Chapter 43: Breached
Over those three days Wenchang's mood underwent great changes. At times he felt regret and bitter hatred, but he was unable to resist the immense temptation. It was not easy for a sinking man to float back to the surface.
Feeling guilty, he began to abandon himself and sink further and further, unable to free himself.
He still wasn't clear whether Outcast Androgyne was a man or a woman and he didn't care to find out. He fooled around with Outcast Androgyne's pretty servants, but refused to get too intimate with Androgyne, proving he still had a conscience and could not bear to uncover the mystery of Outcast Androgyne's gender.
During those three days, Outcast Androgyne taught him some new training techniques, as well as some secret skills forbidden to be passed on to outsiders. But he never had the chance to see the guests who paid a visit, nor did he see any of Outcast Androgyne's other henchmen. It seemed there was no one but them at the Du Family residence.
At noon on the third day, something unexpected happened.
The top of the third watch, the room warm as spring, making the snow outside begin to melt. It was colder than previous days.
Wenchang sat with Outcast Androgyne by a stove, drinking. There was a small, low table next to each, set with four plates and a jug of good wine. Two pretty maidservants stood in attendance behind each of them, pouring drinks and chatting freely about insider jianghu stories. Wenchang didn't know anything about the jianghu; he listened as Outcast Androgyne shared his views.
These three days, Wenchang's personality showed a marked change. He looked more cheerful. no longer so downcast, and when he chatted his humor and wit began to shine.
He seemed to not only learn more about life during that time, but seemed to understand what life was about. He no longer needed to take it so seriously. He felt a jianghu man's life was not worth half a copper, that death was an inevitability. It could happen at any time. No one could predict one's fortunes or escape disaster, unless he was not a man of the jianghu.
A man's life passed like a white colt flashing past a chink in a wall. If you took life too seriously you would not be able to cope! If you die in a ditch you'll be buried there, if you die on the side of the road you'll get a memorial tablet. That's just how it was. Why torture yourself by fretting over every little misfortune? Everything that had happened to him recently had inexplicably dragged him into many disputes and many times he had narrowly escaped with his life. His body was marked with many wounds. At the same time, even he could not remember how many people had died at his hands. He began to think that a man's life did not account for much.
He felt that life was fleeting and uncertain.
Yet even in his pessimistic, helpless fatalism he burned with a strong, clear intention: he must survive. He was not willing to die, did not want to die. No matter what changes the world went through he must survive. And if he must die he would die dramatically; barring some sudden, unavoidable death, he would not die quietly. He was not a weakling. He would never descend to the netherworld without a fight.
He considered himself an ordinary man of the jianghu. He didn't ask much of the world; surviving was enough.
One day he was drinking with Outcast Androgyne. The latter drained a cup from a maidservant; he looked like he had had a few already, his handsome face flushed. "Little brother, do you think there's anything wrong with enjoying the present while you can?"
Wenchang shook his head and smiled. "I won't comment on your view. However, I believe someone like you who has run amuck throughout the jianghu for over a decade and earned the title as one of the Thirteen Greats ought to be careful and cherish it. One such as you should not speak about the brevity of life."
"Heehee. When you have won the position I am in today, little brother, you will feel the same way as me."
"Haha! When that day comes we'll see. I hope I can live to see that day. I need to ask King Yama to leave me alone for a while."1
LIttle brother, I hope you can reach an agreement with King Yama. Cheers."
"Haha! Pity I don't know if he will agree. Cheers!" Wenchang laughed and raised his cup and drained it.
Outcast Androgyne was about to drink when a thin, sharp cry came from outside the window.
He raised his eyebrows. He smiled to his maidservant. "Wait in the secret underground chamber. Go ahead and take Little Brother Wenchang there."
"What's going on?" Wenchang said.
"A formidable enemy has arrived," he said nonchalantly. "Might be that Black Flag Sovereign finally tracked me down. But, I will make him pay a hefty price."
"Black Flag Sovereign is here?" Wenchang was alarmed.
"He's already entered the garden. He will be here soon."
"Already entered the garden?"
"You can see their silhouettes outside the window. But there isn't much time. You need to hurry along."
"Hurry along? To where…?"
"To the secret chamber, for the time being. If the situation turns south you can retreat through a secret passage."
Wenchang laughed and stood. "If Black Flag Sovereign is here for me, how can I run off without seeing him first?"
Outcast Androgyne languidly stood and waved his hand for the maidservant not to put out the light. "Little brother, I can't let you risk seeing him. I'll go first…"
There was a wail from below.
Outcast Androgyne smiled faintly. "They really got here quick, really quick…"
With that, he disappeared from the room in a flash.
Another pitiful wail sounded, a terrifying sound.
The four maidservants were calm and collected as they gathered up the valuables in the room and filled them into their skirts. One of them turned to Wenchang. "Master Cai, please tidy up and come with this servant to the secret chamber for the time being."
Wenchang thought briefly. "Alright, please lead the way."
He was already dressed so he threw on an overcoat and followed the four maidservants out of the room and down the stairs.
It was dark downstairs, so dark he could not see his hand in front of him. But he was already familiar with the place and was not afraid of the dark, so as soon as he reached the bottom of the steps he darted to a dark corner to throw off the maidservants, stealing into a dilapidated room and jumping out the window. He entered the chaotic rear courtyard and crouched under an ancient plum tree.
His strength had increased a lot under Outcast Androgyne's guidance these past three days. He was told if he practiced for three to five years he would be much stronger than before.
A figure appeared not far from the left, dressed in black, a black turban around his head, a sword faintly visible behind his elbow. He was crouched like a heron under a broken window, craning his ear toward the windowsill to listen inside.
Then another black figure scurried over and said in a low voice, "Don't go in carelessly. Androgyne's traps are formidable. Just hold position."
Wenchang was about thirty feet away from them. Goddamn, looks like they brought a lot of people tonight, he thought.
Another scream sounded in the distance.
The previous voice said, "That despicable son of a bitch. We haven't even entered yet and his traps have already wounded several men. It must be even worse inside. Weird, there's still lamp light on the second floor."
"Androgyne might not even be here," the other said. "Might have missed him."
"It's really strange. How come we haven't seen anyone yet?"
"That's what's scary. Androgyne's poisons are terrifying. We have to be really careful not to get ambushed and touched by any hidden traps."
"Manager Wei has already gone up. We just need to keep careful watch for anyone who tries to escape from the windows."
Wenchang, crouched under the tree, was alarmed. He had made a mistake. He should not have recklessly ventured out on his own. Now he was all by himself, surrounded by Black Flag Sovereign's men. There was nowhere to run.
A figure flashed under the second-floor eaves, a person clad in black hanging upside down like a bead curtain appearing outside the window where Wenchang was hiding. Lamplight shone, silhouetting the person. The black figure beckoned and another black figure appeared, hanging down, then suddenly darting into the window.
The person had just disappeared through the window when a scream was heard and the window lattice broke apart as the person hurdled out the window. The person hanging from the eaves undercover also lost his foothold and fell. Their screams were ear-piercing as they plummeted forty feet to the ground.
"Light it up!" came a booming voice from the southwest corner.
A figure flashed by and flames shot up everywhere.
However, no Outcast Androgyne people came out.
The fire started in the northeast corner, flames raging. Countless men in black ran about, the entire Du Family residence besieged by fire.
Wenchang, lying low, cursed to himself. There was almost nowhere left to go. He was done for. All the men in black running around were big and strong and fast as anything, clearly all incredible masters. Trying to fight them would be like an egg smashing against a stone. He didn't want to think about it.
A wild cry erupted due east, and a dozen people, white clothes fluttering, suddenly broke out of the encirclement. They seemed to be enveloped in thin, grey haze, swords licking out from the grey fog, splitting open a path wherever a black-clad figure happened to be standing. The men in black dropped one by one as soon as they touched the grey fog, emitting heart-rending screams.
"Young Master Mei Lin broke out, but where are the others?" Wenchang said to himself as he watched the backs of the white-clothed figures in a daze.
The white-clothed figures were like a gale-force wind and were soon far away. Men streamed from the north and south, giving chase, but a step behind. They looked like they were seeing them off.
A violent shout erupted from the darkness, "Cursed androgyne, I will take out your hideouts one by one all throughout the jianghu. No matter where you run, there's no place within the jianghu for you to gain a foothold. After him!"
It was Black Flag Sovereign's voice, but Wenchang could not see his face. He could only tell he had a very imposing build. From behind he looked big and stalwart.
Lonestar Silver Sword led eight top men past where Wenchang was hiding, only twenty feet away. Luckily, they didn't spot him.
The black figures were no longer visible among the towering inferno.
The heat was pressing in on Wenchang. He could no longer stay under the tree. After seeing there was no one around amidst the flames, he stood up and came out. He knew every path out of the garden. As he strolled out, he turned his head and mumbled, "I was born a rambling man. Disaster follows me wherever I go. This desolate place has now been destroyed by fire. Ah! I need to get out of here as well. I have to meet Black Iron Pagoda tomorrow."
He exited the garden and suddenly stopped. Five black-clad men were coming out from the woods from the south, meeting him head-on. They had swords and sabres on their backs. He was familiar with their dress and cursed to himself.
"Ah!" the man in the middle said. "Halt!"
Wenchang was splendidly attired and unarmed. He was cool and collected, handsome and suave, looking nothing like a man of the martial fraternity. The five men didn't care at all.
Wenchang's heart jumped. He didn't want to attack right off, also afraid there might be a group of men waiting nearby. He forced himself to stay calm and tightened his overcoat and pretended to be surprised. "Who are you? You have a lot of nerve. Must be you all who set that fire. You'll definitely be hauled before the magistrate!"
The five men erupted into laughter. The one who spoke earlier said, "Buddy, who are you, preaching to us? Setting a fire is nothing. What's it to you?"
Wenchang made a decision and purposely raised his voice. "I am the young master of the Li Villa not far from here to the west. I was coming this way and saw this fire and was perplexed, so I came over to check it out…"
"Haha! So it's Young Master Li. Get lost and mind your own business. Remember when you go back to tell your guard, Master Lu to stay out of this, whatever he does. Otherwise, something might just happen. Beat it!"
Wenchang feigned a shiver and pulled on the tail of his coat, staggering before taking off, pretending to be frightened. "You bunch of… bunch of lawless…"
The man pulled his sword and waved it and assumed a stance. He laughed boisterously. "You're trying to scare us by talking of the law? Haha! Want to try again?"
Wenchang cried out and covered his head with his coat and ran off like a fish slipping through a net, stumbling as he went, making a big show of being disoriented and flustered.
The five men roared with laughter and shot toward the scene of the fire.
King Yama is the king of the netherworld. ↩