesh wound.
They brushed past each other at the shoulder, very dangerous. This kind of close-quarters fight could leave them both finished if they weren't careful. Masters disdained this method, too dangerous.
Wenchang had no choice but to risk his life. He was lucky to get through those three dangerous obstacles in that incredibly short amount of time. Those three men were actually more skilled than he, but they had been caught off guard by his sudden, fast attack, leaving them with no time to counter. In that short moment Wenchang had climbed to the fifth level of the stone steps.
Men were writhing on the floor behind him and everything returned to darkness. Their death wails were deafening and hair-raising in the empty area.
Wenchang stuck his left hand out and shielded his face as he ran like hell. He couldn't tell where he was going in the dark; as long as he could pass through, he went.
A delicate scent wafted through the darkness within a stone chamber underground, along with the faint sound of voices. It was two people talking, just barely audible. A person said in a clear voice, "How can they be so stupid? Why would they take him on and throw their lives away like that?"
"In response to Master, that man is fast as anything. They weren't really squaring off against him, it's just that not everywhere could be lit at once. They just happened to meet in those narrow corridors in a hurry, and if they lit torches it would give away their position. It's hard to see in there, and Master ordered not to harm him, so… so…" It was an old, strong voice."
"Don't 'so' me. This is really a sorry state of affairs."
"In response to Master, even though several of our brothers were injured, it at least will get through to him the severity of the situation, so it's worth it. He'll believe we are Endless Valley men."
"How many casualties?"
"So far, six dead, one critically wounded."
The voices paused. Then the master responded, "This man is young and naturally gifted, well worth training. If we can pull this off there will certainly be unforseen gains. We must train him well."
"In response to Master, I fear that won't be so easy. Whatever development we might get might not be worth the effort."
"Why is that?"
"First, he didn't search those Yang flunkeys. There's honor among thieves. You could say he has a sense of honor. Second, he doesn't care about his own safety. He tried to rescue old brother Feng, Odd Beggar, so he is compassionate. Third, he was calm and collected and alert once he escaped from the dungeon. He's a thinker, very perceptive. That kind of person is not easy to fool…"
"Bullshit! You will see that you're wrong."
"I hope I am wrong," the old voice answered doubtfully.
"This man is very useful to me. I’ll have to finesse this one. Prepare to leave. You must be gone from the Mysterious Altar Temple ruins before morning. Black Flag Sovereign's men might be here before daybreak. Remember: You must erase all your tracks."
"Yes, sir! I will give the orders immediately."
Silence. Not long after, an odd sound undulated through the tunnels, lingering for a long time before dissipating.
Wenchang ran wherever his legs would take him. Some stroke of luck led him to the underground entrance. That was really lucky.
Just as he was about to exit, overy thirty fully-decked horse and riders quietly concealed themselves in the withered forest to the west of the Mysterious Altar Temple ruins. Then, black figures in groups of threes and fours came out from the ruins one after another. A tall dark figure went back and forth, patrolling. Two low voices sounded from behind. "Old Scabbard, is everyone here?"
The one called Old Scabbard was the old beggar who had attacked Wenchang earlier. He grabbed a horse and said urgently, "Master Xu, we can't wait for them. Black Flag Sovereign's men are only half a mile away. We have to leave, there's no time to lose."
"Shit, what about the others…"
"They’re hiding out for now below ground. Master will look after them."
Master Ye muttered to himself. "Go," he blurted in a low voice. "We'll meet up in Xi'an."
The thirty-plus horses galloped ahead, soon vanishing into the curtain of night.
A couple dozen horses reined in to the east, just outside the ruins. One rider turned to another beside him. "These are the Mysterious Altar Temple ruins?"
The other bent forward slightly in a bow. "In response to Steward, yes these are the Mysterious Altar Temple ruins."
"Have you searched them?"
"We can't, we don't dare…"
"Why don't you dare?" There was disdain in the steward's voice.
"A lot of ghosts and strange apparitions have been haunting this place the last few years. Neither man nor beast dare venture close. Ghosts can be seen even in the daytime, along with decaying skeletons. Other masters who ventured here turned up missing for no reason. It's a forbidden area now, so…"
"What? You're telling me you all are afraid of ghosts?"
"That's… That's not what I meant…" The rider seemed scared and flustered.
The steward perhaps didn't want to embarrass the man further. His voice turned gentler. "Today we shall uncover the mysterious secrets of these haunted ruins. Later we'll construct a secret contact point here. If we can, we'll make it into a secret meeting place. Oh, your man said your enemy escaped to these ruins?"
"In response to Steward, it was a petty thief. That one had a lot of f*ckin' nerve to attack our agency's men. He got away… He certainly fled here."
"Do you know his name or background?"
"I'm ashamed to say I do not. I only know he has a fair face, no beard. Upward slanting eyebrows and fierce eyes, a handsome young man. Unarmed. But good with his hands and feet."
"We'll search carefully. Your honorable agency's men are too shabby. Did you receive the sovereign's personal orders?"
"Our humble boss has already informed all of us."
"From what Seven Spells White Crane Hermit said, it was a handsome young man with upward slanting eyebrows and fierce eyes who helped Mountain Demon Shan Tang steal the Autumn Mountain Mist painting. You must be careful."
"Yes, we don't dare get careless. A little beggar raised hell last night at Baqiao and beat up one of our agency's men. That's how all this started."
"Make sure you question him thoroughly once he's captured. You mustn't act rashly and… Eh!"
Just then a hair-raising wail came from the ruined main hall, sending chills down their spines. The horses stamped and rustled nervously.
The steward stopped talking and listened carefully, but the sound was gone. "What was that?"
The other rider shivered. "It was a… a ghost… wail… wailing…"
"Pfft, are any of your men inside?"
"It was clearly a person's voice."
"I… I don't know if… if it was a man or… or a ghost."
The desolate cry sounded again, only a half mile away. It was very distinct, making everyone's hair stand on end.
The steward raised his whip. "It's a person, Come on! Let's see what's up."
He cracked his whip and his horse shot forward. Aside from the terror-stricken man from Northwest Escort Agency, all the other riders sped after him, galloping toward the ruins.
The Northwest Escort Agency man paused, then clenched his teeth and cracked his whip, braced himself and followed. The twenty-odd horses kicked up snow as they blew into the ruins like a violent storm.