Black Iron Pagoda stood at the bottom of the steps blocking Traceless Snowwalker's path. He wasn't planning on moving.
"Brother Fan, Brother Cai and I are only casual acquaintances. I have nothing to do with his whereabouts. Even though you've so rudely come looking for me, I don't have any news of Brother Cai, so there's nothing I can tell you."
Black Iron Pagoda took a deep breath and calmed himself down. "Old Rong, you three guys are the tyrants of Chang'an. There's nothing you're not aware of. Plus, before Brother Cai disappeared, someone personally saw him enter your liaison station outside the east gates. I'm asking you in earnest to tell me where Brother Cai is. I want to apologize to your brothers, but I still must ask you to tell me."
"Brother Fan, I really don't know. There's nothing I can say…"
"Fella, say you don't know one more time," Black Iron Pagoda roared.
Black Iron Pagoda was stirring up trouble. Traceless Snowwalker had no choice, plus the last time they had met, Black Iron Pagoda had told Wenchang that he and his buddies were no good. He got angry as he thought of this. "You're forcing my hand, are you trying to pick a fight? Who the hell is Cai what's his name anyway? We Three Heroes of Chang'an are just fellow men of the jianghu…"
Black Iron Pagoda flung off his coat. "Prick up your ears, jackass, Brother Cai just happens to be my only good sworn friend. I bet you sons of bitches plotted against him for money. He took you all as friends and you turned on him as easy as turning your hand over. Listen snotnose, if you don't tell me Brother Cai's…"
The tall guy didn't say a word, but silently drew his sabre, and drew closer to Black Iron Pagoda from behind, like a cat quietly stalking a mouse. Suddenly he swung his sabre at Black Iron Pagoda's legs.
"Ai… ya!" came a piercing cry.
Black Iron Pagoda sneakily reached back with his right hand and grabbed the back of the sabre blade between two fingers and jerked it forward, at the same time backhanding the tall guy in the shoulder with his left hand.
The tall guy grunted crumpled to the ground.
Black Iron Pagoda turned and stepped and took a couple steps back and put a foot on the tall guy's back. He threw down the pilfered sabre and went on talking to Traceless Snowwalker like nothing had happened. "Tell me where he is and I will go easy on you, acknowledge you as a true friend, and apologize. If not, don't blame my fists for pounding you, and don't be surprised when you taste the hard lash of my whip. I've never apologized to anyone in all my life, but for the sake of Brother Cai I will apologize a hundred times. Well?"
"You're just making trouble," Traceless Snowwalker bawled, fierce of face but faint of heart.
"Maybe I am, you can say what you want. In any case, he went missing at your hideout, so you're the right man to seek out. For Brother Cai I would go to any lengths, over a mountain of swords or into the frying pan, no matter the cost."
Traceless Snowwalker saw the tall guy squirming on the floor like a worm, subdued with a single move, and he knew he was no match. If it came to blows he would get the worst of it. He grumbled to himself as sweat beaded on his forehead. He was forced to tell what happened that day. When he was finished he said, "Seven Spells and Outcast Androgyne were fighting in the main hall, and Little Brother Cai ran out. It's a big world, how am I to know where he ran off to?"
Black Iron Pagoda seemed not to believe him. "You're not lying?" he bellowed.
Traceless Snowwalker hmphed. "I may not be a master of the martial fraternity, but I'm still no pushover. I have no need to deceive you. Hmph! Don't think I'm just trying to talk my way out of it because I'm alone. Look behind you. If I really want to deal with you, it will not be difficult."
Black Iron Pagoda roared with laughter. "Papa Blackie knew this was a dangerous spot, yet I came here without fear. Yep. You three could all gang up on me, along with a pack of dogs, but I won't care. I'll believe you for now. Wait til Papa Blackie finds out the truth. I might be coming to see you again. See you later."
He turned to go. The tall guy struggled, but could not get out from under Black Iron Pagoda's foot.
Sure enough, there were a lot of people gathered. Winged Tiger and Nighthawk were already blocking the rear doors, and eighteen men wielding sabres and iron rulers had quietly surrounded him.
Black Iron Pagoda walked toward Winged Tiger and said, "Excuse me, Papa Blackie must be leaving."
"But I want to have a knock against this iron pagoda," Winged Tiger said coldly.
Black Iron Pagoda suddenly threw his head back and laughed, then bolted forward, his steel wire and flood dragon sinew whip lashing out like a dragon, whistling through the air, and before he had finished laughing he was already out of the main hall.
"Ah…" Winged Tiger's sword was knocked away by the whip with a ping, the jolt of it splitting open the crook of his thumb. Frightened, he darted to the side to make way.
Black Iron Pagoda was like a cyclone spinning through the crack between the doors out of the main hall, then disappeared through the courtyard gates quick as lightning. He was too fast, no one had a chance to stop him. Winged Tiger had been unarmed as soon as the two met. He just wasn't near skilled enough. If Black Iron Pagoda had wanted to hurt him, Winged Tiger would have been done for.
Sterling came out of the shadows once Black Iron Pagoda stepped outside. He whispered, "Big Blackie, hold up."
"It's you. Something wrong?" Black Iron Pagoda halted.
"When you mentioned a Brother Cai, were you talking about The Fugitive, Cai Wenchang?"
"Huh? How did you know, little fella?"
"Hurry! Come with me, big guy."
"Go with you? You've lost your fuckin' mind."
"Your Brother Cai is in grave danger. If we're late he'll be finished. Hurry, you should be able to get around anywhere. Get me out of the city and I'll lead the way."
Black Iron Pagoda grabbed him and said in a low voice, "Are you serious? How can I trust you?"
Sterling groaned and grimaced. "Ease up your fucking grip a bit. We'll talk on the way and I'll tell you what's up."
"Alright! I trust you this once. Let's go! If you're lying I'll wring your scrawny neck."
They turned down a small alley and before long, Black Iron Pagoda picked up Sterling and leapt over the southern city wall and they ran like mad toward Wen Estate.
The main hall of Wen Estate was ablaze with lights. Sentries were posted all around outside and the gates were unlatched. Outside the gates on either side two dead servants leaned to the side, propped up by the wooden pillars, making them look like they were standing guard. Two purple lanterns hung in the covered walkway, casting a dim light. It was impossible to tell that the two servants were dead.
In two large round-backed chairs two men sat in the middle of the main hall. On the left was a ferocious-looking middle-aged man. It was the guy who had appeared at Mysterious Altar Temple, Lonestar Silver Sword Sun Changhe , the manager of Nine Palace Fortress on Heartbreak Cliff.
On the right sat a man dressed all in black. Even his thin, pointy face was awash with a purplish-black shine. A meteor hammer hung from his belt and he had an armband for it on his left arm. He was short and around forty. He was a big shot alright, the second-in-command at Nine Palace Fortress, a headache for men of the jianghu, Black Fox Linghu Chao, a murderous, merciless evil bandit.
Twelve men stood on either side of the hall. Their leader was Life-Snatching Divine Sabre Peng Fang. They all had serious looks on their faces as they stood waiting for instructions.
Lonestar Silver Sword, on the other hand, looked quite relaxed. He said to Divine Sabre, "I was ordered to hurry here with Brother Linghu to apprehend Wenchang. Whether that guy comes here tonight or not, we don't rest until we capture him. Even if we have to scour the ends of the earth. As for that guy's backer, Outcast Androgyne, and that audacious busybody Seven Spells, you all needn't worry. You have Brother Linghu and I's support. You have a free hand, pay no attention to their threats."
"Your subordinate understands," Divine Sabre replied deferentially.
"It's getting late, do you intend to disperse your men?" Black Fox Linghu Chao said in his sinister voice.
"Let's just wait for the alarm to sound before dispersing," Silver Sword said. "However, I'd like to receive him here. If Black Succubus and Seven Spells arrive at the same time, they will barge in here for sure. They won't expect us to have come from Camel Valley."
Black Fox laughed. "It's a good idea you have to wait in the main hall. If they happen to see something is amiss and leave, we'll still be able to give chase."
Silver Sword nodded. "That's just what I was thinking. Wouldn't it be unseemly for us to receive him outside?" He turned to Divine Sabre. "Banner Captain Peng, you can go. Remember, whatever you do, you mustn't stop him on the way. Tell your brothers lying in wait not to act rash and reveal themselves."
"Your servant will do as instructed." Divine Sabre saluted and withdrew.
A low voice suddenly sounded from the left-side latticed window, "That's the signal, the target has appeared."
Silver Sword smiled faintly and asked out the window, "What did he say?"
"He went on and on, said the target is coming from the south, alone on horseback."
Silver Sword guffawed and said to one of the men in black, "Bring the girl out so the guy will know he was forfeited at the hands of a girl."
Black Fox Linghu Chao suddenly brought up what they didn't want to bring up. "If that master who was hiding out at the Great Wild Goose Pagoda waits til we're dealing with Cai Wenchang and barges in, won't that mess everything up?"
"Cai Wenchang is an unknown junior, there's no way he has a powerful backer…"
"Actually, the one hiding out at Great Wild Goose Pagoda not only scared off Seven Spells and Black Succubus, he even killed several of Iron Arm Ape's men," Black Fox interjected.
"Too bad! We didn't have time learn from them who that person was."
"We have to prepare for every contingency. We must send some men to set up a blockade immediately, to prevent anyone from barging in later."
A worried look flit across Silver Sword's face. He shook his head. "If the person who scared off Seven Spells and Black Succubus shows up, who could stop him? The sovereign is held up with matters in Hanzhong. He can't make it here yet…"
"Manager, if you'll let me go work my magic, I can go outside and lend support to the blockade and intercept anyone who comes," Black Fox cut in reasonably.
Silver Sword thought for a moment, then nodded. "Alright. Anyway, there's no reason to make a mountain out of a molehill and leave so many people behind here. Banner Captain Peng alone is enough to handle one Cai Wenchang. Brother Linghu, take ten capable men and provide support outside. Act as you see fit, but remember to make sure you find out who it is, so as to avoid trouble later."
Black Fox agreed and went to select ten men.
The man outside the window reported, "Manager, the target has entered the second ambush point."
"Any other news?" Silver Sword asked.
"There were lantern signals saying in code that the target is alone on horseback. No other news."
"Send out orders that the target must be allowed in but must not be allowed out. Seal up his escape route immediately."
"Yes, sir." The man called out loudly, "The target may enter but not leave. Seal up his escape route immediately."
Black Fox left with his men. Silver Sword asked Divine Sabre, "Where is Brother Chai at now?"
"Still in the city, waiting for an opportunity," Divine Sabre said.
Silver Sword nodded. "If that person from Wild Goose Pagoda shows up tonight," he said meaningfully, "then our success is unsure. We might still need to trouble Brother Chai. Bring the out the girl."
Two men in black came through the rear doors, dragging along a bedraggled Second Miss Tian. They brought her forward and released her, where she collapsed wearily to the floor.
Silver Sword waved a hand and said in a cold, low voice, "Put out the lights and take your positions."
All the lanterns and lamps were extinguished and everyone was still. The hall became deathly quiet.
Outside the window, the messenger carried clearly, "The target has passed through the third ambush point. He's almost here."
"Is there anyone coming behind him?" came Silver Sword's voice in the darkness.
"Watch for the signal and report it as soon as you see it."
Not long after, the faint sound of hoofbeats was heard. The master was returning to his home.
Wenchang whipped his horse on, unaware that danger was imminent. Numerous sinister eyes watched his every move from the woods on one side, and from the field on the other. Once he was past an ambush point, someone used a secret red lantern to send a signal back to Wen Estate. There was no way for him to notice these mysterious flashing signals.
Soon, Wen Estate came faintly into view. He had passed through the fourth ambush point, still unaware. He passed by a willow grove and then in the distance he saw the entrance lanterns.
His heart trembled and he was filled with turmoil. He reined in suddenly and sat his horse, looking at the distant lanternlight at the main gates. For some reason he felt a shiver in his heart that spread throughout his body. He mumbled, "Something's not right. Why are both lanterns up? There's only supposed to be the one on the left hanging up tonight."
The two lanterns swayed back and forth in the frigid wind, making him shake with fear. But he had to keep going. Even though he already expected that something had happened at home, he couldn't just linger at the entrance. He had to go on.
He got his concealed weapons ready and took off his fox-fur robe and laid it by the saddle, all the while keeping an eye on his surroundings while he said to himself, "I need to find a sword if I can, or a knife. Seems something has definitely gone awry here. Unless they got the date wrong, but hanging both lanterns is not something they could just do by accident. Damn! Maybe Goldie and Sterling were assailed, but why weren't warning lanterns put up? This is not good!"