Chapter 39: Silver Sword
The man in the middle was about fifty or so with a square face and a long, five-tufted beard and straight, thick eyebrows and a ruddy complexion, his tiger eyes shining. He was tall and sturdy. He wore a tiger-pelt winter hat and black velvet overcoat over a tiger-skin vest and green, tight-fitting robe with a flower pattern. A silver scabbard hung at his waist, the hilt of the sword topped with a diamond crystal cloud cluster that glittered in the torchlight. The tassel attached to the cloud cluster was also silver. Any man of the jianghu would know who it was by the sword alone, and he would shiver in his boots at the sight of it.
The five of them stood still as a call resounded, "When the black decree is waved, the world obeys."
This heavy proclamation couldn't quell the fearless newborn calf, Cai Wenchang. He'd already seen what Black Flag Sovereign's men were like, had been captured, imprisoned, broken out, and completely escaped from his henchmen. Plus he had seen them battle with Black Succubus Gu Zhen earlier at Mt. Hua on the road to Tong Pass.
He held his sabre behind his elbow, ready to meet his bad luck head-on, standing towering before a shrine, looking around coldly. On the surface he looked calm, but inside he was nervous. He was very fond of life. But now with death staring him in the face he would be lying to himself if he said he was not afraid.
He knew a crisis was imminent. Yes, a crisis was imminent.
Odd, those people seemed to have not noticed him, as if they were indifferent to his existence, as if they regarded him as another lifeless clay statue.
The leader wearing the silver sword slowly scanned the area from right to left. His gaze swept over Wenchang, but he seemed not to see him, not pausing to linger on him, as if he was indifferent to his existence. Really strange.
Wenchang felt a chill run up his spine and his palms began to sweat.
"Hahahaha…" the silver sword leader laughed.
The laugh echoed off every tall building of the ruins, reverberating through the sky a long while before finally dissipating.
"This is a nice, desolate, dilapidated place," the silver sword leader said. "Too bad someone already got here first and set it up as this mysterious, secret place in order to deceive the masses."
"But, isn't it too messy?" one of the torch-wielding men said.
The silver sword leader smiled faintly. "There must be underground rooms. See, the stone foundation under that shrine, by the fringes of the clothes, there's definitely a secret passageway there. Come, let's take a tour of the place first."
The five strode forward toward the right, carefully examining the area around every statue, gradually closing in on Wenchang's location. They crossed behind him and went to the left.
Wenchang was on tenterhooks; he had goosebumps. He knew they were not indifferent to his existence, but instead considered him a turtle in a jar. There was no need to worry about him; they'd deal with him soon enough.
And yet suspicions began to cloud his mind. Based on the way they're talking, he thought, they don't seem to know they have their own secret chamber underground.
He thought about it some more and suddenly found the answer. The people down there must be Endless Valley men. Black Flag Sovereign's men naturally wouldn't know. Those two top masters of the jianghu are colluding in secret so there's no way they'd let too many people know about it.
He was relieved, but then he had more doubts. Huh? Why were Endless Valley and Black Flag Sovereign men dressed the same? He really didn't get it. Finally, he thought of the answer. Oh, Endless Valley men must wear white normally, but wear black when conducting secret business, indicating they are wallowing in the mud with the others.
The five made a tour of the area, then returned to their original position. This time, all eyes turned to Wenchang. Whatever was to come was coming.
Wenchang took a deep breath and got on his guard. Their eyes were like sharp arrows shooting at him, sending a shiver through his body.
An odd smile appeared on the silver sword leader's face. "A fight occurred here," he said nonchalantly. "There's blood."
"That's what it looks like to this servant as well," a man holding a torch on the left said, bowing slightly.
"And someone is hiding."
"Uh… Uh… This servant doesn't see any hiding place."
"This child has blood on him and has been injured. He's scared stiff. Bring him over here and question him. Don't frighten him."
"He's carrying a sabre."
"The sabre is not his. He's not wearing a scabbard. Just tell him to drop it…"
"Yes, manager, this servant will do as instructed."
Wenchang's heart was pounding. Bastards were just toying with me. They're actually coming for me.
A man holding a torch walked toward him, a queer smile on his face.
Suddenly from the left came a soft grunt from a hole in the wall, and someone called out, "This servant has a report to make."
The man with the torch stopped. The silver sword leader nodded. "Enter."
The leader's face became serious. "Is it really him?"
"Without a doubt it's him. This servant once intercepted and attacked them. I saw the temptress Black Succubus escape."
"This servant is confident in his eyesight; I'm sure."
Wenchang was seventy feet away from them so he couldn't hear what they were saying, but from their expressions he could guess they were talking about him.
The silver sword leader waved his hand and sent the messenger away. "Child," he said in a loud voice to Wenchang, "are you one of Black Succubus Gu Zhen's men?"
Wenchang was shocked. He steeled himself. "I am me. I'm not anyone's man."
"Do you know who I am?"
"I don't know what you mean," Wenchang answered clearly.
"I am the manager of Nine Palace Fortress of Heartbreak Cliff on Funiu Mountain…"
Wenchang was surprised. "You're Lonestar Silver Sword Sun Changhe?"
"Yes, that is I. May I ask, little brother, your honorable name?"
Silver Sword's tone was gentle with a graceful demeanor. Wenchang was a fresh greenhorn, what match was he for a cunning old hand of the jianghu? He didn't detect a trace of hostility from the man. Silver Sword had asked him politely, so without thinking he answered frankly, "This junior's family name is Cai, given name Wenchang." He had fallen for his ruse by stating his name.
Silver Sword smiled faintly. "Child, you appear to be a newcomer."
"Only a few days," Wenchang answered concisely.
"You deny that you are with Black Succubus. Isn't that pretty low? We saw you with our own eyes in Black Succubus' carriage, rushing toward Tong Pass. You are not a very good liar."
Wenchang's handsome face turned red. "Gu… Gu Zhen rescued me. She was taking me to Tong Pass. I…"
Silver Sword chuckled and waved his hand to stop him. "Alright! Alright! That's how it was, then. Whether she rescued you, or you went with her, in any case it's not unusual to see someone like you with Black Succubus. Child, I'm short on time at the moment. I have important business to attend to. Put down the sabre and come with me. The sovereign is looking for you. I believe I can guarantee your safety."
How could he dare go with him? The thought of falling into Black Flag Sovereign's hands made him shiver. He was unable to divulge Black Succubus' whereabouts, so why would Black Flag Sovereign let him off? Plus, he was afraid of Black Succubus Gu Zhen, but was still grateful to her. He wouldn't tell where she was even if he knew.
He knew his life would be in danger if he fell into Black Flag Sovereign's hands. In the end, that way was a road to ruin. Thinking of a road to ruin made him recall that underground wolf pit and he imagined himself as that dangling corpse suspended from a rope while a pack of wolves attacked him. He broke out into a cold sweat and fearfully blurted out, "No, you all can't…"
"What's wrong, child?" Silver Sword said.
He came back to his senses, the image gone from his mind, though the fear still lingered. "No! I can't go with you."
"What? Did you say no?"
"That's right. No."
"You said no to I, Lonestar Silver Sword?" He grinned hideously.
"What's so great about you?" The man's attitude infuriated Wenchang. He knew his misfortune was already decided, but it gave rise to his heroic spirit and prompted that unyielding retort.
Silver Sword forced a smile and stared at him for a while, then said nonchalantly, "Seize him."
The man who had been walking toward him before assented and handed his torch to someone and strode toward Wenchang, sneering arrogantly. "Junior, you ready to drink as a forfeit?"
Wenchang brandished his sabre and returned a sneer as his response.
The man was enraged. He yelled and swung his right hand to draw out Wenchang's sabre, then prepared to grab it with his left and capture him.
He underestimated Wenchang, advancing head-on. Wenchang was ready. He roared and his sabre became a continuous stream of light, five quick slashes in succession like a raging tide, crisscrossing like the mighty, roiling Yangtze River, sabre whistling through the air, his internal force projecting three feet out, his attack wild and ferocious and unblockable.
The man was startled. As soon as he heard the whoosh of the sabre he knew he was up against a stiff enemy, the sabre coming at him ferociously. He'd never be able to take it on barehanded. He was forced to circle around and retreat twenty feet to get away from the whirling sabre.
"Eh!" Silver Sword exclaimed softly.
The man was out of the fighting circle, furious. His sabre zipped out of its scabbard. "Well, wise guy, you really know your stuff."
Wenchang thought to himself: Speed, ruthlessness, stability, accuracy. At this critical juncture I must conserve my strength and save my energy. There are many of them here. Speed, ruthlessness, stability, accuracy; speed, ruthlessness…
The man bellowed and attacked, leading with his sabre, then easily changed to "Chopping Mt. Hua". His two chops missed, but he closed in again with "White Ape Presents Fruit", slashing upward, but it missed as well. Then "Roiling Waves Cleave the Wolf", a slanted backhand slash, three in succession. All missed. He advanced twenty feet.
Grasping the concept of "stability", Wenchang did not return the blows. He withdrew and withdrew, his opponent's sabre whirling before him. He lightly dodged, nimbly evaded, looking for an opportunity in the midst of the gleaming sabre strikes. He held his sabre in front of his chest, making onlookers nervous for him because he was already enveloped by the man's whirling sabre, seemingly incapable of striking back.
The frigid air forced by the sabre hit his flesh. The sabre light brushing inches away from him made his scalp tighten, but he was even more focused, not the least bit flustered.
There were not many who could see the real impending crisis. "Don't get careless," Silver Sword called out sternly.
As he said this, Wenchang was just dodging the man's "Swan-Goose from Heaven", letting the sabre swish over the top of his head. He took that moment to step in with his left foot, his right following. His chance was here; he no longer retreated, but advanced in response.
He struck with "Strong Wind Sweeps the Clouds", sabre whisking upward ferociously. Sparks flew with a clang against the spine of the man's blade. The man's strike had been from the right, coming down to the left. Wenchang's was a backhand strike, coming up from the left to the right. In other words, he waited for the sabre to pass over him, then stepped in and slashed in the same direction, using the man's momentum to project his own, not giving the man a chance to retract his sabre and strike again. The man's sabre was knocked away from his body, leaving his right side completely exposed.
Wenchang darted in. "Speed, ruthlessness, accuracy!" He slashed and passed by to the side.
The tip of his blade sliced across the right side of the man's face, gouging him from the bridge of his nose to his ear and sending blood spurting.
Wenchang moved ten feet behind the man and spun around and stood still; every cell of his face seemed to have hardened.
The man let out an ear-piercing wail and staggered three or four steps to the side, dropping his sabre with a clang. He raised his left hand, his right pressed against his face. He stiffened and fell like a hunk of wood and writhed on the ground, spasming, until he finally ceased groaning and his consciousness returned once more, briefly, before winking out. He had been cut about three inches deep, how could he survive that?
This shocking turn of events happened too suddenly. Everyone was stunned.
Lonestar Silver Sword hmphed and waved his right hand. "Liang Fu, seize him."