He whipped his horse again and his horse galloped like mad toward the entrance gates in the distance, toward the wide open gates of hell that awaited him.
After about thirty feet he heard an odd, abrupt sound from behind. He turned but he didn't hear it again. He ignored it and spurred his horse on.
He didn't know it was Goldie, hiding out in a hole in the ground not far from the path. He had heard hoofbeats and new his master was back. He threw caution to the wind and jumped out of the whole and ran after him. He was about to call out but he was too late. A throwing knife sailed out from a hidden location and sunk into his back and his warning call was caught in his throat and turned into a death cry instead. He lay dead in the grass, not able to warn Wenchang.
Wenchang dismounted when he was about fifty feet from the gates and ran straight for them, yelling, "Second Uncle Lu, Second Uncle Lu…" Second Uncle Lu was an old man who guarded the gates.
No response. No sound at all save the whistling wind. He hesitated, then went up the steps and pushed on the doors.
They weren't barred so they opened freely. He looked in the rooms on either side but saw no sign of Second Uncle Lu. None of the furniture or anything else inside was out of place, there was just no one there.
He felt a sense of foreboding and his heart began hammering. He knew something was wrong. Two purple lanterns were hung outside the doors to the main hall in the distance. That was wrong too. From the dim light they cast he could only make out two indistinct figures standing next to the support pillars. Innumerable ghosts seemed to be flitting through cold air around the ornamental rock hills and the pavilion in the garden. An invisible horror creeped through his every nerve, making his hair stand on end.
"Steward Xu, Steward Xu," he called toward the main hall.
Tree branches swayed in the cold breeze, but no one replied. Seemed there was not a soul in this entire large compound.
I'm too late, the enemy has beaten me here and wrecked my home. This was his first thought.
He clenched his teeth and dashed to the side, cutting through a plum grove to a little pavilion in the east wing. He suddenly pressed himself against one of the pavilion support posts.
In the center of the pavilion a corpse was hanging, swaying in the wind, a sight to freeze one's heart.
He rushed into the pavilion, heedless of everything, and reached his hand out. It was the corpse of Second Uncle Lu, cold and stiff. He'd been dead a long time.
He understood fully now. If it wasn't Endless Valley henchmen, it was Black Flag Sovereign's gang of thugs who found laid murderous hands on his home. His first thought was to get out of there, but he was still worried about the other servants. In his heart he knew the other had come to some unspeakable, ruinous end, but he couldn't leave until he had confirmed it all, and he was loathe to abandon this home he had put so much blood, sweat, and tears into constructing.
He began searching the rooms. They were all pitch-black, so searching entailed a certain risk, so he only searched the important places. He found the corpses of his servants, but he could not find any enemies lurking in any nook or corner.
Finally, he returned to the main hall, his feet leading him to the courtyard around back. He stepped into the hallway and cautiously made his way to the rear doors.
He stopped at the doors when his foot stumbled on a corpse. He knelt and felt around. It was a servant, dead for some time. No wounds he could detect, but the body was ice cold. "Those vicious bastards," he cursed through clenched teeth. "They didn't even spare the old and weak."
The back doors were unbarred. He pushed them open gently. He suddenly had a bad feeling and snatched the corpse up and threw it inside, then circled around to the left-panel door and barged through.
The corpse landed in the hall with a thump.
Then he crashed through the door and was inside. He stuck like a ghost to the side of the spirit altar and listened carefully.
"Ah… Aiyo!" It was a weak moan suddenly from inside the hall, followed by two sharp cries.
Hmm, someone's still alive, but that voice is… unfamiliar, he thought. Doesn't sound like one of my servants. He cursed to himself, his suspicions rising.
There were altar lamps on either end of the spirit altar. He couldn't help it, he took out a fire stick and struck the flint on top, sending out sparks and flashing briefly before going out. He was afraid of an ambush so he only risked a single flash.
During that flash he saw that the hall looked unchanged, except for a woman in colorful clothes squirming on the brick floor by the steps.
There were no young women in his household, so he was taken aback. He asked in a low voice, "Who's there? Who is it?"
"Ah…" A pained moan was the only response.
He plucked up his courage and dumped out some kindling from the bottom end of the fire stick and struck the flint and it lit up, illuminating the room.
There was no one but the woman squirming on the floor by the steps. He recognized her dress and started. He quickly lit an altar lamp and put away his fire stick and sped over to the girl. He held her up and took a look at her in the lamplight. "Heavens! It's Miss Tian."
Second Miss Tian slowly came to in his embrace and croaked, "Are you… Are you Sir… Sir Wen? Heavens…"
"Miss Tian, what are you doing here…"
"Hurry… Get out of here, they… they've already… already…" She was wailing.
"Get out, quick! Hurry…"
A torch extended through the latticed window on the left and light filled the room. Another torch was placed inside from the latticed window on the right.
The side doors on the left opened quietly and two men in black holding torches entered and walked into the hall, stuck the torches in their holders on the wall, and stood like stone statues.
The hall was soon filled with a dozen men in black, the hall ablaze with light, the torches crackling softly. Shit! Wenchang had fallen into a trap.
He held up Second Miss Tian and locked his eyes on Divine Sabre who stood in the doorway. He gasped and clenched his teeth. "It's you sons of bitches! You all are really vicious."
Divine Sabre ignored that and just gave him a cold smile. His icy eyes every now and then glanced behind Wenchang.
Wenchang felt a chill in his heart and turned to look and felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He inwardly cursed. To the left of the altar table he suddenly noticed a man sitting in a big round-backed chair with a silver sword hanging from his belt. The man's eyes were half open, the corner of his mouth curled up in a frosty, sinister smile. His calm eyes gleamed menacingly.
Wenchang cursed inwardly. It's Lonestar Silver Sword. Tonight I'm finished.
Behind Silver Sword on either side stood two middle-aged men with swords strapped to their back, their arms akimbo, faces expressionless, yet their eagle eyes gleamed ruthless lightning to make one's blood run cold. Their gazes were like knives piercing one's heart. One trembled in fear at the sight.
Nine Palace Fortress men had been lying in wait for him. He knew something really bad was going to happen tonight. Getting out of their encirclement would be more difficult than ascending to the heavens, but he had no choice but to fight them head-on.
Faced with a critical moment of life or death, he gradually calmed himself. He was resigned to his fate, come what may. He had no misgivings. He said to the girl collapsed in his arms, "Miss Tian, are you hurt?"
Miss Tian smiled plaintively. She said in a voice a thousand times worse than a cry, "A pain ten thousand times worse than hurt has befallen me… My…" She was racked with sobs before she could finished. Finally she managed to say, "Run for your life. I don't want to live anymore. If you survive, please tell my father to avenge… avenge me…"
Wenchang gritted his teeth and suddenly launched three silver-plumed darts and a throwing knife in a backhand throw, faster than the naked eye could see, at Silver Sword, who was seated calmly in the big round-backed chair some thirty feet behind him. Then he picked up Miss Tian and fled with her toward the hall exit, his dagger out as he charged headlong at the men surrounding him.
He had thrown the darts with full force, and his skill and power were good enough that they shot like lightning; he was determined to hit his mark. Theoretically, it should have been impossible for Silver Sword, sitting down in a chair, to avoid the darts.
Unfortunately, thirty feet was enough for a master of even less than perfected cultivation, plus Silver Sword was an expert with concealed weapons. His Lonestar Spearknives were unmatched within the martial fraternity, and his martial fraternity nickname had been hard-won in the jianghu, so it was a mistake to thing one could surprise an old fox of the jianghu like him from thirty feet or more away.
The silver-plumed darts came at him in a scalene triangle formation, covering his chest and upper body. The chair Silver Sword was sitting in had armrests so he couldn't just dart to the side, and if he stood up he would be hit by the darts. He couldn't duck under it, and the back of the chair and the altar table were blocking him from behind. At the same time, the whirling shuttle-shaped throwing knife was whizzing at him on a hard-to-discern trajectory.
But sure enough, Silver Sword was amazing. He tipped over to the left, taking the chair with him.
The throwing knife was on point, aimed right at where he fell. Wenchang's power of prediction in the direction he would go was superb.
The two men behind Silver Sword were shocked. The man on the left grabbed the chair by the armrests and pulled it out of the way at the last moment, barely saving Silver Sword from the knife.
He saved Silver Sword, but couldn't save himself. The throwing knife flashed and sunk into his side, penetrating his internal organs.
"Ah…" he screamed. He dropped the chair and jumped up like a cat whose tail had been stepped on, then fell heavily to the floor.
In the same instant, Divine Sword, standing in the doorway, thundered, "Turn back, little whelp!"
He slashed three times with his sabre, forcing Wenchang back ten feet or so
"Halt!" Silver Sword boomed, and Divine Sabre withdrew. Wenchang had to deal with Miss Tian and himself at the same time, and his dagger was too short, so he couldn't fight back. He was forced back to the center of the hall, missing his chance to escape the encirclement.
Silver Sword suddenly turned and asked, "How is he?"
The other man clenched his teeth and stood. "The knife penetrated his internal organs. He doesn't have long."
Silver Sword took a deep breath. "I've killed him. Tell him I will personally dig out that whelp's heart to avenge him."
He strode toward Wenchang as he spoke.
Wenchang stood boldly and said in a stern voice, "I also told my dead servants I will avenge them and use their murderer's blood as a sacrificial offering to send them off to the netherworld."
Silver Sword calmed himself down and said icily, "A thousand men's lives are not enough to compensate for my devoted brother's precious life. Hello, this is our second meeting, yet you immediately set about killing. How would you like to die?"
"I'm pretty upset those three darts and the knife did not end your worthless life. My skill isn't quite there yet I guess. I've got no excuses. Hmph! Don't be so sure of yourself though, I still have a chance. It's too early to say who will live and who will die. My dozen servants were all orphaned, wretched, poor old men. You son of a bitch, using your ill-gotten, undeserved fame to supposedly rob the rich and give to the poor, yet you actually mercilessly sent them to their deaths. Heaven will not tolerate it. As long as I'm still breathing I will use your blood to cleanse your evil hands. Come on! What are you waiting for?"
Silver Sword touched the hilt of his sword and said sinisterly, "I will stab you a hundred times, then I will cut you open your stomach and pierce your heart. The sovereign wanted you alive and sent to the fortress, but you used concealed weapons to kill my good brother. I'm not forced to punish you at once."
"Hmph! You really think too much of yourself, as if I have no means to strike back…"
Silver Sword cut him off with a cold scream and advanced, his sword dazzling with silver flashes, moaning through the air, the force of air from his sword cold to one's skin. A whirl of silver flashed overwhelmingly attacking Wenchang, not too fast, not too slow, Silver Sword's movements natural and unhurried. His reputation was well-deserved, worthy of his place as one of the great sword masters.
At once Wenchang knew Silver Sword was a marvel, capably of penetrating walls and steel, the force of his sword able to penetrate to one's muscle and bones. His sword's dazzling silver light was menacing and blurred one's vision. Forget about his swordsmanship, just the silver sword itself was enough to make Lonestar Silver Sword a superior force. If Wenchang didn't put down Miss Tian he would probably not even be able to dodge out of the way.
But he didn't want to put Miss Tian down. He also didn't want to show weakness. He lashed out with his dagger and darted to the left. His dagger scraped against the tip end of the silver sword; this was the first time their blades touched.
Wenchang felt his wrist vibrate. The cold, marvelous force of their blades crossing over the back of his palm sen a frigid gust of air into his bones. If he had not had his Ultimate Breathing qigong to protect him, he not only would have been unable to keep hold of his dagger, his right hand might have been maimed. Even with the protection of his qigong, he still felt an unbearably painful force penetrate to the bone.
"Where are you going? Take this!" Silver Sword yelled and his "Flower Puts Forth Its Stamen" move suddenly changed to "Shooting Star Chases the Moon" and he pressed forward, sword strike after strike flying out, cutting close and relentlessly, changing marvelously every time in a silver arc, continuously.