Chapter 61: The Exchange
He gasped as the image flitted by; the person moved to fast for him to see anything else but a long robe flapping.
The left-most man of the three moved off to the side of the road. "Wait up, I need to take a leak."
The other two stopped and waited by the side of the road. Wenchang continued walking ahead. Strange, he thought. The pursuer even calculated when they would stop to take a leak? But he still couldn't escape my eyes.
He kept on, minding his own business as the three men behind him stood side by side and undid their pants to urinate.
He walked a dozen or more steps and then looked back and was shocked.
The three men talked in soft voiced, their bags slung behind them. Just as the turned to look back, a black image swept by strangely, silently, like an incorporeal spirit, and in the blink of an eye was close behind the three men and whipped past them and disappeared once again from the place it had emerged.
Wenchang had excellent eyesight; he could tell the black image was not the same person as the one in the long robe he had seen before. A lot of activity out on the road tonight, he thought.
Suddenly, the bag in on the man in the middle ripped open and clothes and other odds and ends spilled out. It had been cut open. The man on the left said, "Big brother… Your… Shit! Third brother… We…"
The man on the right yelled and ran into the forest after the black figure. The man on the left held the man in the middle up. "Son of a bitch blocked his Spirit Tower acupoint and killed him…" He let go of the man and followed Third Brother into the forest in pursuit. The man in the middle crashed to the ground.
Third Brother had a keen eye. He chased after the black figure and threw three concealed weapons at him. "Hold up there, friend! You got a lot of nerve! Take these!"
The black figure stuffed a small, pilfered cloth into his robe and darted behind a huge tree as the three concealed weapons sailed past. "Take mine as well," he said.
Wenchang was surprised to find the voice a bit familiar. He snapped out of his reverie and a distant memory of Black Dragon Pond flashed through his mind. He flashed to the side of the road and vanished like a ghost.
Third Brother followed the sound of the black figure's voice and called four men half a mile behind him to come with him and they sped over to reinforce.
The black figure dodged the three concealed weapons and threw two throwing knives of his own back. Third Brother was skilled and ducked behind a tree just in the nick of time to avoid the throwing knives and drew his sword and came out from the other side. "State your name. Why did you ambush us?"
The black figure's throwing knives missed, but the man had already hidden behind another tree. The woods were not densely packed so it was not easy to conceal oneself, and once spotted it would be difficult to lose one's pursuers. He could only fight it out. He howled and shot out from the side, a dragon-headed cudgel in hand, which he swung three times in a row in a booming rush of wind.
Third Brother swung his sword to intercept with three clangs as sparks flew.
Another man arrived and pointed his sword. "Get that piece of shit bastard."
"How is Big Brother?" Third Brother asked as he attacked.
"Finished, I'm afraid. Treasure's gone." He stepped in to attack from the side.
The three of them battled ruthlessly with no regard for their lives, gradually moving farther into the woods. The other four men arrived on the public road and heard the shouts and ran into the forest. The first one there said, "What about the jewels?"
"Stolen by this Son of a bitch, Wu," Third Brother said. "Hurry and help!"
That son of a bitch, Wu, waited until the four had almost reached him and roared with laughter. "Thank you, gentlemen, for seeing me off! Haha! We'll meet again some day."
Then he withdrew like a bolt of lightning vanished to the north.
Wenchang was hiding in wait nearby and ran out after him. He distinctly saw the black figure in the long robe ahead on the right, the one he had seen before. It was also chasing Wu, his movements quick and silent. Wenchang thought, This could be one of Wu's henchmen. I need to be careful.
Behind him, the six men gave chase for a mile or so, but their lightness skill was sorely lacking. They cursed nonstop, but their voices faded away. It wasn't clear which direction they were headed.
Wu shook off the six pursuers and broke to the west and continued over open country. He soon a light up ahead and he went toward it. He didn't know there was someone behind him, chasing him.
Wenchang was much more skilled now than he had been in the past, and he had exceptional eyesight, but he couldn't keep his eyes on the black figure in the long robe, who was a hundred feet behind Wu. Wenchang was a hundred feet behind the long-robed figure, who would appear and disappear in turns, winking in and out, unable to pin down. his lightness skill was on another level, shocking Wenchang the longer he chased him.
The city was to the west. Wenchang had already committed to boldly give chase.
A hill soon came into view, and a dense fruit tree grove. There was a walled compound on the south end of the hill. It wasn't large, no more than two hundred feet wide. A red lantern hung from the gate tower over the twenty-foot walls, swaying in the wind. It was obviously the estate of a wealthy, influential person. It was a private walled estate with three to five large residences, not a village.
Wu ran to the entrance and whistled. The red lantern on the gate tower was suddenly extinguished and a soft voice sounded from the shadows. "Did you get it?"
Wu flitted through the busted up gates and whispered, "Got it. But did you bring the treasure?"
It was a spacious, ancient compound, the gates busted by someone some time ago. Inside the pavilion and terrace and rock garden were immaculately maintained. Three tall buildings stood in the center, the carved and painted roof beams magnificent. But there were no lights lit and it was all empty.
A small, thin black shadow floated down from the gate tower, carrying a rattan walking stick as he lead the way up the steps. Wu walked behind him off to the side, taking big strides. "You killed everyone in Feng Villa?"
The thin black figure said "ah" in response and then said, "That Feng bastard won't be spending the winter here. I left a dozen servants in the city; no need to kill them, right? Do you take me, Spectre Sun Ming, for a ruthless killer?"
"Haha! Turns out Spectre is merciful, fantastic… Eh? You mean, that bastard Feng isn't here?"
"No," Spectre said clearly.
Wu stopped. "You mean, you didn't get the four pearls?" he said coldly.
Spectre pushed open the heavy doors. It was pitch-black inside. He turned and said, "I had my own methods when I was in the city. I got 'em. After you! Let's talk inside."
Wu roared with laughter. "I, Curly Bearded Stranger, am no fresh-faced babe. You must be new to this. Sorry, show me the jewels."
"You first," Spectre said coldly.
Curly Beard reached into his robe, then suddenly stopped and smiled. "If you don't show yours there's no need for me to show mine."
Spectre thought for a moment, then took four white, bright pearls from his robe, sparkling in his hand. Then he put them back. "You're certainly an old hand of the jianghu. This is the first time I've met my match."
Curly Beard didn't have a chance to examine them closely, nor could he snatch them and scrutinize them. He chuckled and pulled out a small bundle and waved it, then stuck it back in his robe. "You don't dare offen Wudang people, but I've no such qualms. It wasn't easy waiting for them to be separated before I attacked, but I got them. Actually, they weren't that tough. And they weren't able to keep the Autumn Mountain Mist painting safe."
"After you, let's go inside and check them out in the open." Spectre stepped over the threshold.
"Oh! Is there anyone else in there?" Curly Beard suddenly looked around.
"Nonsense! I roam the jianghu alone. Everyone knows you're rather timid, brother."
Curly Beard stood still. "Once must be on his guard, brother. You go first, and let me trouble you to light a lamp. It's not that I'm timid, it's just I am very cunning and do not want to fall into a trap. After you."
As soon as he said that he darted to the side and jumped to the roof and jumped down into a side courtyard and was gone.
Soon, light filled the hall. It was furnished with heavy mahogany furniture, arranged in vulgar fashion. Spectre had lit two huge candles on the shrine and had pulled a table over and sat on one end. "Come on in, coward!"
Curly Beard came in from the rear left hall, pulling along a man who's acupoints had been blocked. He laughed and threw the person down. "You think you're pretty good, but here's someone you forgot to subdue. Brother, you're getting more and more foolish." He kicked the person on the ground.
Spectre chuckled coldly. "One or two don't matter. Who's really going to check the entire compound?"
A light sound came suddenly from the inner window on the left . Curly Beard pulled the dagger from his belt and took up his cudgel. "Don't tell me there's someone else here who has yet to be subdued?"
"Brother, the famous, cunning Curly Bearded Stranger Wu Xin, is in fact a chicken-hearted bum who's scared of his own shadow," Spectre said irritably. "Good lord. Are you finished yet?"
Curly Beard paid him no mind and shot to the window and inspected it for a time. Satisfied, he returned to the other end of the table and sized up Spectre with a strange look. "I should have picked the place to make the exchange…"
Spectre jumped down off the table and walked out, unhappy. "Fine, we won't make the trade tonight. You can pick the spot. See ya."
Curly Beard chuckled. "Come back here! There's no need to play your f*ckin' games. Even if I picked a different place, you could still go there ahead of time and hide your henchmen."
Spectre gave a black look and returned to the table. "You old scoundrel, I ought to kill you, you little paranoid coward."
"Why don't you do it, then? Haha!" Curly Beard put his bundle on the table. "We'll make the trade according to custom."
Spectre put the four pearls in a little box and set it at the other end of the table and circled around to the left. "We're both famed men of the jianghu. If we do this in this faithless, unscrupulous way, if word gets out everyone will laugh at us."
Curly Beard circled around from the other side with a wry look on his face. "If they laugh that's their business. There's lot of laughable things in this world. We're both a couple of crafty old foxes. If we do it like this then no one will lose out."
They circled around to the center, then they shouted and made a lunge and grabbed their prizes. Then they roared at the same time, "Son of a bitch, these are fake!"
Curly Beard slammed his palm on the long table and the four pearls shattered. "Fake! There's supposed to be a treasure map hidden in these. Son of a bitch, look and tell me if these are real or fake? Where's the map?" He sifted through the pieces of pearl, but there was nothing else.
Spectre threw his torn piece of the painting over. "Bastard, look what you thought you stole. Is that the Autumn Mountain Mist painting? It's the f*ckin' Book of the Immaculate Maiden. My whole life I've never cared about women. What the hell am I gonna do with this? Rotten bastard, you must have kept the real one for yourself and cheated me out of these pearls. If you don't hand it over…"
Curly Beard was shocked when he saw the torn picture. Damn it! What kind of Autumn Mountain Mist painting was that? It was a handwritten copy of the Yellow Emperor's Book of the Immaculate Maiden. It was said to be a picture book on the art of lovemaking. No one knew what wicked person wrote it, but it was attributed using the Yellow Emperor's holy name. It was said to be about the Yellow Emperor conquering scores of women to become enlightened, then wrote this text. Or some such nonsense. It was originally called The Secret Classic of the Immaculate Maiden, and another edition was titled Way of the Immaculate Maiden. It had probably been written by some Daoist alchemist and was considered one of the ancient classics. Heaven knew if it was actually useful. But every dynasty's imperial palace had to have these kinds of texts, so it wasn't that unusual.
He stood there in a daze while Spectre darted over and brought his rattan cane down in a mighty rush of wind.
Curly Beard had to defend himself. His adversary was too fast and too ferocious, and Curly Beard was not about to show weakness. He raged and swung his dragon-head cudgel with all his might and they were both knocked back eight feet. They roared at the same time and went at each other again.
The main hall was spacious, big enough for them to fight. They were evenly matched, going a couple dozen rounds with neither the victor, but the furniture took the brunt of it as pieces were smashed and broken and scattered all over the place.
The light flickered as they fought, and a long-robed black figure swooshed in suddenly like a ghost. Under the light it turned out not to be a black figure, but a strange figure somewhere between black and white.
Wenchang, hidden in a side wing, saw the figure clearly. He gasped and cursed to himself. His enemies always happened to show up. He didn't half believe what he saw, the dignified Seven Spells White Crane Hermit.