Chapter 66: Night Ambush
Northwest Escort Agency was extensive; there were over twenty buildings erected within. The carriage room and stables were in the second wing, a storehouse in back, the armed escorts' lodgings in the back. Out front and out back were storefronts. The front mansion was the chief's house, a lookout on the second floor with two men standing guard, keeping an eye on all the buildings. It would be difficult for anyone to get on the roof without the guard's seeing or hearing them.
Wenchang had not come at a good time. During the day the Northwest Escort Agency had been in turmoil, and it just so happened that the chief, Yang Hu, had returned to the office from Luoyang at dusk. He flew into a rage when Iron Claw told him what had happened. It wasn't that he didn't fear Misery Valley's Fang Xiaojuan's warning, it was just difficult to abate his anger, and with strong backing behind him he decided to surreptitiously test Misery Valley. He brought word with him that Blue-eyed Snow Lion would arrive at midnight and would stay at the agency for a short time. He wasn't putting up at Prevailing Charity Temple.
The atmosphere at Northwest Escort Agency became tense as they set up reinforcements to guard against someone coming to cause trouble in the night. Chief Yang felt Xi'an had already become a trouble spot. A lot of people of unknown background were congregating here so right now was not a good time to go looking for a Misery Valley person to settle the score with. And if they came to him he would be perfectly justified in killing them. He told his men within the agency that if anyone broke in, kill them first and ask questions later in order to avoid trouble later on; even if they learned who it was they wouldn't be able to go all out right now in retaliation. At least for right now, open conflict with Misery Valley was the most foolish course of action. If they didn't ask any questions then they could act freely, and if Misery Valley came to them later to call them to account, they could just make up an excuse and shift the responsibility elsewhere.
Soon after the third watch, a big, tall lama arrived quietly. It was that fiendish monk, Blue-eyed Snow Lion, the Living Buddha Ba Long, one of the most skilled and renowned fiendish monks in the world.
Among the Thirteen Greats, any mention of Living Buddha Ba Long, one of the Three Monks, was enough to make everyone clear out at once. He lived on Wutai Mountain, but loved to roam around, not only craving wine, women, wealth, and power, but he also loved killing. If anyone crossed him, he would go after and slaughter that person's whole family until there was no one left.
He had Mongolian blood, a descendent of the ancient Western Xia people. In other words, he was of extremely mixed heritage. Mongolians all had mixed blood. The ancient Western Xia people at one time rampaged along the western border and made it to the wilderness of the western fringe and lived among the Yi and Di people; their bloodlines gradually changed as a result. The ancient Western Xia people were gone and most of their descendents had merged with the Han Chinese people, yet some still wandered around wilderness as nomads, once again living the lives of shepherds, wandering from place to place. They were the bravest, most warlike people o the vast desert in the northwest.
Blue-eyed Snow Lion's background was something. He was the third favored disciple of for Imperial Preceptor Batu Mengke. After Batu Mengke lost power at court and was assassinated, the three favored disciples left the capital and each went his own way. Blue-eyed Snow Lion was the freest of the three, not only possessing his own large temple, he also had many lay disciples. His temple was filled with treasure and he was notorious throughout the jianghu.
This guy had not only developed an ability that made him impervious to sharp weapons, no one could withstand his 120-catty purple gold Dragon-taming Staff, and he had perfected his Esoteric Seal Palm, which could obliterate a stone from three feet away. Anyone touched by his palm would burn all over, and would die from the poison within twenty-four hours. And if you suffered a direct hit, then no need to ask: you'd die on the spot for sure, your internal organs destroyed.
This guy feared nothing, considering himself the number one master in the world. Thirty years ago, before Hundred Tribulations Crippled Monk Du Ji went into seclusion, the two of them happened to meet and come to blows at Blackwater Fortress near Wuding River in Yulin. They went three rounds, the first time the Great Seal Palm met the Bodhi Palm, and the Dragon-taming Staff exchanged eighty moves with the Zen Staff.
There were three other men of the jianghu present there, so the two of them parted once they saw the three men and never set a rematch date. Blue-eyed Snow Lion recuperated at Wutai for half a year, and never after did he provoke the Shaolin monks. The three men present at the fight couldn't be certain who had one the battle.
Crippled Monk Du Ji was the martial uncle of the head of Shaolin, a monk famed for his virtue and learning, and his martial arts ability and moral conduct were revered among the heroes of the jianghu. He had reached an unfathomable level and was generally acknowledged as the number one extraordinary of the martial fraternity. Blue-eyed Snow Lion was certainly no trifle himself, to dare challenge such a person openly. No wonder he had the guts to rampage through the jianghu.
This guy was built like a giant bear, standing eight and half spans tall. Head like a panther, big round eyes, high cheekbones, blue eyes, an aquiline nose and a big mouth like a lion. The fine hair on the nape of his neck was black and coarse and long, like a mane, and he often went with his shirt open, revealing a strong chestful of hair. He had a heavy build, straining even an oversized ebony armchair.
Northwest Escort Agency chief, Divine Spear Yang Hu had been taken under Blue-eyed Snow Lion's wing and become a great man, but it was not clear if he was a formal disciple or not. Yang Hu wasn't colluding with Black Flag Sovereign out of fear of Nine Palace Fortress, but for business relations. If Sovereign's underlings went looking for trouble, how could he have clients? He would be losing money just to forestall calamity, But profits would pour in from all sides once he began colluding with Black Flag Sovereign, so why not?
These armed escorts made their living at the edge of a blade, but they didn't want to take on any more danger than necessary. They cherished their lives like anyone else, so they were more than happy to live in peace with each other and get rich. So just like the government officials, the armed escorts were magnanimous and befriended the major bandits and didn't give them any trouble. Minor bandits would be coerced until they submitted; only then would the authorities and escorts look the other way, for a price. What would the constables do during times of peace if there were no bandits and scoundrels around? So they supported them so as not to squander the wealth. Armed escorts were pretty much the same way; if the roads were peaceful then who would be crazy enough to hire them? They would have to shut down for good.
And so Divine Spear Yang Hu, with Blue-eyed Snow Lion's backing, colluded with Black Flag Sovereign for the sake of peaceful, stable business. He deserves pardoning as it wasn't his fault.
As Wenchang was waiting for the little beggar and Black Iron Pagoda on the street, Divine Spear Yang Hu and some armed escorts wearing head coverings, including three bodyguards from Bloodsucker Feng's estate, were in a secret meeting room holding a banquet for Blue-eyed Snow Lion. The matter with Iron Claw and the escort agency was explained in detail, as well as the warning given at Woodbend Refreshments.
Blue-eyed Snow Lion was familiar with Misery Valley, but he had never been there, so of course he'd never seen anyone from there, so he didn't know which was Fang Xiaojuan. He did all manner of evil among the jianghu, killed people like flies, so he couldn't tell if he might have incurred Misery Valley's wrath or not, but he was friendly with the Yang's of Northwest Escort Agency, so causing trouble with them was the same as causing trouble with him. He was a guy who would seek revenge for the smallest grievance, so how could he just sit by and watch?
Blue-eyed Snow Lion was furious, impatient to vent his anger on Misery Valley. But it was the dead of night and they didn't know where the girls were lodging for the night, so they were finally able to calm him down. But he was a lecher, so he was itching to grab her and satisfy his cravings once he heard she was an ethereal beauty. He wanted to look for them that very night, but the Yangs didn't know where they were. Was Blue-eyed Snow Lion going to prowl the streets calling for them? So he had to give it up.
At the end of the fourth watch the banquet ended. Security within the escort agency compound was strict, but the guards were tired. At the same time, no one would be out on the streets after the fourth watch, and it would not be easy to get away at daybreak. So the patrols slackened somewhat.
The Misery Valley masters were lying in ambush for Blue-eyed Snow Lion along the public road east of the city. The violent monk had distinctive features and didn't like to travel on the road during the day, so they would surely meet him out here. Little did they know that he had stayed in the city to meet with a friend, and so didn't travel along the main avenues of Chang'an, and so they missed him.
Wenchang's first time as a thief was vexing him and he didn't want to drag it out. The sooner he finished, the better. So he ignored the night curfew and headed over to Northwest Escort Agency to find Bloodsucker Feng.
The night was black as ink, a cold wind blew. It was the perfect opportunity for someone to move about. He walked along the rooftops, but it was too risky, so he pressed to the wall and dropped down, entering the rear courtyard in the greatest secrecy along the left side courtyard, crossing through the shadows.
He didn't know where Bloodsucker Feng's room was so he needed to find someone to ask. He went further in, pressed along the wall. He turned a corner and suddenly caught the sound of snapping fingers coming from a window not far off.
The sound was so sudden his heart froze and he ducked to the side and crawled like a snake to a nearby veranda.
He didn't know he had already fallen into a trap, being watched by lookouts on the rooftops as well as by several guards watching from secluded windows. The finger snap was a signal. It was faint, but he had excellent hearing, and so he gave up his original idea to sneak in through a window.
Soon came three clear tolls of a small bell and all those in hiding went into motion.
Wenchang darted to a corner under the eaves, unaware of the danger looming.
Three faint thunks of leather boots and a black figure followed slowly.
"Great, I found someone," he said to himself, delighted.
As the figure approached he saw it was a man in plain clothes with a long sword on his back.
Wenchang held his breath and waited, but the man stopped ten feet away at a support column at another veranda, leaning against the pillar as if nothing were amiss. He looked quite at ease and even took out a small wine gourd and took a few drinks and smacked his lips. "Goddamn! It's f*ckin' cold tonight."
The tip of a willow-leaf throwing knife poked out from the sleeve of the hand of the man holding the gourd. He took two more drinks and sidled back against the pillar, his back to Wenchang, who was hidden in the corner.
A window thirty feet opposite Wenchang opened silently and an arrow-firing tube poked out slowly.
Wenchang was getting anxious as he waited. The man wasn't getting closer. He would make some faint sounds as he closed in to attack, sounds which would not escape a master's ears. If the man made a noise then all was lost tonight, and wouldn't that be a pity?
He clenched his teeth, took a breath, and circulated his qi to protect himself, then launched himself in that open space, not needed to touch ground.
He had just left his corner hiding place when three swift arrows thunked off the brick wall where he had just been crouching, sending sparks flying.
Those three arrows saved his life, how fortuitous. He was halfway there when he heard the springs and then the arrows hit the wall. He knew he'd been had. He waved his arms and flipped backward in midair and slammed to the ground facing the side and swayed, unable to dissipate the momentum right away.
"Hahahaha!" The black figure laughed and threw the wine gourd behind him, the willow-leaf blade up his sleeve following close behind. If Wenchang carelessly smacked the gourd away then he would be hit by the knife.
The wine gourd and willow-leaf knife skimmed over Wenchang's right shoulder. He would have been done for if he hadn't turned and dropped to the ground.
Wenchang pounced again as the man laughed. Fast! Fast as lightning.
A whistle cracked through the air and people appeared one after another. No one shouted, but they saw the black figure dodge and they closed in from all sides.
The man's laughter had not died when he turned the corner of the pillar and Wenchang was there, surprising the man into quickly drawing his sword. He might have been fine if he had attacked with his hands instead of going for his sword, which was slower. One who is too reliant on his weapon is doomed.
Powerful fists slammed into the man's belly, then a knee to the groin and the man doubled over and his sword slid from the scabbard.
"Ah…" the man screamed, but his throat was caught by Wenchang.
Wenchang grabbed the sword quickly and drew it.
Another man cut in, sabre slashing with "Splitting Mt. Hua" in a flash of blade light.
Wenchang knew he was surrounded and would not be able to get out of it. He remembered speed, ruthlessness, and accuracy, and he ducked and stepped back. He half-spun and darted in and in one breath slid past the sabre and raised his sword and thrust.
"Agh…" The man with the sabre screamed as the point of the sword slashed across his ribs cutting a long deep fissure down to the viscera. The man straightened his sword and pitched forward eight feet before dropped the sabre.
There were too many buildings here, people streaming out and surrounding him. He couldn't escape. His only way out was the second floor. Wenchang didn't stop to think but jumped up to the tiling thirty feet up like a raging eagle.
He had just landed on the roof tiles when a sword came at him, aimed at his lower body, and he heard someone shout, "Gimme that dog leg!"
With death staring him in the face he couldn't get sloppy. Some people lost their heads when the fighting started, and not only became flustered but forgot all their training, not even able to chop properly like they were cutting firewood. They definitely couldn't use their wits. Not Wenchang. He'd been here many times before.
The sword arrived and he didn't pull his leg back. If he did he wouldn't be able to control his balance and for sure wouldn't be able to counter. He lowered his own sword and leaned his upper body forward and let inertia carry him.
The swords clashed next to his leg, so dangerous, then they smacked into each other, cracking the tiles underfoot.
The man couldn't use his sword. They were too close to each other for their swords to be any use, so the man launched a palm at the crown of Wenchang's head.
Wenchang was ready. He aimed for the face, his fore and middle fingers popping the man's eyes out easily.
The man screamed and his hand landed on Wenchang's shoulder, but there was no power in it.
Wenchang spun and rolled and seized the moment to throw the man to block the next oncoming attacker, then he leapt over the roof and took flight.