12.12.2016

The Crane Startles Kunlun, Chapter 17

The Crane Startles Kunlun, Chapter 17.
from Wang Dulu's He Jing Kunlun.

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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Not yet settling his grudge,
          in desolate mountains he meets a strange valiant.
Again touched by the bud of hatred,
          his sword splashes against peach blossoms.


The Xia of Langzhong shouted, "All of you stand aside! Need we so many to kill this one elderly brigand?" At this time, Liu Jie and Black Tiger Zhang led thirty or forty of their own men out from the farmstead, each holding swords and cudgels. The old master Bao stamped his foot and hollered, "I want no one to come and help me!" Xu Yanyun listened to his father and pulled his wife back. Their horses stepped back some. None of Liu Jie or Black Tiger Zhang's men came forward either. A space of fifty feet by ten remaining in the center became the place of the Xia of Langzhong's showdown with the old fighting master Bao. The Xia of Langzhong jumped off of his horse and his sword quivered with an iridescent glimmer as he thrust it at Bao Zhenfei. His martial arts had improved greatly in the last decade. Bao Zhenfei's weapon too shuddered like lightning, the saberwork used this time twofold more fierce than in his first battle against the Xia of Langzhong.

All they saw was a sword go this way and a saber go that way, bodies and feet flying about, like ferocious tigers battling one another or a pair of hawks in combat! Neither yielded anything to the other, nor did they relax their movements, as the two fought for over twenty exchanges. Black Tiger Zhang pushed Liu Jie and said, "I'm afraid old master Bao might lose. If he's defeated, the Xia of Langzhong won't just pull his men away. He will surely rely on his boldness and engage with us!" Liu Jie then held up his spear and directed his men to enter the battle. Soon enough sabers and spears flew madly and men and horses surged across! The sound of furious shouts mixed together with the sounds of weapons clashing and the miserable cries of those injured. For these forty or fifty people, the more they fought, the more frenzied it became, truly like the decisive battle in a field of war.

Right then, several horses appeared in the distance, the men riding them all holding whips and shouting. By now, the Xia of Langzhong had pierced old master Bao once with his sword, and his own left shoulder had incurred a wound from his opponent's saber, though the two of them continued to spare no effort in their fight against each other. The people encircling them scattered and many of them shouted out, "The authorities are here! The authorities are here!" Thus many of those engaged in sorting the two sides into victors and the defeated lowered their blades. There were several men lying on the ground: two of whom belonged to the Xia of Langzhong, three to Liu Jie, and one Black Tiger Zhang. Black Tiger Zhang had suffered a sword to the head, lying face down, breathless in a puddle of blood. Xu Yanyun took a silk kerchief from his wife's hand and wiped the fresh blood off the point of his sword. His wife Qin Xiaoxian twisted her blade and wanted to take advantage of old master Bao catching his breath with saber still in hand to give him a malicious stab with her sword.

A few of the mounted officers arrived and rushed through the crowd. Formal official tones issued from their mouths as they shouted, "His honor the county magistrate approaches!" It wasn't until this that Qin Xiaoxian lowered her weapon. The people here all immediately turned toward the main road. From there came two carriages and two more mounted officers behind them. It took a while before the carriages closed in. The first to alight was Eighth Cheng, who was wearing his officials' boots and hat with civilian clothing. As soon as he came down from the carriage, he stamped his foot and said, "Why were you two fighting? You are making things very difficult for me!" The Xia of Langzhong smirked and said, "Old Eight, you needn't feel difficulty. Just have the county official take us to the courts!"

The county magistrate alighted now as well. He was wearing his official garb as he walked back and forth with his head down. He looked over the wounded men on the ground, as well as the already expired Black Tiger Zhang. He pointed with the hand on which thumb he was wearing a thick jade ring and said, "Who is responsible for killing this one?" Qin Xiaoxian said, "It was such a chaotic scene with the two sides fighting, their sabers and spears unrestrained. Perhaps he fell over by accident onto someone's blade and died!"

The county magistrate shot his gaze at Qin Xiaoxian through his spectacles, and then turned his head away. When he saw old master Bao, whose beard was blowing with each breath, he flexed his official power, saying with a glare, "You damned bastard! You are the one called Bao Kunlun, is that right? All of this started with you. Your disciple Jiang Xiaohe is the most wanted criminal across four counties. And then last night you murdered a child at the side of the road. You must be guilty of other serious crimes we don't even know about. Come! Lock this one up first!" The officers were about to shake out their chains when old master Bao flashed his Kunlun saber once more. The magistrate dodge to the side and rebuked him, "Throw down your saber! You have no regard for the law or the heavens! Dare you resist arrest? You criminal!"

Liu Jie and Eighth Cheng went over to the magistrate and said a few things to him in quiet tones. The magistrate nodded slightly, though his face remained very serious. He ordered the officers to first detain Bao Kunlun at the farmstead and then to transport him along with his disciple to the government office. The old master Bao heard this and became suspicious and refused to loosen the grip on his saber. Liu Jie and Jiang Cheng went over to him and persuaded him to go back to the farmstead.

Xu Lin the Xia of Langzhong had put his sword away and couldn't help but scoff at the current situation. The county magistrate peered over at the father and son for a moment, but didn't ask them any questions. Eighth Cheng walked over and said to the Xia of Langzhong, "This whole situation is very difficult for Sir Lu of our county here. You are a famous man of Langzhong, and Liu Jie is a great nobleman here. If the both of you were taken to the government office over an armed battle and loss of life, it would be quite the large trial. It likely wouldn't be all over even after eight or ten years. Not to mention that you, old brother, and the magnate Liu have been friends for such a long time, and the one who died was Black Tiger Zhang, our own comrade. To make a big deal of this will surely subject us to ridicule from those in Jianghu! Thus, my brother talked it over with the magistrate just now. It's best to handle this matter privately. Old brother, go into the city with the young sir and his wife and stay at the Gongsheng Inn. In three or four days at most, the Zhang family of Bazhong will have arrived whereupon I am willing to conciliate all parties involved. As for Bao Zhenfei, that's another matter altogether. He's the admitted murderer who killed the young sir Qin, and that disciple of his is the sham Jiang Xiaohe with a reward put on his arrest. In half a day, the witnesses will arrive and we will know for certain what is true and what is false. At any rate, we can consider them both detained at the Liu household. Neither of them are able to leave."

The Xia of Langzhong grinned bitterly, "Naturally, we will not run away either!" Eighth Cheng said, "Your issue is easy to resolve. Black Tiger Zhang died amid an armed skirmish, and we cannot pin his death on any one culprit. But if this case were to be taken to court, it would be quite troublesome. Why don't we do it this way? Everyone give me, the one named Cheng, some face. Why am I confronted with this matter when I have good relations with these households? If I stand by and watch as my friends take each other to court and as their households collapse and they lose all their property, I will be unable to face anyone again. It is settled! Old brother, why don't you go to the inn and rest a bit? I'll come see you once more in a bit." So saying, he patted the Xia of Langzhong's shoulder and laughed.

The Xia of Langzhong maintained his bitter sneer, saying, "I would never have thought that Liu Jie the Eighteen-foot Spear would have such influence in Yilong! It's a good thing he showed up today. If it had only been me facing off with Bao Zhenfei, we would probably have been arrested by the authorities whether anyone died or not. We will do it your way! Let us speak of Black Tiger Zhang's case another time. However, if you are to arrest Bao Kunlun, you must notify me. I cannot use my status as a gentleman of Langzhong to bully one elderly drifter away from home. All right! We will head to the Gongsheng Inn inside the city and keep an ear to the ground. If Bao Kunlun or Liu Jie find themselves unsatisfied, they are free to come find us and fight it out!" He cupped his fist toward Eighth Cheng, and then pulled himself onto his horse by the saddle. The husband and wife, Xu Yanyun and Qin Xiaoxian, both mounted their horses as well. The two injured were carried by others onto the backs of horses. The dozen or so horses departed by the way they had originally come deliberately.

Eighth Cheng invited the county magistrate into the farmstead. Inside, the magistrate further conversed with Liu Jie about several personal matters and then left. By now, all the wounded men outside had been carried inside and treated. Black Tiger Zhang's body was placed in the middle of a room, while the two concubines he'd brought with him surrounded him and wept. At the same time, one of the men who had come with him hopped onto a swift horse and rode to send word to his younger brother in Bazhong. In a room to the side, Liu Jie and Eighth Cheng advised the old master Bao not to leave, saying, "The court case will be easy to take care of. As long as magnate Liu and the Xia of Langzhong do not go to the courts, they will not force you to suffer in prison alone."

The old master Bao sighed a long sigh and returned to his room. He had originally desired to set off by himself, to leave this precarious place, and if he was not able to locate Jiang Xiaohe in Tongjiang, he would travel to Chang'an to see his granddaughter. But he could not, because Long Zhiqi was gravely injured, and because great legal accusations were also hanging upon Long Zhiqi now. Bao Kunlun refused to believe that Long Zhiqi would be capable of such things! He could not believe that a disciple of the Kunlun School could rob an official's family, could engage in banditry! So he thought, I couldn't care less if they drag me to court, but I cannot stand to have the reputation of the Kunlun School dragged through the mud. When the waters recede, the rocks will appear. The truth will come to light! I must wait for the witnesses at Riversnail Ridge to arrive and have them take a careful look at my disciple and see if he really is this bandit! The old master simmered as he sat down. He had a cut from a blade on the right side of his chest, and though fresh blood had soaked the entirety of his shirt, he felt no pain at all. He didn't bother to apply any medicine to it. He tossed his saber onto the bed sheathless. As the night wore on, he felt increasingly on guard, fearing that Qin Xiaoxian would come again to murder him.

On the second day the old master did not go outside at all. He remained in his room, puffing angrily. Long Zhiqi's wounds had also seemed to dull, as he no longer moaned constantly. He opened his eyes and was able to speak again. Bao Zhenfei interrogated him, "Were you responsible for what happened on Riversnail Ridge? Tell me the truth!" Long Zhiqi groaned, "It wasn't me! I didn't see an official's family when I traveled on Riversnail Ridge. I only saw Jiang Xiaohe occupying the mountain as its ruler. He cut me! He stole all my silvers! He cursed you, master!" The old master followed up closely, "So then you didn't harass the Xia of Langzhong's daughter-in-law either?" Long Zhiqi said through tears, "How could I dare? I have followed the master for more than twenty years. How could I dare violate our Kunlun School's rules? Not to mention that this time, I have been forced to come to Northern Sichuan by Jiang Xiaohe. How could I be in the state of mind to cause trouble?" The old master stamped his foot viciously resolutely and yelled, "Jiang Xiaohe! We cannot coexist in this world!" Nothing much else happened that day.

On the morning of the third day, Black Tiger Zhang's brother arrived from Bazhong. This brother of his was also a man who'd trained in the martial arts, and when he laid eyes on his brother's dead body, he stamped his foot and cried tears of pain, saying, "Brother, may you rest in peace! I have already sent men to find the Iron Staff Monk. I will ask your master to avenge you!" In regard to the court case, he was willing to settle it privately. He said, "For the people in Jianghu, death and injury are a part of life! The strong live and the weak die. There is no point in taking these matters to the damned court."

Liu Jie was relieved at this. He felt now that with Black Tiger Zhang's death, his power grew ever more solitary. He was also unwilling to seed any grudges with the Xia of Langzhong, so he asked Eighth Cheng to treat with the Xia of Langzhong. Eighth Cheng entered the city to meet with the Xia of Langzhong and talked things over with him for a while before returning in the afternoon. He said, "The Xia of Langzhong and his son are willing to reconcile. They also feel mercy for old master Bao and do not wish to send an old man to face a capital crime. But that daughter-in-law of his, Qin Xiaoxian, the woman has a one-track mind. She says she must take revenge for her brother!"

Bao Kunlun was present as well and he took a long sigh and said, "Killing Qin Xiaoxiong was indeed a fault of mine! I am willing to make redress with the daughter-in-law. If she still does not forgive me, I can stretch my neck out for her and ask her to kill me. In my advanced years, my granddaughter is about the same age as her. If I were to die at her hand, I would have no regrets!" Eighth Cheng hurriedly said, "No, that won't do! Qin Xiaoxiong is dead, and the old security escort injured him by accident. Not to mention that his sister has injured your own disciple. We cannot say who owes redress to whom. That woman, even if she refuses to accept this, there will be nowhere for her to take her complaints. Allow me to invite everyone for dinner to the restaurant by the eastern gate called the Forum House. It will give all your households an opportunity to make peace. Please consider my reputation!" The old master Bao sighed and consented. He returned downcast and dejected, back to his room.

When evening came, Eighth Cheng invited Liu Jie and Bao Zhenfei to the Forum House to drink the wine of conciliation. The old master had changed into a very tidy outfit, but in order to protect himself from the murderous intentions that Qin Xiaoxian had thrown at him on the road, he wore the Kunlun saber inside its scabbard hanging from his belt. A servant entered and said, "The horses are all ready for your departure." Together with Liu Jie, Eighth Cheng and Black Tiger Zhang's brother, old master Bao went outside and they mounted their horses. With several servants in tow, they headed to the Forum House by the eastern gate.

The Forum House was not very large, but it was the only restaurant here. Eighth Cheng had reserved a banquet to be served upstairs. The four of them ascended the stairs and observed that the Xia of Langzhong had not yet come, but only that Jiang Cheng the Motley Star God had arrived first. The old master Bao asked, "Sir Cheng, who else have you invited here this day?" Eighth Cheng said, "No outsiders, only the five of us and the Xia of Langzhong and his son. And a clerk from the government office by the surname of Niu as well. He's the one who'll be clearing the legal suit for you and he's also a cousin of the county magistrate. Those are the reason I've invited him."

Old master Bao followed the others in sitting down, though he himself felt unease and apprehension, his mind restless. Jiang Cheng took puffs out of a water pipe and said, "Just now when I arrived, I saw that fellow Wu Jinbiao the Black Panther out in front of the restaurant. He was smirking at me." Liu Jie interrupted, "Pay him no heed for the moment. After a few days, I'll teach him a lesson!"

Eighth Cheng said, "It's not worth getting angry over that sort. Let's wait until the current matter cools down a bit before we deal with that. Otherwise, if all of this blows into the ear of the Right Honorable Inspector-General in Chengdu and he sends men to investigate, it may turn from a trivial affair into an immense problem. A trifling man such as that Wu Jinbiao will surely be lacking in great skill and there's no certainty he even knows Jiang Xiaohe. He's merely blowing smoke! Before I leave here tonight, I'll give a mention to this county's Sir Lu. He'll think of a way to detain him. There's no need for any of us to provoke a situation!"

Old master Bao sighed and said, "It was my search for Jiang Xiaohe upon Jianghu that brought me here, that allowed me to meet you gentlemen. I am overwhelmed that you all do not think me too old and even offer me your assistance. This sort of great kindness will never be forgotten in a lifetime! It is unfortunate that though you have helped me thus, I cannot offer you gentlemen anything. Not only can't I offer anything, but because of me and because of my disciple, I have caused so much trouble for you and caused the tragic death of our brother Black Tiger Zhang!"

Liu Jie waved his hand and said, "Old brother, speak no further. If you continue on this way, you'll make yourself seem like a stranger. We have gotten ourselves involved a bit in your matters, but we have also become friends. In future, after you, old brother, return home, you may convey to your disciples that if they ever come into Northern Sichuan and run into any trouble, in Langzhong they have Eighth Cheng, and here they have me. We will spare no effort to aid them."

Bao Zhenfei sighed in gratitude, "Is that so! I still have a few years left in me! It will be difficult for my disciples, their disciples and my granddaughter Bao Aluan and her husband Ji Guangjie to avoid coming into Northern Sichuan. When they do, I naturally beg you gentlemen to look after them. If I am able to survive this and return home, I will definitely tell those disciples of mine, the magnate Liu of Yilong and Sir Cheng of Langzhong are both saviors to their master!" Liu Jie and Eighth Cheng spoke together, "Old bodyguard, you are too courteous!"

As they spoke, they caught a sound on the staircase. The first to come up was the clerk Niu from this county, next was Xu Lin the Xia of Langzhong, and the final one up the stairs was Xu Yanyun. The Xia of Langzhong was resplendent, his entire body covered in satins. He did not look at all as if he had a shoulder wound that had yet to heal. He did not have a weapon with him, though his son was carrying a sword.

Old master Bao stood up. He did not know what was best to say to the Xia of Langzhong. The Xia of Langzhong approached him and said, "Old master Bao, the conflict that occurred the day before last, many of our friends have already come out to mediate the situation, so there is no need to speak on it further. Qin Xiaoxiong is dead and it was a case of manslaughter on your part. My son and I do not wish to quarrel about it anymore. It's just that my daughter-in-law, she is very aggrieved at the awful death of her brother. Naturally, we have tried to console her, to prevent her from doing anything rash. However, she has skills of her own, and it is possible our efforts may be unsuccessful, so the old master should take extra care after this. But there is one more thing. Just now we heard the gentleman Niu saying that the constable Cui of the county office—" Clerk Niu stopped the Xia of Langzhong and said, "Sir Xu, why don't you allow me to take a moment to discuss this with the old gentleman Bao!" He motioned old master Bao over to the side.

Everyone peered over at them under the just-lit light of the lamps. Clerk Niu started off by offering the old master Bao words of courtesy, and then related some matters to him in hushed tones. Old master Bao became furious immediately and glare at him, saying, "I don't believe it! There is no way my disciple is capable of robbing an official's family or murdering an officer of the law!" Liu Jie hurried over and pulled the old master back, saying, "Please do not shout! What's the matter? We can discuss it carefully!"

The clerk Niu smiled and said, "The elderly gentleman has too short a fuse. I have always only had good intentions!" He then continued quietly, "Wasn't it that the witness from the incident at Riversnail Ridge arrived today? He is an employee of Peng'an county and during the encounter with the brigand, he was driver of the wagon. Just now, after you arrived here with the elderly gentlemen, Constable Cui brought the witness to your farmstead to take a look at the one named Long. According to the witness, the one named Long is actually the same Jiang Xiaohe that robbed the official's family on Riversnail Ridge, but because his injuries are so severe, he was not taken away. This too is not a difficult situation to make disappear!"

The old master listened to here before he slammed the table angrily, saying, "I refuse to believe it! None of my disciples would dare commit such an atrocious act!" The Xia of Langzhong sneered at him. Liu Jie did not appear to be much alarmed as he held the old master back, not allowing the old master to become violent. Clerk Niu spoke on, calmly and softly, "But to hear the witness tell it, he is absolutely certain of it! A few days previous, the witness was confronted with the real Jiang Xiaohe in Tongjiang. He says the real Jiang Xiaohe was not a bandit. At present, he has no animosity toward old gentleman Bao's disciple, so he has no reason to testify falsely. But just as he said it, with the one named Long suffering from such a heavy wound, even if we did arrest him, I'm afraid he would be dead even before he was arraigned. We can accommodate and handle this matter privately, but then the thing is, the elderly gentleman Bao must provide some—"

Before the clerk could say what it was he wanted old master Bao to provide, old master Bao sent a ferocious glare at him and roared like a lion, "The gentlemen present are all good friends, so listen while I, Bao Kunlun, declare this oath. I swear on my life that none of the Kunlun School are even half of a villain! I do not permit others to falsely accuse my disciples of being bandits. If anyone dares say otherwise, no matter if you are a public official or a private citizen, I will—"

As the old master was bellowing, everyone jolted up in alarm. Their surprised gapes were not directed at him, but rather gathered toward the railing of the staircase. It turned out that someone had suddenly walked up the stairs, a man of twenty-odd years who was especially tall but not thick. His face was dark and clear, his two eyes bright and shining. He was wearing a shirt and pants made of blue-green cloth and in his hand he held a chilling cold sword. He was like a hawk, his eyes fixed upon the fierce tiger that was old master Bao.

Eighth Cheng just now recognized the man's face and he yelped in shock, "Jiang Xiaohe!" He was so frightened he almost fell underneath the table. The Xia of Langzhong withdrew from his seat and laughed, "Brother Xiaohe! Very good of you to come. Please, take a seat and have a cup of wine. I would gladly hear whatever you have to say!" Jiang Xiaohe couldn't be bothered to pay the Xia of Langzhong any heed. He pointed his malicious gaze at the old master Bao and cracked a bitter smile, saying, "Bao Zhenfei! Today the two of us will have our reckoning! Come! No need to disturb anyone else. Let you and I go downstairs!"

The savage energy that had just engulfed the old master Bao had now completely dissipated, his dark purple face had turned a deathly white. His entire body shuddered and his beard trembled. He could not contain his sudden yell, "My fair enemy!" He leapt forward and chopped at Jiang Xiaohe's head with his Kunlun saber. Jiang Xiaohe swiftly met him with his sword. A loud clang rang out and sent the room full of people pulling back in alarm. The old master Bao couldn't help stepping back a few paces himself, for fresh pain surged through the wrist he was using to hold his saber. He thought Jiang Xiaohe's power incredible. In the forty or fifty years he roamed Jianghu, he had never chanced upon anyone with such might.

Once he recovered the strength in his hand, he quickly displayed the ultimate techniques of his Kunlun saber. He jumped up and whooshed at Jiang Xiaohe with a fierce cut. Jiang Xiaohe deflected it with his sword and kicked aside the table and benches. The two clashed for three or four rounds and then clank, followed by the sound of someone crying out in pain. Jiang Xiaohe's sword had sent Bao Kunlun's Kunlun saber soaring away and it happened to fly right into the Motley Star God's head. Jiang Cheng the Motley Star God immediately collapsed onto the floor injured. The Xia of Langzhong's son took up his sword to stop Jiang Xiaohe as the old fighting master, in a panic, seized the opportunity to run down toward the stairs. To his surprise, Jiang Xiaohe came from behind again with a kick that landed square on the old master's lower back, sending the old master's body tumbling like a several-hundred-pound boulder on down the staircase. Jiang Xiaohe jumped down after him while the Xia of Langzhong shouted behind him, "Xiaohe! You cannot kill people here!"

Jiang Xiaohe went downstairs and picked the old master up. All the attendants on the lower floor dispersed in noisy disorder. Jiang Xiaohe carried the old master outside and got onto his horse. He put the old master on the horse, pressed his sword against the old master's face, and sped away on horseback. After exiting this street, he continued east, riding ten miles or so in twilight. There, a man stood waiting at the side of the road. When he saw the horse approaching, he whistled. Jiang Xiaohe threw the old master off the horse, whereupon the old master was about to get up and fight when the man took up a large rock, cracked the old master in the back of the head and very nimbly tied up the old master's hands and feet with a thick rope. Jiang Xiaohe instructed from the horse, "Do not harm his life! Take him over there. I'm going to take care of that other matter!"

After he said this, he turned the horse around and bumped its thigh with the hilt of his sword. Dun dun dun, he sped off like an arrow through the vast darkness of twilight, heading northwest.

The old man had been knocked out by the rock. The man carried him away from the road for a bit to a rundown temple. There were no monks or priests at this temple, only a few beggars who were warming leftover porridge and food with bunches of straw lit on fire. When they saw the man approaching with the old master on his back, they called out, "Sir Wu! Did you nab that old fellow?"

The man was Wu Jinbiao the Black Panther. He dropped the old master into the courtyard and panted heavily, saying, "The old man's heavy!" One of the beggars lit a wooden torch, walked up and shined it in the old master's face. He saw that the old master had opened his large ferocious eyes. He shouted thunderously, "What are you doing with that thing? Just kill me already! Tell Jiang Xiaohe to come. Even at death's door I have things to say to him!" At his yelling, the few beggars rushed clumsily away from him. Wu Jinbiao kicked at the old master and said, "Bao Zhenfei! This is no longer a place where you can throw your weight around. In the past dozen years, you've unleashed those disciples of yours to rampage across the land, and you still protect them. Now, you ought to pay for all that they've done!"

The old master was tied up, hands and feet, but he didn't stop struggling to free himself and get up, as if he was a trapped beast. He roared angrily, "Brigand! You may curse me, but I won't allow you to speak ill of my disciples. Except for Jiang Zhisheng whom I killed, not one of my disciples is a thug like you lot!" A clatter of hooves sounded out from beyond the broken wall. Wu Jinbiao rushed outside to meet it and one of the beggars followed behind him. He held up the lit wooden torch and saw that it was Jiang Xiaohe returned.

Jiang Xiaohe dismounted his horse. He was leading another horse with his other hand and passed both of them over to the beggar. Jiang Xiaohe drew his sword with one hand while he carried a bundle wrapped in oilcloth in the other. The bundle was swollen as if it carried something frightening inside. He handed it to Wu Jinbiao and said, "This is Long Zhiqi's head. Put it with my baggage. I'm going to take it back to the Northern Mountains of Zhenba and offer it up to my father!" Wu Jinbiao received the bundle. Jiang Xiaohe then entered the temple and told the beggar to light a fire and shine it across the old master's face so he could take a look.

The old master's eyes were open and he was staring at Jiang Xiaohe. He saw a man who was tall yet whose facial features still resembled those of when he was a child, handsome and healthy. The incidents of a decade ago couldn't help but flit through Bao Zhenfei's mind. He looked at Jiang Xiaohe's blade glimmering and his eyes on fire and knew that his death was very soon approaching. He trembled and panted and shook his head, saying, "I don't have much to say. Only that I wish to see my two sons and my granddaughter once more. Oh! It's fine even if I don't see them. Just tell me! Have they already fallen under your blade?"

At this point, Jiang Xiaohe had raised his sword mercilessly, but when he heard the old bodyguard make mention of Aluan, his heart softened a bit. He stooped down, and gritting his teeth, used his sword to cut the ropes from the old master's body, and then lifted the old bodyguard into sitting up. The old bodyguard couldn't help his surprise and asked, "What's this? Jiang Xiaohe, are you not to kill me?"

Jiang Xiaohe spat angrily, "A decade's worth of enmity, how could I not kill you? When I think back ten years when you stood in the wheat field with saber hidden intending to harm me, when I think of your murdering Qin Xiaoxiong a couple days ago, I am incapable of tolerating the life of a cruel, elderly brute!" He took a breath and continued, "However, I, Jiang Xiaohe, am a young man, while you are over seventy years, drifting about out here without your family. If I were to kill you here, yes, I would be ridding humanity of wickedness, but it would seem as if I were too ruthless. Those who do not know the true story will say that I have bullied and humiliated a weak, old man. Presently I will take you back to Hanzhong, back to your sons and your disciples and we will have our confrontation. Then when I kill you, I will finally be satisfied!"

The old security escort sat on the ground, staring blankly for a while and then sighed heavily and said, "That would be fine! I did not treat you very well in the beginning, but... Ah! The Heavens know! ...We need speak of that further. In any case, you did eat many a meal in my house. If you would allow me to go back home and take a look around, I would be satisfied as well even if I did die!" Jiang Xiaohe nodded and said, "Good! Then get up! Let us set out immediately!" However, the old bodyguard did not stand up. He continued sitting on the ground as if his body had been drained of energy. He hung his head and sighed, "There's just one thing, I have my disciple Long Zhiqi..."

Upon hearing him speak of Long Zhiqi, Jiang Xiaohe's eyes went wide. The old bodyguard spoke mournfully, "That disciple of mine has suffered such strain and misery on account of me. Now he's gravely injured somewhere and has met with the misfortune of being wrongly accused. I must go see him, and then I will come with you!" Jiang Xiaohe became angry and raised his sword high and said, "You can stop bringing up Long Zhiqi! Long Zhiqi was indulged into arrogance by you, relying on your influence to commit how many evil deeds? When the villagers of Zhenba hear talk of your disciples, none do not gnash their teeth. When Long Zhiqi came to Northern Sichuan this time, he killed an officer at Riversnail Ridge and robbed an official's family. In Jiangkou, he forced a married woman to hang herself from the rafters. He caused suffering everywhere he went, engaging in robbery, murder and rape, passing himself off under my name. If the authorities didn't already have a witness, I would have already charged him with these crimes. If I had not been held up in Tongjiang by a friend's affairs, I would have come here much earlier and not allowed either of you to survive until now. I knew that Long Zhiqi was hiding in Liu Jie's house and that the authorities were afraid to arrest him because of Liu Jie's vile influence. But I went there already just now and cut his head off!"

Upon hearing that Long Zhiqi was now dead, the old bodyguard became instantly furious and jumped up like a tiger and charged at Jiang Xiaohe with fists out. Jiang Xiaohe reached out with one hand, grabbed the old master's arm and flipped him over while giving him a kick down below. He sent the old bodyguard crashing face first into the ground once again. Jiang Xiaohe called out to Wu Jinbiao, "Tie the ropes together and restrain him again!" Thus, Wu Jinbiao tied the severed ropes back together. The old master stopped struggling this time, simply sighing and feeling an ache in his heart. He thought, I have walked a lifetime in Jianghu and never had I encountered such a worthy adversary. Now, Jiang Xiaohe truly has learned genuine skill from his master. I will leave him to do with me what he will. I mustn't resist him blindly. Thus the old bodyguard kept his mouth shut. Jiang Xiaohe lifted the old bodyguard with one hand and place him on a horse outside. Jiang Xiaohe mounted this same horse, took up the reins and said to Wu Jinbiao, "Let's go! You lead!"

Presently, with Wu Jinbiao riding his horse ahead to lead the way, they left this broken down temple, joined the main road and headed east. Because the horse in the back was overloaded, they did not go very quickly. Through the boundless darkness they rode all night and up until the break of dawn, riding sixty or seventy miles altogether. Wu Jinbiao quickly led them down a side road. When it was daylight, Jiang Xiaohe loosened the old bodyguard's ropes once more and ordered him to ride the horse by himself, so then they traveled even more slowly. Being impatient, Wu Jinbiao gestured to Jiang Xiaohe and whispered to him, "When we get into the mountains ahead, put an end to the old man and let's be done with it! How much trouble is this?" Jiang Xiaohe simply shook his head silently.

Hearing them whispering behind him and seeing the sinister mountains in the distance, the old master felt a bit fearful, but he endured and kept from saying anything. The route Wu Jinbiao led them down were all secluded paths. By day, they purchased food in sparsely-populated villages and by night they found temples to rest in. Whenever the day turned into evening, Wu Jinbiao would get the rope and tie the old master up until early the following day, when he would then undo it. The old master was no longer like a ferocious tiger, but a docile, old sheep who made not a grumble. This was because he knew grumbling would be no use. Jiang Xiaohe's martial arts were too powerful and Wu Jinbiao was especially familiar with the roads. After traveling four or five days, they didn't encounter any officers or any security wagons. Nor did they encounter any large numbers of travelers, making it impossible for the old master to call out for help. He could do nothing but go with them like a prisoner awaiting death, his heart full of sorrow. He was not really aggrieved that his life was soon to end, nor that his decades-long reputation was ruined, but that his disciple Long Zhiqi had met a gruesome end and that he did not know what had happened to his granddaughter.

After traveling another day, as the old master was being forced along his way, he suddenly noticed a row of tall mountains before them. A forbidding mountain pass lay upon the mountain road. The old master's disposition picked up at this, like someone in dire straits being rescued or someone dying given a hope of living. This was because he recognized it was the Balue Pass that lay ahead. Out of the Balue Pass and over the Micang Mountains was the cliff road that led to Hanzhong. Farther east from there was his hometown of Zhenba. He was as good as at the gates of his home. The past few days had seen many desolate villages and isolated pathways and dangerous mountain ridges, and Wu Jinbiao would often stare at him with a ruthless glare and argue with Jiang Xiaohe in whispers, but Jiang Xiaohe had yet to kill him. Now that he had made it this far, he could not allow himself to die. Thus the old master sat on his horse, released a deep sigh and turned around to address Jiang Xiaohe behind him, "So what now? We are almost back to our hometown. Are we to return home first?"

From the front, Wu Jinbiao whirled his whip and hollered angrily at the old master, "All these days you haven't made a single sound, but now that we're at the Balue Pass and you see more people here, you've started talking again. Are you thinking of running away?" So saying, crack, he thrashed Bao Zhenfei once with the whip and then widened his eyes and continued, "If you try to run, we will take your life immediately! If you're good, we might let you live a few more days. You don't need to ask where we're going, since sooner or later we'll be sending you to your grave!"

Jiang Xiaohe waved his hand from behind and told Wu Jinbiao to stop whipping Bao Zhenfei, but then said to Bao Zhenfei indignantly, "I have already told you, I have no intention to spare your life! If you try to get away now, I will come right after your life with my blade drawn. If you catch me off guard and manage to get away, no matter where you go, I will be able to capture you again! Why do I not kill you right here, right now? It's because you're too old and you're alone out here, all by yourself. And all those horrible things you've done out here, no one in Hanzhong or Guanzhong know about them yet. I need to announce your crimes to everybody, and then I will be able to do the deed. Because when I kill you, it won't only be for revenge, but also to rid the world of evil! I'm bringing you back to Zhenba to ask the children of Bao Village whether or not you ought to be put to death. And afterward I will take you into the Northern Mountains, to the place where you killed my father, and there I will do the deed!"

Hearing this, Bao Zhenfei could help the tragic look on his face as the autumn breeze blew his beard about. He heaved another deep sigh and said, "Jiang Xiaohe, must you be so cruel? You're avenging your father, so just kill me. Why must you invent all these criminal accusations against me? It is like your killing of my disciple Long Zhiqi. Just say that his skill did not match up to yours and so you killed him. Why also frame him as the bandit at Riversnail Ridge?"

Wu Jinbiao turned back and lashed at the old master with his whip again, yelling at him, "You old bastard! Until now you're still defending that exposed disciple of yours. Who doesn't know that your disciple was the culprit at Riversnail Ridge? He took on brother Jiang Xiaohe's name and now he's dead, yet you're still protecting him!" The old master grit his teeth and said with eyes glaring, "I refuse to believe it! This is an injustice piled upon him by those who hate him. The Kunlun School has come under some misfortune, so responsibility of all manner of bad deeds are being pushed upon me and my disciples. Gah! Go ahead and accuse all you like! At most I follow my disciple in being killed by you, but you will never be able to extinguish the Kunlun School. As long as one member of the Kunlun School survives, that man will avenge me!"

He closed his eyes as he sat atop the horse, quietly waiting for someone to kill him. Wu Jinbiao turned to Jiang Xiaohe with eyes wide and said, "Brother Jiang, why don't you take some joy in handling matters! Who cares if he's old or young? As long as he's not a good person, take the soonest opportunity to dispatch with him. How invigorating would that be! Keeping him around like this is not only an inconvenience now, but it'll be more trouble in the future!"

Jiang Xiaohe furrowed his brow and stood staring into space for a moment. In reality, one could not find much fault in killing a man as fatuous and nasty as Bao Kunlun. Furthermore, what had his ten years of hard work been for? Wasn't it all to eliminate him in order to avenge his own father and allow his mother to let go of her hatred? He hadn't changed his mind one bit, nor had his hatred faded any, but for some reason it seemed as if each individual strand of the old man's snow white beard was trembling at him, begging for mercy. The strong twenty-odd year man that he himself was could truly not bear to kill him! In the midst of Jiang Xiaohe's internal conflicts, Wu Jinbiao the Black Panther shouted from his horse ahead, "Brother Jiang! The Balue Pass lies before us. It is a place impenetrable to attack. We cannot afford not to cross it, for if, while we're traversing it, this old fellow cries out—"

Jiang Xiaohe waved his hand before waiting for him to finish and said, "We shouldn't be afraid of that. If he dares cry out while we're crossing the pass, then we'll kill him immediately and go!" Sitting on his horse, Bao Kunlun snorted loudly and sneered, "Do not concern yourselves! Since I have come here with you, I have not thought about fleeing. If an officer questions me, I will tell him that we are all traveling together. I will not tell them you mean me harm. I, Bao Kunlun, have spent my life in Jianghu and I have always handled personal enmities privately. I've never gone to the authorities. If I now, facing death, asked the authorities for help, it would sully my lifelong reputation and I will not do it. Since I, Bao Kunlun, have fallen into your hands, I leave you to do with me what you will! You need not say anything else about it!"

Hearing the old master speak of his integrity angered Wu Jinbiao the Black Panther so much he nearly swung his whip at him again. Jiang Xiaohe came forward to stay his hand and said, "We are now almost in Southern Shaanxi. There will be members of the Kunlun School everywhere. I must convince each and every man of the Kunlun School, let them know that their master has chosen this method of death, that I, Jiang Xiaohe, have not acted unreasonably. Then, I can finish him. But when that happens, there will be many clashes. I myself am not afraid of anything, but brother Wu, if you are careless for even a moment, it will be hard to avoid dragging you into my matters. Wouldn't it be better if we parted ways here! Brother Wu, please go back. I will take him to Zhenba and finish my business, and then I will return to Langzhong and speak of my old friendship with the Xia of Langzhong. Let us spend more time together then. Brother Wu, what do you think?"

Wu Jinbiao the Black Panther shook his head repeatedly and said stubbornly, "No, no! Let me tell you, brother Jiang! I may not have enmity with Bao Zhenfei, but whenever I hear mention of his Kunlun School or hear that someone has the character zhi in their name, I can hardly contain my anger! Now, I won't be able to leave until you finish off this old fellow. Otherwise, I will also go to Zhenba, to Hanzhong, and help you slaughter more of the Kunlun School!" Seeing that Wu Jinbiao was unwilling to leave him, Jiang Xiaohe could only say, "Well then let us proceed!" And so Wu Jinbiao's horse remained up front and the old master's horse behind him. Jiang Xiaohe took up the very end to keep an eye on Bao Zhenfei and they all continued on slowly.

The farther they traveled the bumpier the terrain became, though there were a lot of travelers on foot, cart and horse coming and going. In addition, there appeared security wagons, all of which belonged to security offices in Northern Sichuan. None of the security escorts recognized Bao Kunlun or Jiang Xiaohe, but they all greeted Wu Jinbiao. Wu Jinbiao conversed briefly with a few of them in the shadowy argot of Jianghu. Jiang Xiaohe did not understand a word of it. As the old master listened on, at first he grew angry, looking like he wanted to hop off his horse and have it out with Wu Jinbiao, but then he gave a desperate sigh and lowered his head. He remained silent as they came through the Balue Pass.

Once they left the pass, Wu Jinbiao praised the old master in the argot, its meaning thus, "Hey savage! An old man like you didn't spend a lifetime upon Jianghu in vain! You do have an unexpected vigor to you. You're much stronger than those disciples of yours!" The old master Bao's face turned a deep purple as he barked a fierce laugh at Wu Jinbiao, but he otherwise remained silent. Jiang Xiaohe saw that the old master's manner was calmer than before and this made him suspicious.

The more the two horses and three men continued north, the higher the landscape seemed to get and the narrower the path became, as if Wu Jinbiao had brought them through this kind of route on purpose. After another two or three miles, they were surrounded on all sides by mountain peaks. Everywhere were craggy rock formations. Barren stones and wild grass gradually vanished the way. It happened that they had already entered the Micang Mountains. Jiang Xiaohe fumed and said to Wu Jinbiao, "Why did you bring us this way?"

Wu Jinbiao came down from his saddle, walked over to Jiang Xiaohe and tugged at him, whispering, "Didn't you hear me talking to those escorts at the entrance to the Balue Pass just now? They told me that a dozen or so Kunlun wagons were not too far ahead, accompanied by seventeen or eighteen men, one of which they recognized as the one Lu Zhizhong. You must know that fellow Lu Zhizhong. He's the old man's most prized disciple. Really, we should not be afraid of him, but what if they snatch the old man away with their numbers? Wouldn't this all have been a wasted effort, returning the tiger to his mountain?"

When he heard that Lu Zhizhong was nearby, Jiang Xiaohe couldn't help recalling the kindness that Lu Zhizhong had shown him in years past, nor the torment that Bao Zhenfei put him through during that same time. He couldn't help his fury surging up. He wanted to take advantage of the fact they were alone in the mountains and end the old master's life. Wu Jinbiao stood beside him and made a stabbing motion with his hand, saying, "Stick him through! Are you keeping this old treasure around so you can sell it!" Jiang Xiaohe grit his teeth and glared at the old master. The old master could read their expressions now and couldn't help a tragic expression coming to his face. He sighed, "This is the end!" But unexpectedly, Jiang Xiaohe did not act, instead sticking his lips out and telling Wu Jinbiao, "Let's go!"

Wu Jinbiao was massively impatient, saying, "Brother Jiang, I see now that your martial arts are powerful and your stature great, but you are not as courageous as you were when you were younger. Stick him through, and we'll set off immediately to traverse Jianghu. Why are we here with this miserable, old corpse! You want to take revenge, but you dare not do the deed. I offered to do it for you, but you won't let me. What kind of hero are you? You're acting just like a woman! I think this old fellow is better than you at killing men!"

Hearing these words, Jiang Xiaohe became both angrier and sadder. Bao Zhenfei sat on his horse as a few tears fell from his eyes and into his beard, like pearls hanging in thread. He turned back and said bleakly, "Xiaohe, the hero Jiang! I, Bao Zhenfei, have never admitted defeat, yet might I beg you to do something for me?" Jiang Xiaohe glared and said, "What is it?"

Bao Zhenfei shed tears as he said, "You know my granddaughter Bao Aluan. She is about your age. On that snowy night years ago, you came to me looking for revenge the first time. You had not yet learned your martial arts and you were too young. I could have killed you then, but I couldn't bear to! At that time, my granddaughter got angry on my behalf. When she saw me let you go, she chased after you and the two of you fought on the snowy ground outside my door. When I saw that then, I was extremely happy. I commended the both of you and called you both young heroes!"

Jiang Xiaohe felt his heart tighten, but he shot him another glare and said, "Don't dig up old stories in your attempts to beg for mercy!" The old master nodded and said, "I'm not begging you for mercy. I'm asking you to think of my granddaughter. I was not good to you, but there is no enmity between you and her. She is the one I adore most. I have passed all my martial arts onto her and married her off to Ji Guangjie. You must know Ji Guangjie as well, as he's said that you and he fought with each other on Mount Wudang. One day after the young couple married, I sent them off. I ordered them to go to Chang'an to confront you. I'm not sure if you met them there?" Jiang Xiaohe nodded and said, "I have."

Bao Zhenfei said, "That being the case, I know that neither of their martial arts are as strong as yours, but I do not know if they have already fallen under your blade?" A miserable expression came to Jiang Xiaohe's face as he scoffed, "My father was murdered by you and the Long Brothers. What grudge would I carry for others? Not to mention that they haven't done anything bad. Even if they come to set themselves against me, I cannot simply kill them!" Knowing that his granddaughter was still in the world of the living gave Bao Zhenfei relief, but then he became even more sorrowful. He wept and said, "Then, hero Jiang! Might I beg you to allow me to see my granddaughter once more before you kill me?"

Jiang Xiaohe stood dumbstruck for quite a while, before he sighed and nodded. Wu Jinbiao thought this strange and said, "Old Jiang! What's going on with you? Could it be you still want to make the old man's granddaughter your wife? Brother, you mustn't be tricked by this old fellow! The old man wants to use his granddaughter as ransom for his life. Brother, if you want a wife, there are plenty of women in Jianghu! You can have as many as you want! If you want one like Qin Xiaoxian, that's easy, but do not fall into this man's honey trap! Besides, his granddaughter's already married. Nothing good will come out of pursuing her!" Jiang Xiaohe waved his hand and creased his brow, saying, "Stop that nonsense and let's go!" Wu Jinbiao smiled and said, "You should remember everything I've said! Even a great hero can fall to the charms of a beautiful woman!" He got back on his horse and continued on.

After feeling mournful for a while, Bao Zhenfei steeled his mind and gathered his energy again. He was wounded and humiliated. He had traveled several hundred miles with Jiang Xiaohe like a prisoner and was wearing clothes so ratty and muddied that he no longer resembled himself. His white hair was matted and his beard had turned gray with accumulated smoke and dust. Even so, his spirits were high as he pressed his horse to follow closely behind Wu Jinbiao as they rode on the mountain road. In his heart, he was nothing but anxious to return to Zhenba, find his granddaughter and see her once again. He knew very well that even together Ji Guangjie and Aluan were no match for Jiang Xiaohe, but he was too occupied to consider the matter of his own life and death. He just wanted to make a few things clear to his granddaughter: On my journey into Northern Sichuan, I didn't do anything wrong except for accidentally hurting Qin Xiaoxiong. And furthermore, stories being passed around that Long Zhiqi did bad things are all untrue. They are entirely false accusations made by those who harbor hatred toward the Kunlun School. These things went through his head as he ignored the rubbish spewing from Wu Jinbiao's mouth. Though Jiang Xiaohe was on foot, he did not fall back any. His brow remained furrowed, his expression heavy as a mountain boulder, and he kept to himself.

They continued on the winding path for another twenty-odd miles, not encountering anyone else. They had still not yet left the mountain. It was starting to get late and the sun was no longer shining into the mountains, so Wu Jinbiao stopped his horse. He turned back and called out, "Brother Jiang! We're almost out of the mountains! Once we're out, it's all flat earth, no more than sixty miles to Hanzhong." Jiang Xiaohe grew frustrated, saying, "Who told you to head toward Hanzhong? How many times on the way did I tell you we were going to Zhenba?"

Wu Jinbiao laughed, "Old brother, it seems you can't forget about returning home and marrying a woman. If that's the case, then we've only ridden a little more than two miles for nothing and we can still turn our horses around. There's a three-way fork back there. We just passed it, didn't you see? To the west is a dead end. The eastern way though, don't think the road too narrow. It'll feel wider and wider the further down you go. Just outside of the eastern exit is the town of Wensheng, though its nickname is Plaguetown. Eighty or so miles north from there is Zhenba!" Jiang Xiaohe said, "Then let's go back and ride to Plaguetown!" [Note: The name of the town (文勝, Wensheng) sounds similar to the word for "plague deity" (瘟神, wenshen).]

The Black Panther turned his horse around and smiled, saying, "There's no way I'm going to Plaguetown! Fifteen years ago I got caught in an epidemic there. That time I was like the Leper Sun, doing business in the Green Woods, and I met a Daoist priestess there. Ah! It's a pity that by now she must be at least forty years. Otherwise, fifteen years ago she was about the same age as you are now. You could have married her." He chuckled as he turned his horse and headed back where they had come. Jiang Xiaohe ignored him as he contemplated how best to take care of the old master after they returned to Zhenba.

They backtracked about two miles and saw the road as expected. Jiang Xiaohe had not been paying attention previously, but now he saw that this mountain road was very narrow and could only accommodate the width of one horse. In addition, there were rocks upon rocks on the ground, making it very bumpy, tall grass up to their knees, and slippery moss. Countless wild birds whizzed away and filled the sky like a sandstorm picked up by a gale.

Jiang Xiaohe asked Wu Jinbiao again, "Are you sure you know the way?" Wu Jinbiao nodded and said, "Yes, I'm sure! Some time ago, I spent many nights sleeping off mountain roads. I know them front and back, unless the mountains have changed shape in the intervening years." He spurred his horse forward as the old bodyguard and Xiaohe followed behind. Because the road was hard to navigate, the horses were even slower than before. At the same time, Jiang Xiaohe did not tire at all as he walked in the rear, though the two horses seemed to be exhausted. After just a few steps, the old bodyguard's horse stumbled. The old bodyguard wasn't thrown off, but the bundle that Jiang Xiaohe had tied to the horse fell down and came apart.

The Black Panther turned back and whipped the old master and was about to take up his sword and end the old bodyguard's life once and for all. Jiang Xiaohe waved his hand and stopped him. He then bent down and hastily wrapped his bundle back up. He took up his sword, helped the horse back up and barked, "Go on then!" The Black Panther whipped the old bodyguard once more and then angrily rode on.

The old bodyguard proceeded with care and caution, sighing all along the way. He was miserable. First, because that mountain brigand Wu Jinbiao gave him no less than seven or eight lashes while they were riding, making welts across his face and arms. But since Jiang Xiaohe was right behind him, he didn't dare retaliate. Second, because his heart was broken. He had spent a lifetime in Jianghu and had been called a strong man his entire life. The Kunlun saber was naturally unmatched, and even in his old age, he was anything but weak. But as soon as he encountered Jiang Xiaohe, it was just like a mouse facing a cat, like a sheep facing a tiger. He could barely unleash any of his martial arts. This was what they meant by a bitter enemy, a true adversary! Third, because they were now almost to Zhenba. I am returning humiliated to my hometown. Even if Jiang Xiaohe has yet to kill me, what face do I have left to meet my fellow villagers? So thinking, he didn't want to live anymore. He thought he would either kill himself, or beat Wu Jinbiao to death and then let Jiang Xiaohe kill him.

Just as he was vacillating on what to do, he suddenly noticed Wu Jinbiao ahead looking upwards and shouting loudly, "Aha! There are people living here!" Jiang Xiaohe looked up as well and saw bits of smoke from a cookfire drifting in the sky, which sunset glow was already starting to dim. Wu Jinbiao then said, "Since it's getting so late, are we really going to rush to Plaguetown and spend the night there?"

Jiang Xiaohe was not yet tired but incredibly unhappy. Furthermore, he was hungry, so he said, "Go and take a look. If you can find a resident whom we can lodge with, then we'll stay. We'll leave first thing tomorrow morning and hurry to Zhenba, so we can finish our business." Wu Jinbiao stretched his neck out and looked side to side as he rode. Before long, he spotted several manmade stone steps in the mountain rock to left. He got off his horse and then pushed the old bodyguard off of his and tied him up, as he said, "Let's get you bound. You'll be more honest that way!" The old bodyguard laid on the ground and panted. Jiang Xiaohe placed the bundle he was holding onto the ground along with his sword, and then tied both of the horses to a tree next to the path. Wu Jinbiao scaled up the stone steps.

Jiang Xiaohe crouched down, wanting to properly secure the bundle he'd just hastily wrapped up, when he suddenly realized that something inside was missing: the embroidered shoe he'd picked up from the stream in the Qin Mountains. Jiang Xiaohe shook open the bundle and rummaged through it, but he saw no trace of it. He became upset. Wu Jinbiao had by now brought back one of the inhabitants and the two of them were standing atop a slope. Wu Jinbiao said, "Brother Jiang! Bring that old fellow up here. This brother is a hunter in these mountains. He's agreed to let us stay for the night. They've got some good millet cooking at their place!" Jiang Xiaohe said, "You come down! Take the person and the baggage up with you. I've lost something, but it's nothing important. It's late now and there won't be anyone around. It'll be hard to look for it tomorrow during the day."

Wu Jinbiao then said, "If you've lost a few taels of silver, just leave them. Act as if they were an offering to the mountain gods. It's already dark as heck, you'd be searching blind for it!" Jiang Xiaohe didn't want to give up, so he said, "Go and get some rest without me first! I'm going to go back and look for a bit. I'll be there before you know it." So saying, he followed the way they had come earlier with sword in hand and searched. From above, Wu Jinbiao couldn't help let out a loud cackle, saying, "My brother here, what an odd temperament he's got! I've no idea what precious treasure he's lost!" He then said to the hunter, "Come on! Brother, help me bring up here the one who's lying on the ground. It's a wild beast that our brother captured, a ferocious white-faced tiger!"

Jiang Xiaohe held his sword as he walked west. His head was down and his waist was bent as he stared at the ground and looked carefully. However, it was dark now, and grassroots and stones covered the ground. He went quite far, until his back was aching from bending it, but he still found no embroidered shoe. He became very agitated. He stopped and stood up and his heart burned with anger, as if he needed to seek out an enemy and have it out with them before he could be happy again. He remained angry with himself for a moment before he suddenly thought himself so foolish, so indecisive. My father died at his hands, and he almost killed me several times in my youth. He's also done a multitude of wicked deeds, oppressed his fellow villagers, indulged his ruthless disciples, and in Sichuan he murdered Qin Xiaoxiong who had not yet turned fifteen. An old goon like him, anybody else out there would capture and kill him, but I just can't seem to bear to do it. How am I worthy of being a hero! What affection is there left between Aluan and me? She even hated that old willow tree so much she chopped at it. It's absolutely absurd how reluctant I am to part with that red, embroidered shoe of hers! I am too caught up with these feelings. I just need to forget about it and walk away! Consequently, he made up his mind not to continue looking for the embroidered shoe and headed back with sword in hand.

He was only able to find the stone steps after expending quite a bit of effort. He located the horse and noticed that the baggage was still dropped on the ground. Wu Jinbiao had not picked it up. Jiang Xiaohe thought, This fellow Wu Jinbiao is too careless. He probably cares only about eating the millet in the hunter's home. He doesn't pay any mind to anything else. His bandit's disposition runs deep. If I stay with him, I'll no doubt run into some other troubles. It might be best to finish old master Bao off at the earliest opportunity, present him with a few taels of silver and part with him. He thought this as he stooped down to secure the bundle. With it in one hand and his sword in the other, he leapt up the mountain slope with a whoosh.

He spotted a yaodong at the base of the mountain with a window set into its frontside. Out through the window was floating dim lamplight. Jiang Xiaohe came to the window and called inside, "Brother Wu!" But no voices responded from within. Jiang Xiaohe pulled the door open and saw a black bowl hanging from the wall, inside of which a paper wick was burning. What Jiang Xiaohe saw within the reach of the light gave him a shock! He saw the dark glimmer of blood and bodies lying this way and that. Wu Jinbiao and the hunter whom he'd just met were both dead. Someone else with long hair was crumbled up against the wall. Jiang Xiaohe hurriedly approached, tapped the body over with his foot, and gave it a careful look. It was a woman, likely the wife of the hunter, her brain dribbling out as if she had died by the strike of a metal object.

He looked all over, but didn't see any trace of Bao Zhenfei, only a burbling pot of millet simmering on top of the stove spilling forth a mouthwatering smell. Jiang Xiaohe stamped his foot and cursed, "That vicious old thug!" He dropped his bundle and left the yaodong to search with sword in hand. But all he came upon was a sky black as ink and the mountain wind cold and intense. The forest was rustling and the water gurgling and baleful nocturnal hoots rang out. The vast darkness spread in all directions and there was no trace of anyone.

Jiang Xiaohe jumped down the mountain slope and saw that the two horses both remained unmoved, so he knew that after Bao Kunlun murdered those people, he must not have fled far. He searched all over the place with his sword in hand, going farther and looking more carefully than he had when he was searching for the embroidered shoe. It was unfortunate that it was so dark out at present, that the mountain path was so rugged and winding, and that the lofty mountain rocks and shady trees were full of hiding places. There was no true way he could investigate thoroughly. As Jiang Xiaohe searched, he rapped his sword on the mountain rocks, sending sparks flying about. He became angry and yelled, "Bao Zhenfei, you old cur! You take advantage of my absence to murder my friend, not to mention an innocent hunter. You old dog, do you really think you can get away from me? If Sir Jiang allows you to live three more days, then I cannot be called a good man. Come out! Don't hide in a cave!"

He cursed angrily for a bit more but heard no replies. He climbed up tree and rock and very nearly searched the entire mountain. It was dark everywhere, quiet everywhere. He was unable to figure out where Bao Zhenfei had hidden his swollen body. Jiang Xiaohe blamed himself, thinking, It's all my fault! If I hadn't gone to search for that red shoe and kept an eye on that old cur, he would not have dared to even think of escaping. As soon as I was away, he must have broken free of the rope, picked something up and beaten Wu Jinbiao and the hunter and his wife to death with it. Wu Jinbiao the Black Panther used to be a bandit, so his death is not terribly regrettable, but the hunter and his wife lived by themselves in the mountains and were surely quite poor. Now they were killed by that old cur though they had nothing to do with anything, what a shame. It is clear that the old cur murdered them, but actually one could say that it was I who got them killed. If I hadn’t been so emotional, not bearing to kill that old dog, I would not have allowed him to go free again to commit such evil acts!

By now, the evening wind blew through the mountain more and more urgently, shaking the trees against each other loudly like the crashing of waves. A blazing inferno raged in Jiang Xiaohe’s heart, full of hatred and regret! He looked around, cursing all the time. After a long time, he spotted a faint glow below.

Jiang Xiaohe jumped down from his high position. He had originally thought it might have been another mountain inhabitant, but upon leaping down, he saw that it was just the yaodong from before, its door wide open because Jiang Xiaohe had not fastened it shut. The scent of the millet had dissipated and the lamplight had grown ever more desolate. Jiang Xiaohe clenched his jaw, swallowed his anger and walked inside. His head dropped, he looked around carefully and saw pools of blood collected on the floor. Wu Jinbiao and the hunter and his wife had all had their heads cracked open, tragically dead.

Jiang Xiaohe straightened up and couldn’t help but utter a sigh. He then crouched down, snatched up his roll and put it on his back. Just as he thought to leave here, descend the mountain and continue looking for Bao Zhenfei elsewhere, Jiang Xiaohe suddenly heard a swoop behind him and quickly dodged aside. He heard only a loud crack, as bits of the wall shook off from the impact and the bowls and plates around the room clattered. Behind him, there came a monk, large in stature.

This monk had a dark face, large eyes, and a beard that grew out of his cheeks like a hedgehog. In his hand, he held an iron staff as thick as a ceiling beam and longer than ten feet. A sinister glow emanated from the iron staff as if it were a python. He advanced at Jiang Xiaohe from behind and swung the staff down. Jiang Xiaohe got out of the way of it and swung his sword at the same time at the large monk’s chin. The large monk raised his staff and blocked it with a clang, and then used it to press down on Jiang Xiaohe’s sword, letting out a thunderous roar, “Jiang Xiaohe, do you suppose that you are the only hero in the world? You’ve terrorized the aged escort Bao and robbed an official’s family on Riversnail Ridge. I shall capture you this day, you brigand!”

Jiang Xiaohe dropped his sword and grabbed onto his opponent’s iron staff with both hands. He glared and said, “Monk, I did not give you leave to curse at me. I, Jiang Xiaohe, am a hero and a good man! Bao Zhenfei is a sworn enemy of my family. I apprehended him in Northern Sichuan and brought him all the way here because I could not bear to end his life. The incident on Riversnail Ridge was perpetrated by one of his disciples Long Zhiqi while impersonating me—” The large monk sniggered coldly and used his two hairy, palm fan-sized hands to pull his staff away with great strength. However, Jiang Xiaohe had a tight grip on the iron staff and did not let the large monk wrest it away from him. He then continued, “I ask, are you the Iron Staff Monk? If you are him, then I know that you are an honorable figure upon Jianghu. Ten years ago, I was in the home of the Xia of Langzhong and saw the three iron staffs you placed in his house. A good friend of mine, Yuan Jingyuan, is a disciple of yours. We need not battle each other or make this a matter of life and death!”

The Iron Staff Monk persisted in trying to take back his staff, his teeth gnashing loudly. He spat out, “Do you fear death? Those who fear death should never have come to Jianghu and proclaimed themselves heroes!” Jiang Xiaohe scoffed, “If you really want to fight to the death, I’m not sure who would live and who would die, but I have held your great name in high esteem and I wish to explain to you all the merits of the situation between the Bao family and me. Once that is done, then we fight!” The Iron Staff Monk let out a thunderous yell that felt as if a large drum had been struck inside the yaodong. The sound buzzed inside of Jiang Xiaohe’s ears. The monk stamped his foot, nearly shattering the stone floor, and shouted, “I have long known of your savagery. People have told me of it before. I will crush your malevolence and eliminate you from Jianghu!”

As he said this, the impulsive monk displayed his mountain-moving strength and pulled back. Jiang Xiaohe opened his hands and let go, sending the Iron Staff Monk crashing head-first like a falling mountain. Jiang Xiaohe rushed to pick up his sword. Though the Iron Staff Monk was large, his lower body was unexpectedly nimble. He flipped over and ducked out of the yaodong carrying his staff. When he was outside, the shouted again, “Come out!” He sent the window crashing into pieces with his iron staff and then started beatkng at the stone wall with it, all the while yelling, “Come out! Come out!”

Jiang Xiaohe took the lamp bowl off the wall, flung it out like a missile and leapt after it with sword in hand. Once outside, the Iron Staff Monk directed a swing of his staff at him. Jiang Xiaohe didn’t dare meet him with his sword, so he dodged out of the way of the staff and stabbed at the Iron Staff Monk’s midsection. Clang, the Iron Staff Monk peeled it away with his staff and shook his staff with a shout, sweeping it at Jiang Xiaohe’s flank. Jiang Xiaohe flew up onto a large rock before it could connect, and the Iron Staff Monk came after him with another staff attack. With a large crack, the staff struck the rock Jiang Xiaohe was standing on, breaking it into pieces, but Jiang Xiaohe had already jumped to another location.

The Iron Staff Monk held onto his iron staff with both hands, breathing heavily. He yelled, “Jiang Xiaohe! Do you run away? You fear me and you run for your life. What kind of hero does that make you? Get yourself over here!” Just as he said this, the Iron Staff Monk heard the sound of wind in his ear and hurriedly twisted his body. Jiang Xiaohe’s sword swung over his head. Jiang Xiaohe kicked him from behind and sent him head first towards the ground, but he quickly flipped over and swung his staff. Crack, the staff hit the mountain rock, another miss. There was no trace of Jiang Xiaohe. The monk held the staff at rest like a pillar and panted, saying angrily, “Sneaky bandit! Cursed rat! You bring shame to your master’s name!”

He continued cursing but heard nothing in response. He walked up the mountain in large strides, carrying his iron staff. After only a few paces, he suddenly felt someone grab hold of his staff from behind. He turned in surprise and saw a sword coming at him. He twisted aside and dodged the sword. Jiang Xiaohe’s sword then came down with an angled chop and the Iron Staff Monk raised his foot and kicked Jiang Xiaohe’s wrist, sending Jiang Xiaohe’s sword flying away. Just as he was about to swing his staff, Jiang Xiaohe kicked him in the chest and knocked him over. Person and staff tumbled downhill along with a large rock, and the iron staff fell out of his hands.

He was about to get back up, but Jiang Xiaohe unexpectedly swooped down like an eagle flying in the night, took hold of the Iron Staff Monk’s bull-like body and hit him across the head with a smack. The Iron Staff Monk was a bit dizzy, but in an uncanny move of self-rescue, he managed to free one of his arms and move to press points on Jiang Xiaohe’s chest. Jiang Xiaohe already knew that the Iron Staff Monk was skilled in dianxue, so he quickly ducked aside, picked up the iron staff and ran west along the mountain path.

The Iron Staff Monk chased after him holding both his hands in fists, but before he went far, Jiang Xiaohe was standing atop a mountain rock to the side of the road, waiting for him. When he came near, Jiang Xiaohe raised the staff and lowered it at his head. Because he was still dizzy from being punched in the head by Jiang Xiaohe before, he had come in angry pursuit, not noticing that Jiang Xiaohe was standing up high next to him. It was unfortunate though that the iron staff was simply too heavy. Jiang Xiaohe could not help but expend a great deal of energy to lift it up, and then he was off the mark as he swung it down. The Iron Staff Monk’s ears were perceptive and his hands quick. He heard a swoosh and raised his arm at the same time, catching the iron staff. Thus again this iron staff became an object of struggle between two people. Each person held onto one end of it and pulled with all their strength. They wrestled with it for quite a while without any determination of which one was stronger than the other.

Jiang Xiaohe let go and climbed further up the mountain slope, sending the Iron Staff Monk unexpectedly onto his seat. However, the monk stood up and swung the staff at the same time. Crack, the staff struck rock once again. Jiang Xiaohe jumped aside, turned and leapt to a position behind the Iron Staff Monk once more. He gave him a vicious kick and immediately sent the Iron Staff Monk face first onto the ground. The Iron Staff Monk wanted to flip over and get back up, but he was still in a daze, he had exhausted his energy, and his lower back felt as if it was broken. He could only gasp for breath as he clung tightly to his iron staff. Jiang Xiaohe kicked him again in the side and sent the Iron Staff Monk, man and weapon, rolling down the mountain slope alongside several pebbles and stones. Jiang Xiaohe was afraid that he was still alive and wanted to go down to make sure he was dead, but before he reached the bottom of the hill, he heard a miserable scream come from below and echo across the mountain valley.

This sound was the Iron Staff Monk crying out, and it startled Jiang Xiaohe into stopping where he was. He stood for a moment and then continued walking down. When he came to the mountain path at the bottom of the slope, he heard nothing at all except the whistling of the wind. Neither did he see anything on the ground. He hadn’t a clue where the Iron Staff Monk had tumbled with his iron staff. Looking up, he saw only the twinkling of the stars in the sky, though amid the mountains the sky seemed much narrower, so there was limited starlight. He stood there a good while without sensing any activity, and he thought to himself, The Iron Staff Monk must have fallen to his death. I have yet to meet a man as strong, as ferocious and as cunning as him in the time since I’ve left my master. One could say that he was a singular opponent for a lifetime. The result of this battle has me standing victor, but both my arms are sore. Should another like him appear, I fear I would suffer a loss.

He took a short moment to catch his breath. He walked a few steps, but suddenly felt as if he was going the wrong direction. He had been familiar with the paths before, but then in the struggle against the Iron Staff Monk, he would jump up the mountain slope here and jump down a path there, and after fighting for a while, he had lost his way. In the narrow sky he couldn’t see all the stars. He couldn’t tell which was the South Star, nor where the Northern Dipper was. He stood on the dark mountain road and looked into the night for a while, but no matter what, he was unable to tell where he had come from or which direction he was facing. He thought, I’ve got no choice but to wait here until tomorrow. He poked around with his foot and found a rock to sit on and surmised, The Iron Staff Monk must have received news and knew that I was leading Bao Kunlun under armed escort. He knew that we would have to pass through these mountains, so he waited here for us. He set Bao Kunlun free and then beat the hunter and Wu Jinbiao to death with his iron staff. If it had been anyone else but me, I fear they would have also lost their lives to him.

This angered him, so he stood up again and said, “Was this really how I lost Bao Zhenfei? Ten years I worked to get my vengeance. Was it all wasted effort? No! The next time I capture him, I will not spare his life!” He was fuming as he thought about this, when he suddenly heard a horse sputtering. Jiang Xiaohe quickly bent his ear and focused his attention to listen. He heard it again in the distance whinnying a couple times. Jiang Xiaohe discerned its direction and went slowly in search of the horse’s location.

After a while, he finally found the horse, but he was taken aback. Before, when Wu Jinbiao and the others had been murdered and Bao Kunlun had escaped, there had still been two horses tied to the tree. Now, there was one fewer. Could the Iron Staff Monk have survived his tumble down the mountain and stolen one of the horses in order to escape? Unlikely! Perhaps one of the horses broke free of the rope and ran away? Even less likely! Jiang Xiaohe became sullen. He had thought to go back up the mountain slope and stay a while inside the yaodong, getting some millet to eat, but he knew that the light had been extinguished there, not to mention that floor was covered in blood. Were he to get any on his clothes, he would have trouble walking on the road out of the mountain tomorrow. Thus he sat on the ground next to the horse, bore down his hunger and endured the cold wind.

After a long time, the daylight grew faintly and the wind blew even chillier. The horse beside him was thirsty, hungry and did not like the cold, so it couldn’t stop stretching its head out and neighing. After a bit more time, a jumble of birdsongs began ringing out and the day became bright. Jiang Xiaohe went up the mountain and took a look inside the yaodong with the broken window. He saw the even more wretched bodies of Wu Jinbiao and the hunter and his wife. The blood on the floor had dried. He took a careful look at their fatal wounds and confirmed they had been made by an iron staff. The floor was spotted with deep dents and stone fragments, all traces from an iron staff.

Jiang Xiaohe couldn’t help getting angry again. He left the yaodong and searched around a while, but couldn’t find a plot of earth where he could dig a hole in which to bury the bodies. He did find, however, behind a large boulder, the sword of his that had been knocked away the day before by the iron staff. Jiang Xiaohe picked up the sword, stepped up onto a rock and pulled himself up into a tree. He took another look around the mountain in an attempt to find the old man Bao’s hiding place. He hiked to the top of a mountain slope and looked down, immediately spotting the body of the Iron Staff Monk lying supine below. His head was posted against a rock, his legs were in the grass, and a dark pool of blood had collected beside his body. He looked just like a dead bear.

Jiang Xiaohe ran down the mountain quickly. It was not pity he felt for the body of this peculiar xia whose reputation had shaken Jianghu for thirty years, but rather shock! The Iron Staff Monk had not died from the fall. Blood had clotted up around a wound in the back of his thick neck. Looking at it, it appeared to be caused by a blade of some kind. Jiang Xiaohe couldn’t help his surprise and said, “Something’s not right! When I was fighting with him yesterday, I had not the sword in my hand. When he fell down the mountain, I heard his terrible scream. Could it be that someone else was at the bottom of the mountain with a blade? When he rolled down the mountain, did that person take advantage of the situation to restrain and kill him?” Jiang Xiaohe was baffled by this and explored the area carefully, finding only the Iron Staff Monk’s heavy iron staff, which he kicked aside. He continued looked for a while, and after quite a distance, he suddenly spotted amid the yellowing vegetation and the dark mountain rocks, something very brightly colored. It was the embroidered red shoe he had spent so much time looking for the day previous and hadn’t found.

When Jiang Xiaohe looked at this object now, he couldn’t help but feel hatred. He stood there blankly, not wanting to go pick it up. However, his feelings gradually changed and softened as he clenched his jaw and furrowed his brow. He untied the roll from his back and stuffed the embroidered shoe inside of it. Then, with the roll in one hand and a sword in the other, he remained upset as he searched for the way back. When he reached the place where the horse was secured, he tied the roll to the horse and slipped his sword into the roll. He reached out to unfasten the horse from the tree and was taken aback again. It turned out that indeed the other horse had not snapped its rope and run away, since the rope was still tied to the tree and quite tightly at that. It was obvious a sword or saber had cut the rope and someone had ridden the horse away. It was now completely clear to Jiang Xiaohe that someone had been hidden from view yesterday, and that that person had killed the Iron Staff Monk, severed the horse’s hitching rope and ridden it off.

How truly odd this person was, and one whose martial arts could not have been weak. Considering that they killed the Iron Staff Monk, they must be a xia of some sort. But when I was in a life and death struggle with the Iron Staff Monk, why did they not come to my aid? They must not have feelings of fellowship with me. But who could it be? Perhaps it was some mysterious xia who took pity on Bao Kunlun. That must be why they rescued him, though it’s unavoidable to think that this person must also feel contempt for me!

Jiang Xiaohe fumed as he rode the horse east. He was now riding atop Wu Jinbiao’s horse. His original horse, the one that had been given him by the White Tiger, was now lost and along with it the head of Long Zhiqi. This particular horse was not very robust, and on this bumpy mountain path riddled with holes and surrounded by thick, thorny brush, it stumbled a couple times in succession. It took quite a bit of effort to traverse this mountain road. Even if he’d wanted the horse to speed up, it wasn’t possible.

By now the morning sun was high in the sky and a boundless wilderness of autumn grasses unfolded before his eyes. As he wound through a small snake-like path, he came across a sparse few other travelers. He heard the droning of bells just faintly, as if there were a temple somewhere in the distance. Those at the temple were likely taking their morning meal. Jiang Xiaohe’s mind stirred, as he thought, Could it be that the Iron Staff Monk was stationed somewhere? Was it this temple with the bells? When he rescued Bao Zhenfei, could he have brought him to this temple? He stopped the horse and listened quietly to the bells, but their location was too far from here and he couldn’t discern from their sound what direction they were coming from. He could only drive his horse to continue on the small path.

He twisted his way forward another ten or so miles when he saw a row of houses before him. It appeared to be a small town. Jiang Xiaohe thought to himself, I should find a place to take food and feed the horse before I do anything else. He pressed the horse into a trot, and before long he arrived at the small town. The morning sun shone on the streets where quite a few people were walking to and fro balancing poles with baskets on their shoulders. Jiang Xiaohe found a shop displaying a noodle sign in front of its door, climbed off his horse and hitched it outside. As soon as he went inside, he was met with a piping hot kitchen stove and the shopkeeper cooking noodles behind it, and beside him a slew of manual laborers waiting to eat. Jiang Xiaohe said, “Shopkeeper! A bowl for me as well!” He found a stool to sit on and yawned. Someone next to him asked him where he’d come from. Jiang Xiaohe replied, “I’ve just come from Zhenba.”

The shopkeeper scooped up several bowls of noodles and served them to those who had come first, telling Jiang Xiaohe to wait another moment. Jiang Xiaohe shook his head and said, “I’m in no hurry. But where might I find a shop that sells fodder?” The shopkeeper said, “We don’t have a fodder shop here, but east of the road on the north side, there’s a wagon shop. People passing through usually get their horses fed there.” Jiang Xiaohe stood up and said, “Alright, I’m going to go feed my horse first, and then I’ll come back and eat.” Thus, he exited the shop, untied his horse and led it to the north side where he found the wagon shop.

Upon entering, he saw several wagons parked in the courtyard, and under a canopy were a dozen or so mules and horses. Jiang Xiaohe handed his horse off to someone and told them he would come back for it. He took his roll and sword and exited the wagon shop. He spotted several shops with name placards upon which were written “wen” and “town” and something or other, and Jiang Xiaohe knew then that this must be that “Plaguetown” that the Black Panther had mentioned. He couldn’t help but feel a knot in his heart. He thought, Even though the Black Panther used to be a bandit and never really forswore his bandit’s ways, he died tragically yesterday in the course of actions undertaken completely for me. When he thought back to when they’d met ten years ago, he could help but lament.

He strode his way south, planning to return to that shop to eat noodles, but before he walked a dozen paces, he saw a Daoist priest begging for alms in front of a shop. He was ringing a bell in his hands, ding ding ding, and from his mouth he uttered a quiet incantation. At first glance, he was wearing a long robe with wide sleeves and his hair had been brushed into a Daoist’s topknot, no different from any other Daoist priest, but after a closer look, he could tell that this priest was actually a woman of forty-odd years. Jiang Xiaohe immediately thought back to what Wu Jinbiao had said in the mountains the day before, that fifteen years ago, he had been defeated by Daoist priestess on the way to Plaguetown. Jiang Xiaohe couldn’t help but keep a careful eye on the Daoist priestess. Whenever she received money from one shop, she would move to another one to beg for alms.

Jiang Xiaohe pondered this all the way back to the noodle shop, where the shopkeeper gave him a pair of chopsticks and a steaming hot bowl of noodle soup. Jiang Xiaohe picked up some noodles with his chopsticks and said, “I was born in Zhenba, a place not too far from here. However, today is the first time I’ve been to Plaguetown. It seems very particular here, even the Daoist priests begging for alms are women.” Someone who was eating noodles next to him said, “What are you talking about? That’s a Daoist nun. They’re all from Jiuxian Abbey on Cloudperch Ridge. They don’t just see a shop and beg in front of it. They only do it at large businesses and lavish houses!”

Jiang Xiaohe followed up with a question, “Where is Jiuxian Abbey?” The man answered, “In the mountains to the northwest. It’s a large abbey with twenty or so Daoist nuns inside.” Jiang Xiaohe contemplated this and then asked, “Are there only nuns in this abbey, or are there monks there as well?” The man said, “Nonsense. How could an abbey for nuns also house monks inside? Forget about the monks. If someone like you were to go there with incense, they would not open their doors for you. Unless you were an official’s wife, or a bonafide altruist who worshipped Buddha and burned incense, you would not be permitted inside the abbey.” As this man said this, someone else asked a question, “Shopkeeper! Did that large monk come by in the last couple days?”

Jiang Xiaohe was taken aback and quickly turned his head to listen. The shopkeeper knit his brow and said, “He hasn’t been here in the past couple days. The day before yesterday he ate at the Chen family shop, and yesterday he ate at the Fuyuan inn, so I suppose it should be my turn today. I’m terrified when he comes, first of his iron staff, which must be two or three hundred catties heavy, and second of his appetite. He can swallow down ten bowls of these noodles.” Jiang Xiaohe asked, “Does he give you money after he’s eaten?” The shopkeeper said, “What money does he have to give? This monk’s been here for a month or so, living somewhere up Cloudperch Ridge too, but I’m not sure which temple. I hear that because of his excessive appetite, they can only provide one of his meals. He’s forced to break his fast elsewhere. And he’s a loathsome beggar. He’ll come in without even a greeting and block the door with his iron staff, but who would dare stand up to him?” The shopkeeper and the others all agreed.

Jiang Xiaohe heard this and thought to himself excitedly, Bao Zhenfei must have been freed by the Iron Staff Monk last night and hidden at a temple somewhere. The one who killed the Iron Staff Monk must have been one of his enemies. He concealed himself in the mountains last night and waited until the Iron Staff Monk was half-dead from his fall off the slope, before taking his revenge and stealing my horse to get away. That person likely had nothing to do with Zhenfei’s escape. This place is surrounded by mountains and is the border between Sichuan and Shaanxi. There must be loads of strange people hidden here. I need to search every inch of that mountain today. He hurriedly gulped down the bowl of noodles, and though he was not completely satisfied, he lacked the patience to keep eating, so he threw down some coins and left. He went to the wagon shop to collect his horse, now fed and full of energy, mounted it and rode off. He headed south, out of Plaguetown, and followed the path he had traveled earlier, reaching the foot of the mountain in an instant.

He went around the foothills for some time but found no roads up into the mountains, only two or three houses in the distance. Jiang Xiaohe turned his horse and galloped over to them. It was a small village where the women were turning the millstones out in front, the men were in the yards threshing the wheat, and the children were herding the pigs in the shallow mountain stream. Jiang Xiaohe approached the children and asked, “Do you know how to get up into the mountains? What’s the best way to go if I want to burn some incense at Jiuxian Abbey?” The children all shook their heads and said, “Don’t know.”

Jiang Xiaohe fastened his horse to a tree and said, “Children, look after my horse.” He walked over to the threshing yard behind the wall of the two houses and asked of the men threshing the wheat, “Pardon me, I would like to go Jiuxian Abbey on Cloudperch Ridge to burn incense. How do I get up the mountain?” The men all stared at Jiang Xiaohe for a moment before all shaking their heads, “Don’t know!”

Bewildered, Jiang Xiaohe cupped his fist and asked, “I’m also looking for a man. Since you good people live in the vicinity of the mountain, might you have seen a tall, old man with a white beard and a large monk holding an iron staff?” Again the men stared at Jiang Xiaohe for a moment before replying, “No.” One of them laughed, “Where would an old man or a large monk come from? This place is remote. There are no outsiders here the whole year round.”

Jiang Xiaohe stood in thought for a moment and felt as though these men were acting suspiciously. He went back over to the pig herding children to ask them more questions. All of them seemed to have been coached by someone, for no matter what Jiang Xiaohe inquired, their answer was always, “Don’t know.” Jiang Xiaohe smiled bitterly as he untied his horse and rode it away, thinking to himself, If Bao Zhenfei isn’t hiding in this village, then he must be at Jiuxian Abbey. I’m certain everyone here knows what’s going on. If the old man escapes my grasp again today, I, Jiang Xiaohe, would not consider myself a hero or a good man. He spurred his horse into the foothills and found himself a secluded area full of trees. Jiang Xiaohe hitched his horse, untied his roll and hung it off his back. With sword in hand, he walked into the forest.

The mountain rocks here were steep and rugged, as it had yet remained completely untouched by human toil, but Jiang Xiaohe climbed and jumped without too much effort, scaling the mountain peak rather quickly. There were few trees at the top and no temples. He looked down and saw a sea of deep green: elms, cedars, pines and junipers. It looked as if the area had been harvested for timber. Jiang Xiaohe knew then that these trees had an owner and the owner lived nearby.

He leapt back downwards and the tree branches poked at the soles of his feet. He walked a few paces and scared away a large number of birds, all flapping their wings and chirping fitfully as they flew up from the foot of the mountain. He walked another forty or fifty steps down and discovered a bumpy, graded mountain path. This filled Jiang Xiaohe with delight, as he thought, Great, now that there’s a path, how could I not find Jiuxian Abbey? He quickened his pace and continued down the path not far, when he came upon a long and thick rope on the ground, coiled on top of a rock like a snake. Jiang Xiaohe recognized it as the one that Wu Jinbiao had used to tie up Bao Kunlun. It looked like it had been untied by someone and not severed with a blade.

After seeing this, Jiang Xiaohe began to tread lightly. He raised his sword and walked without a sound, avoiding tree branches so as not to startle any birds into flying off. He was like a hunter in search of a wild beast’s lair. His body in a crouch, He wound through another thirty or forty steps. There was even more brush in front of him, and in the cracks between rocks and amid the grass there grew a multitude of red and yellow autumn wildflowers.

As he proceeded forward, he heard a rustling. The brush shook and a flock of birds took flight as a spotted deer with large antlers bounded out towards him. Jiang Xiaohe quickly jumped onto a mountain boulder nearby. The deer stretched its neck out and looked back and forth, like they were searching for the thing that had given it and its companion alarm. The thing turned out to be a person whose white hair and silver beard moved about erratically and whose two eyes darted all about in panic, as if he were more frightened than those two deer. Jiang Xiaohe smirked proudly and said, “Bao Zhenfei! Did you hide here among the deer, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to catch you?” So saying, he leapt off the boulder, swooping down like an eagle. Bao Zhenfei spun around and ran like a nervous bird. The two deer took off from fright as well.

Jiang Xiaohe followed close at his heels in pursuit, but before going far they came to a bend and when Jiang Xiaohe turned the corner, Bao Zhenfei had disappeared without a trace. Jiang Xiaohe yelled furiously, “Where do you think you can go?” He lifted his sword and bounded forward to continue the chase. At this time a red wall came into view. Because Jiang Xiaohe was standing up high, it appeared as if this temple was below his feet. He stopped and peered down and saw that this temple was not small, with three levels of halls built according to the features of the mountain. The courtyard was lush with pines and cedars and clouds of smoke floated up above them. The red wall itself looked freshly painted. Three deer came together at the corner of the wall. The two females crouched down and the one with long antlers stared over at Jiang Xiaohe with its small eyes and moved its mouth around. Jiang Xiaohe thought this place a paradise and he could not be rash here. No matter what though, Bao Zhenfei would not escape his grasp today.

Presently, he made his way down and found the gates of the temple, which were shut tightly. Above hung a placard that read, “Jiuxian Abbey Built by Imperial Edict.” Jiang Xiaohe thought, This must be that temple for the Daoist priestesses. But how could they allow Bao Zhenfei to hide himself here? He walked up and used the gate knocker. He started out knocking gently, but after a few tries with no response, Jiang Xiaohe became angry and and knocked more urgently. The sound of the knocker echoing across the mountain was a tremendously upsetting noise.

With one hand rapping at the gate and the other holding a sword, Jiang Xiaohe shouted out, bold and angry, “Open up! Open up!” But after shouting several times, still no one responded or opened the gate. Jiang Xiaohe was furious and yelled, “The nuns here must not be good people. Why should I be courteous to them?” So he jumped up onto the red wall and looked down with sword in hand. The courtyard was quiet and empty. He saw a figure over by the entrance to the inner yard, walking over to the outer yard, especially to come open the door, it seemed.

It was a woman, but not a Daoist nun, wearing a blue shirt and red trousers, her hair tied in a long braid. Her head was lowered and holding a kerchief up to her face. She approached, crying. Jiang Xiaohe was surprised and daren’t look too closely. He hurriedly jumped off the wall and stood beside the temple gate confused, What’s going on here? Why is there a laywoman in a nunnery? He heard some sounds coming from the gate before it opened halfway. The woman stepped out. Her hand was no longer covering her face, revealing very clearly her glimmering tear-filled eyes and her slender, beautiful face that harbored blame and hatred.

Jiang Xiaohe saw her and was dumbstruck. The situation was so completely contrary to his expectations, he thought he might have been dreaming. He looked at the woman for a long time and then said, “Aluan... What are you doing here...?” The woman who came out was the same whom he’d lost in the Qin Mountains, Bao Aluan. She had been sorrowful, but upon hearing Jiang Xiaohe’s words, she glared at him and said, “It was you who drove me here! You have skills and you must have your vengeance… But why must you kill my grandfather? He’s an old man now! Why don’t you just kill me!” She sprung forward and grabbed hold of Jiang Xiaohe’s sword arm with both her hands.

Jiang Xiaohe felt deep sorrow in his heart and his arm seemed to lose all strength. He waved his hand and sighed, “Aluan! Do not be impulsive. As we are both meeting again today, please calm down and listen to me. I have so many things to say!” An impatient Aluan vigorously maintained her grip on Jiang Xiaohe’s sword arm with both her hands. Her entire body trembled and said through tears, “I know! I know all about your decade-long blood feud! But your ambitions are no more than to kill one with the surname Bao. That’s easy enough. I implore you now to kill one surnamed Bao. But there can be but only one death. You cannot expect the Bao family—the entire family to pay for your father’s life.” So saying, she wrested away Jiang Xiaohe’s sword with a forceful moment of her hands.

Jiang Xiaohe was shocked and hurriedly restrained her wrist with his left hand, but Aluan held on tightly to the hilt with her hands, refusing to let go. Jiang Xiaohe urgently asked, “Aluan? What do you think you’re doing?” Aluan simply cried wordlessly, and then she said, “Anyway... I won’t let you down...and I won’t let down my grandfather...and I won’t let down Ji Guang—“ Before she uttered “jie,” she suddenly thrust her body towards the point of the sword. Jiang Xiaohe hastily snatched the sword away, and though he had the sword in his hand and held it up high, Aluan collapsed all the same. Jiang Xiaohe tossed the sword to the side with a clang, and quickly bent down to hold Aluan with both his arms. He saw that Aluan’s face was paper white and her eyes half-shut as she moaned miserably. Her chest had been pierced by the sword and she was bleeding, staining her blue shirt and her red pants. Jiang Xiaohe anxiously stamped his foot, but could not speak a word.

Aluan groaned, “Are you content now? Are you not angry about this? Quickly now, stab me again... Don’t let me suffer...! Xiaohe, you heartless creature... I waited ten years for you. I’m married to Ji Guangjie now, but I am not in love with him...! Ten years ago, when we were little, I promised to marry you. I...I haven’t forgotten...!” Jiang Xiaohe couldn’t help but stamp his foot and wail loudly.

One side of the temple gate opened and the old master Bao stepped outside. Old master Bao was not cowering as he had been before. This time his face was as purple as a liver and his silver beard shook violently. He angrily rebuked, “Jiang Xiaohe, release my granddaughter right this moment! You can kill her, but you may not embrace her. Jiang Xiaohe, let her go! Let us battle again!”

Aluan was still bleeding out of her chest, and the blood had covered Jiang Xiaohe’s arms and hands. Her body quivered in pain and she became lightheaded, but she was still able to groan out a few words. She said, “Grandfather! You ought to do some thinking as well! I know all about the wicked things you have done in Sichuan! Grandfather, you are too cruel as well...! I have loved Xiaohe since I was ten years old. If you had had more understanding then, we would not have arrived at this point today...! Why...why did you force me to marry Ji Guangjie? ...Xiaohe! Don’t let go! Hold me and let me die!”

Hearing these things from his granddaughter, Bao Zhenfei clenched his jaw in fury and held a frightening glare. But when he saw Jiang Xiaohe’s tear-stained face, his handsome figure and appearance, he was certain he would have been a worthy match for his granddaughter. In addition, he looked so much like his father Jiang Zhisheng. It was too tragic, the way that Jiang Zhisheng had died, and it had brought such misfortune on his house. Thus, the malevolent glimmer drained slowly from his eyes and he gave a long sigh, saying, “I will let you two go! I no longer recognize her as my granddaughter. Jiang Xiaohe, I know that your martial arts are powerful and that I, Bao Kunlun, am no match for you. If you want to kill me, I will not resist at all. But let me tell you, it was terrible how your father died then, but there is no doubt he put himself in that situation. After he died, we found several taels of silver on his person, which we returned to your family. There were many times when I wanted to kill you, to nip this problem in the bud, but I could never bear to do it. I, Bao Zhenfei, am not without compassion. There is no need to discuss this further. I will leave, and I will leave Aluan’s life and death to you. I will seek out Ji Guangjie and annul the marriage!” So saying, old master Bao set off down the mountain in large strides, bitter and dejected.

Jiang Xiaohe did not have it in him to respond to Bao Zhenfei. He simply wept and looked at the mournful and tender Aluan, whom he was supporting in his arms. Aluan was now only moaning, unable to put words together. Tears hung from her two eyes, barely open as they gazed at Jiang Xiaohe. Jiang Xiaohe carried the half-dead Aluan in through the temple gates.

The inside of the temple remained serene. The outer gate had been open a while, but no one seemed to know what had been going on outside. In fact, the temple seemed to be devoid of people altogether. Jiang Xiaohe inquired a couple times, “Is there anyone here? Anyone?” But he received no response. He walked all the way to the third courtyard before he came upon two young Daoist nuns picking pine nuts off the ground. As soon as they saw that Jiang Xiaohe was a tall and sturdy young man holding Aluan in his arms, and that Aluan was covered in blood, they screamed in fright and ran into one of the side halls.

A very old Daoist nun emerged from the side hall and was astonished to encounter this situation, asking, “Why is she injured?” Jiang Xiaohe said, “Quickly, find a place where I can set her down, and then I can tell you what happened!” The elderly nun said, “She was staying in the outer yard!” She led Jiang Xiaohe out of this garden and to the second courtyard where she opened the door to the eastern hall. Jiang Xiaohe carried Aluan inside. It was very dark in the eastern hall. A Buddha sat in the outer room, while inside there was a wooden couch upon which was set a pillow and bedding. Jiang Xiaohe asked the nun to fold back the blanket. He placed Aluan gently onto the couch, put the pillow under her head, and then pulled the blanket over her.

From nearby, the elderly nun said, “Miss Bao was brought here by the Iron Staff Monk. She’s been living here for over a month. We do not usually allow idlers at the temple, but the Iron Staff Monk was an acquaintance of our abbess Daocheng. When he came this time, he was especially ferocious and scared us into allowing her to stay. We also heard that she was a married woman who had been forced into a bind by a bandit with nowhere else to go. When she first came, her shoulder and leg were wounded. We monastics consider mercy as our guiding principle, so it would have been unsuitable not to accept her here.”

Jiang Xiaohe sighed and indicated toward Aluan as he said to the nun, “How pitiful she is! We came from the same town. We were together when we were younger, like brother and sister. But her grandfather was a bad man and caused her harm!” Jiang Xiaohe seemed not to be able to go into greater detail with the nun. She said, “It appears she is not likely to die. Where is her home? You must quickly find a way to bring her home and nurse her back to health!” Jiang Xiaohe nodded in agreement. The Daoist nun turned and left the room.

Aluan opened her eyes a crack and said, “Why don’t you go too?” Jiang Xiaohe furrowed his brow and said, “How can I go while you’re hurt like this? No matter what, I must see you to a full recovery and send you home before I can leave.” Aluan wept, “I’m not going home, so just get out of here! Don’t ever come back. I will no longer acknowledge anyone from here on out. If my grandfather comes, I will not see him, so if you want to kill him, then go ahead and kill him!” So saying, she started sobbing bitterly again, moaning even more dismally. The room was dark and the color of blood was hard on his eyes. Jiang Xiaohe’s heart was twisted into deep knots. He stood with his brow knit and stared into the distance for a moment and then thought, I don’t have any medicine for cuts on me right now, so how can she heal her wounds? But if I leave to procure medicine, no one will be here to look after her.

He hesitated for a while and then saw Aluan open her eyes a little once more. Jiang Xiaohe approached the couch and asked quietly, “Aluan, are you thirsty?” Aluan groaned, “No!” Jiang Xiaohe then said, “Please wait here a bit. I’m going to ride a horse to Plaguetown and get some medicine for your cut. How will you get better without medicine?” Aluan did not reply. She closed her eyes sluggishly and continued moaning.

Jiang Xiaohe shook his head, sighed to himself, and slowly walked out of the room. He stood at the door and looked at Aluan with concern for a while, and then strode into the courtyard. He hurried outside and saw that the gate out into the mountains was still open. Jiang Xiaohe walked out and then secured the gate. When he looked down, he saw there were still bright red spots of blood on the ground. A wave of pain surged through Jiang Xiaohe’s heart. He went to look for the sword he had thrown onto the ground, but it was nowhere to be found. He didn’t have the heart to search more closely, so he descended the stone steps, passed through the forest, and proceeded down the mountain. He encountered a deer before him, grazing leisurely on grass, but when it spotted him, it bolted away in fright. The mountain birds fluttered their way onto trees in the distance, seeming to warble tunes of melancholy.

A long time passed before Jiang Xiaohe made it down the mountain. He orientated himself and followed the mountain road in search of the horse he had hitched up around here. However, he looked everywhere to no avail, seeing only a pile of horse dung left in the original location. It was fortunate that his roll was secured to his own back, otherwise it would have been stolen as well. Jiang Xiaohe looked all directions, but was met with only rustling tree and scattered birdsong. He saw not one person, not even the cottage he had seen in the area before. Jiang Xiaohe came to a realization. The horse must have been ridden away by Bao Kunlun, so he angrily spat, “Great! Bao Kunlun! You have escaped narrowly with your life twice now, but only because of my lenient hand and merciful heart. I’ll let you live another few days, but we shall see what happens when we meet again!” He thought of Aluan who was still wounded atop the mountain and pushed all else out of his mind. Though his horse was missing, he could walk very quickly, and moreover he would sprint intermittently. Before long, he arrived at Plaguetown.

It was noon by now, and there were not as many people in Plaguetown as there had been in the morning. He went back to the shop he’d visited in the morning for noodles. He saw that the noodle pot had been taken down and the interior was deserted save for the shopkeeper who was sitting next to the stove, taking a nap. Jiang Xiaohe addressed him loudly, “Shopkeeper!” The shopkeeper jumped with surprise as he awoke out of his dream and opened his eyes widely. Jiang Xiaohe asked him urgently, “Shopkeeper, is there a doctor here who specializes in healing wounds? Which place sells the best medicine for cuts? I have a friend up in the mountains who fell and got a very serious injury!” The shopkeeper said, “There are no external practitioners here, but there is a well-known veterinarian at the wagon shop on the north side. If you need medicine, you’ll have to head east. There’s a pharmacy down one of the smaller lanes.”

Jiang Xiaohe dashed out in search of the small lane and found a residence that had “Salves” painted on the wall, upon which was also written, “Heirloom Eight Treasures Wind Chaser Pellets,” and “Secret Recipe Golden Lock Solid Essence Drops.” A medicinal bottle gourd also hung in front of the door. Jiang Xiaohe entered and was asked by an old man in the courtyard, “Here to purchase medicine?” Jiang Xiaohe nodded and said, “Yes, I need to get medicine for lacerations.” The old man had him enter a room filled with medicinal bottles and jars. Jiang Xiaohe said, “Whatever’s for lacerations, give it here.” The old man said, “We don’t have any more medicinal powder, but we have some bone salve.” Jiang Xiaohe said impatiently, “It’s not a broken bone, it’s—“ He stroked his chest with his hand and continued, “It’s an injury right here, and the wounded party is a woman.”

The old man quickly opened a drawer and took out a packet of medicine. Jiang Xiaohe looked at the words written on it—it was for breast sores—and he grew so angry he wanted to knock the old man over with his fist. He said loudly and urgently, “It’s for a blade wound! Do you understand what I’m saying?” The old man said, “To heal blade wounds, huh? The best for that is Yunnan White Medicine. You’ve got to go the provincial capital for that. We don’t have that sort of thing in a small place like this. The people who get hurt here all come to my place for bone salves, or sometimes camphor powder.” Jiang Xiaohe heard this and thought, Camphor is cooling. Applying it to the wound might relieve some of the pain. Thus he took out his silvers and bought a few taels of camphor powder, and ran back outside.

He left Plaguetown the way he’d come. He sprinted straightaway back toward Cloudperch Ridge. He puffed along with sweat dripping from his head and deep regret in his heart. He thought, In the spring, when I brought medicine to Mount Song for Yang Xiantai, how renowned was the Chan master Taiwu’s “Vajrapani’s Restoration Powder”! Back then, he angrily tore up the recipe and tossed a few bundles of it on the ground. Why didn’t I take a couple more and keep them till today? If I had that medicine, would I even need to worry about Aluan’s injury? Because of this, he also started thinking of Li Fengjie, about how Li Fengjie must have established a family by now. And here I am still drifting about Jianghu, wasting all that energy to find Aluan, only to discover that Aluan had been married off to another man by her grandfather. Now, she’s admitted that she loves me, but even if I make her my wife after her wounds heal, were Ji Guangjie to hear about it and come find me, how could I possibly respond to him? Not to mention, can I let Bao Kunlun get away just like that, after he murdered my father? Could this be the resolution of a grudge between two houses?

Vexed, he thought this as he came to the base of the mountain. By now he was out of breath from running, so he slowed his pace to a walk. He spent quite a bit of effort before he found the stone steps hidden amid the tangled thicket. Jiang Xiaohe held the medicine bundle under his arm as he huffed his way upwards, traveling a while before arriving in front of Jiuxian Abbey’s mountain gate. He saw that the bloodstains on the ground had been swept clean, though that sword was still nowhere to be found.

Jiang Xiaohe pushed on the gate and found that it was jammed tightly from the inside. He bounded up over the wall and into the abbey. Before his two feet found their place, something struck his left arm suddenly, causing him an awful pain. He couldn’t help but tumble and end up sitting on the ground. The medicine bundle was cast from his hand. The thing that had hit him fell to the ground with a clatter. It was an iron shot the size of an apricot pit. Jiang Xiaohe was astounded! He couldn’t lift his injured left arm, but he quickly used his legs to stand up.

Then from the first level of the main hall on the north side came four or five more iron shots at an interval like they were beads on a window curtain. Jiang Xiaohe swiftly dodged all of them. They hit the wall and rolled around on the ground. Jiang Xiaohe angrily asked, “Who are you? Come out and face me!” The double doors of the northern hall creaked apart and out came an old and tall Daoist nun of fifty or so years. She wore Daoist garb and held in her left hand a slingshot, and in her right a shiny steel saber. Jiang Xiaohe stared stunned and said, “Nun, do not mistake me. I had just departed from here. I procured some medicine and returned. I have a girl here from my home village who is injured and staying at your abbey.”

The old abbess’s appearance truly resembled an old wolf, and also perhaps an owl. She laughed unkindly and said, “Do you think I do not recognize you, Jiang Xiaohe? You went out and learned yourself some martial arts and have returned to Southern Shaanxi to wreak havoc, bullying the elderly and helpless Bao Zhenfei and splitting the bonds of a husband and wife, Ji Guangjie and Bao Aluan—“ Jiang Xiaohe took umbrage and said, “Nonsense!” The old abbess grew more vicious and said through her clenched jaw, “The Iron Staff Monk was my disciple-brother. He rescued Aluan from the Qin Mountains and brought her here. Yesterday, he saved Bao Kunlun, and that night he sent his own disciple Jingxuan to Zhenba to alert the men of the Kunlun School. My disciple-brother the Iron Staff Monk was a righteous xia, but he was killed in the mountains by you as well. How do you have the gall to come here to my abbey?”

Jiang Xiaohe sneered, “If the Iron Staff Monk was so righteous, why did he beat to death a hunter and his wife in the mountains last night? If he hadn’t killed them, I would certainly not have been able to harm his life.” The old abbess said, “That hunter family used to be bandits in these mountains, but with me and my disciple-brother here, they behaved themselves and pretended to be hunters. Whenever we leave this place, they rob and harm the people of this mountain. There is no injustice in their deaths.” Jiang Xiaohe said, “Well, then I am in the wrong here! However, the matter between the Bao family and me cannot be explained in a short amount of time. You only know of Bao Zhenfei as old and pitiful, but you don’t know the savagery of his character. At any rate, I am unwilling to cause a raucous in this hallowed place right now. I’ve come only to heal Aluan, and when her wounds are better, I will donate some money and take my leave!” So saying, he bent down and reached out to pick up the bundle of medicine with his right hand, but to his surprise, the nun launched another iron shot at him with her slingshot. Fortunately, Jiang Xiaohe was quick to dodge and the shot flew by his ear. Otherwise, it would have cracked his skull and killed him.

Jiang Xiaohe was at the end of his patience. Without bothering to pick up the medicine, he bounded up toward her with a large step. The old abbess tossed away her slingshot and swung her saber at him. Jiang Xiaohe met it with his bare hands, intending to wrest the saber away from her, but the old abbess’s movements were too nimble. Her saber skill increased in ferocity and she took another tack. Jiang Xiaohe was unable to take her saber, so he leapt high up to avoid her blade and then took advantage of the opening to snatch up the iron slingshot. It was thus that the slingshot became Jiang Xiaohe’s weapon. He brandished it as if it were a sword and parried the old abbess’s saber.

The old abbess’s saber skill was truly powerful, genuinely surprising Jiang Xiaohe. He thought her martial arts a step above those of Bao Zhenfei and Ji Guangjie, and her strength seemed no less than that of the Iron Staff Monk. At the moment, Jiang Xiaohe was not able to use his left arm well and his body was exhausted, not to mention that he was also worried about Aluan’s wound. He did not have it in him to continue fighting in earnest. But the old abbess’s spirit was vigorous, sending saber after saber at him. Jiang Xiaohe thus put the whole body of his martial arts to use.

The exchange went on for over twenty moves more before he avoided her attacks to target her weaknesses. Using the slingshot handle in place of his finger, he suddenly jabbed it at the old abbess’s rib area. It was as if the old abbess had been unexpectedly struck by a hidden weapon. The saber fell from her hand and she collapsed onto the ground. Jiang Xiaohe had used dianxue on her. Once he’d sent her to the ground, he no longer paid her any more attention. He flung aside the slingshot, picked up the bundle of medicine up off the ground, and ran toward the inner yard.

Lying on the ground, the old abbess said, “Jiang Xiaohe! Unless you intend to have me lying here forever, as soon as I’m able to get up, I cannot permit you to live. I must avenge my disciple-brother!” Jiang Xiaohe did not say anything to this. He ran to the second courtyard and into Aluan’s room. He saw that Aluan’s chest was still muddled with the color of blood while she was laying down with her eyes open, as if she had died. Jiang Xiaohe gasped and knit his brow tightly, as he ran to Aluan. She was breathing and moaning gently. Jiang Xiaohe opened the bundle of medicine and took out the camphor powder. He opened her shirt a little and sprinkled a large amount of the powder onto the wound in Aluan’s chest. He then paid close attention to Aluan’s condition after he applied the medicine, as he wrapped it back into the bundle.

Now, the elderly nun whom Jiang Xiaohe met the first time came by again. She pressed her head to the floor and said, “How did the Abbess Daocheng offend you, good sir? She is lying immobile in the outer courtyard at the moment. She said that the good sir has used your dianxue skills on her. If you can activate points, then you can undo them as well. She asked me to plead with you, good sir, that if you were to release her, she would go away immediately and resolve never to cause trouble for you again, good sir!” Jiang Xiaohe turned around and asked, “Where is there an abbess such as her in this abbey? Her methods are cruel. Were I not here today, she could have killed five or six people with her iron slingshot. If I let her go, she is sure to continue to do ill!”

The nun said, “She will not go out and do bad things, and she will not use her slingshot easily on people. She is a little younger than I, yet she is of previous generation. In our abbey’s two-hundred-some year history, we had never forsaken the rules of our order. It is only that she, on an outing for alms, she encountered someone who knew the martial arts and passed them onto her. She learned how to use the saber and the slingshot, and because of that she was restless to leave the abbey. In the last twenty-some years she has wanted often to leave the province. Sometimes, it would be an entire year before she returned home. That Iron Staff Monk was her disciple-brother, and the two of them, brother and sister, would often come here together. The Iron Staff Monk also had his own disciple who had come here yesterday, though I am not certain when the two of them departed today, master and disciple.”

Jiang Xiaohe then asked, “Was the Abbess Daocheng in the abbey last night?” The elderly nun before him nodded and said, “No, she’d just come back. She’d been away for ten days or so this time. We never know where she goes. Sometimes, she will arrive suddenly, and other times she will depart just as suddenly. None of us dare to ask, because she is our senior and she has a bad temper. Furthermore, this abbey used to be very small, but then it was fixed up with the alms she gathered from outside. Thus, ever since our master passed on, she has become the head of this abbey. However, the time she spends here is little, and she does not usually light incense or worship the Three Pure Ones, nor does she chant scripture or meditate. She only raises a few deer. She very much adores deer.”

At this point, crouched on the bed, Aluan abruptly started moaning again. Jiang Xiaohe quickly turned around and saw that Aluan’s wounds appeared a little better. Her eyes were more open now, but tears still dropped from her eyes. She spoke quaveringly, “Xiaohe! You mustn’t harm Abbess Daocheng or the Iron Staff Monk. They are both xia who rescued me and brought me here!”

Jiang Xiaohe nodded, “Of course, I will do them no harm!” He felt much regret in his heart, as he thought he should have used a lighter touch in his battle with the Iron Staff Monk yesterday. But then he thought, The person who killed the Iron Staff Monk yesterday with a blade, rode away on my horse and snatched Long Zhiqi’s head away cannot be Bao Zhenfei or the Abbess Daocheng. I think there must another who opposes them. How peculiar. These are the borderlands between Sichuan and Shaanxi, a distance not even a hundred miles from Zhenba. How can there be such strange people whom I’ve never heard anyone speak of?

He then said to Aluan, “I rendered the Abbess Daocheng immobile with my dianxue skill. I’m going to release her so that she can move around again like an ordinary person. It’s just—ah! Why don’t you properly nurse your wounds! After you’ve healed up, I’ll give you a more detailed account of the things that have happened to me. There is no right and wrong to speak of in the current Jianghu. You cannot believe only one side of the story. Daocheng and the Iron Staff Monk did rescue you, but they are far from righteous. But do not worry, I will not harm them, not to mention that Yuan Jingxuan were friends from a decade ago. I, Jiang Xiaohe, have always conducted myself out in the open. When I tell you everything, you will be able to know!”

When he was finished speaking, Jiang Xiaohe turned back away, left the room, and hurried out to the front courtyard, where he saw the wicked Abbess Daocheng still lying on the ground. Jiang Xiaohe approached and said, “I have heard that you are also a xia, so I will cause you difficulty no more, but I must have you recognize my martial skill. It was not only by dianxue that I prevailed over you!” As he said this, he picked the iron-backed, steel-wired slingshot up from the ground. Though his left arm was injured, but he could still make full use of his left hand. He gripped it with both hands and there came a snap, as the seven or eight-part string was pulled apart all at once. Then, he used both his hands again to bend the shaft of the slingshot, turning the slingshot’s iron body into a metal ring, and tossed it onto the ground with a clatter. He then picked up the saber, set it against the foot of the wall and gave it a kick. The first kick bent the saber out of shape. He flipped it over and gave it another kick and broke the saber into two. Lastly, he came over and tapped Daocheng gently with his foot, the kick causing Daocheng to roll over a couple times. Daocheng gradually felt her agility returning to her and she was able to stand up again.

Unexpectedly, as soon as the Daoist got up, she tried to take her opponent off-guard and reached her hand out at Jiang Xiaohe’s ribs. As it turned out, she was also familiar with dianxue. Jiang Xiaohe pushed her aside with a clap, sending her more than two feet away from him. Jiang Xiaohe scoffed at her, “Do you persist? You think you can use dianxue against me? If your dianxue skill is just like your slingshot: only good enough to bully children with!” Daocheng got up for the second time and glared ferociously at Jiang Xiaohe with her owl-like eyes, but her face was sallow and he could see that she was weak and spiritless. Jiang Xiaohe scoffed again and closed in a few paces at her. She couldn’t help but back away all the way to the mountain gate. She abruptly leapt up onto the wall and sneered from above, “Jiang Xiaohe, do you dare go to Mount Wudang?” Jiang Xiaohe laughed, “I’d just come from there, not two months ago. Why wouldn’t I dare to go?” Daocheng sniggered from the top of the wall once more and said, “Good! I will wait for you on Mount Wudang. Before a year is up, you must go there. If you do not, then you are nothing but a coward!” The Daoist jumped down the other side of the wall and ran off.

Indeed, Jiang Xiaohe felt anger and wished to hurry over the wall in pursuit of the Daoist and defeat her once and for all. However, he remembered that Aluan was still inside, so fuming, he picked up off the ground the slingshot shaft that he had bent into a ring, and exerting the strength of both hands, he straightened it again until it resembled an iron baton. Since he no longer had a saber, he couldn’t do better than to employ this as a weapon of defense. Carrying this slingshot shaft, he went back through the inner courtyard to the room that Aluan was staying in, where he saw that Aluan’s eyes were still open. Jiang Xiaohe said, “I’ve let that nun Daocheng go. How are you feeling now? If your wounds are still too serious, I can hurry and buy you some good medicine for cut wounds, or invite a brilliant doctor to come back here.”

Aluan groaned, “Don’t leave me!” as tears streaked from both her eyes. Jiang Xiaohe bore the ache in his heart and gave a long sigh. He wanted to explain to her all the things that had happened to him and the love he felt for her, but also the grudge he held against her grandfather. But he watched as Aluan’s brow knit again and again as she moaned successively. She closed her eyes again. Jiang Xiaohe moved closer to the bed and watched her blankly. It was as if he held his heart in his two fists. The harder and tighter he clenched them, the more he hurt!

He stood here like this for a while. Aluan moaned faintly and kept her eyes closed. Jiang Xiaohe dared not even sigh loudly. The room started growing darker, until the blood stains on Aluan’s chest were completely indistinct. Outside, the birds chattered erratically, as if a crowd of children were fighting with each other. Jiang Xiaohe opened the pouch of camphor powder and sprinkled a bit more of it onto Aluan’s wound.

The door creaked behind him and Jiang Xiaohe looked back quickly. He saw that it was the elderly nun rushing in, carrying a wooden tray. There was nothing else on the tray except for one bowl of cooked millet and a pair of chopsticks. Jiang Xiaohe brought it over to Aluan and waited a moment before Aluan opened her eyes again. Jiang Xiaohe asked, “Here’s a bowl of millet. Would you like to eat it?” Aluan groaned two or three times and then said bleakly, “No!”

Holding the tray, Jiang Xiaohe stared at the bowl of what amounted to two or three bites of millet and couldn’t help knotting his brow. He turned around and rested the tray on the window sill, and then consulted the elderly nun in a hushed tone, “This is a tranquil mountain forest. I shouldn’t even be here. However, I am in a bind here, with her wounds as serious as they are and none of you able to properly care for her. Not to mention that she cannot be moved to another place. My surname is Jiang, given name Xiaohe, you can ask anyone. I am an honest and respectable man. I would never come here to break to your rules. Once her wounds have healed a bit, I will take her away and send some donations your way!”

When the elderly nun heard this portion, she finally understood his meaning and said, “Good sir, if you are thinking of lodging here, that isn’t possible. Even the unreasonable sort of man like the Iron Staff Monk cannot lodge here when he comes. He stays at the Yongshan Temple on the western side of the mountain. This rule of ours is hundreds of years old, and there is no way around it. Please rest assured, while she is here, I can have our disciples check in on her often.”

Jiang Xiaohe nodded and sighed, as he had nothing to say. He stood vacantly for a moment and then discussed further with the nun, “One more thing, I beg the sister as a matter of convenience. I am not hungry today, so it’s fine that I not eat, but with wounds like hers, she must recuperate here for many days. I’m afraid it will be ten days to half a month before I will be able to leave this mountain. I can be resourceful with where to stay, find myself a place to sleep in the pine forest outside of the abbey, but as for food, I would like to take it here from you. Before I leave I will give you money to cover all of the cost!” But the nun replied, “This too is not possible, as our food stores are limited. The two of us, abbess and nun, are only allowed this one small bowl whenever we sup. How would we be able to adequately provide for you? Even if you bought us rice or noodles, there would be no one here to be able to prepare it for you!”

Upon hearing this, Jiang Xiaohe couldn’t help but get mad, but there was nothing he could do. She was unwilling to let him stay or take food here, and he could not be unreasonable. The nun did repeat her suggestion, saying, “It is probably best if the good sir went to the Yongshan Temple on the western side of the mountain to stay. They are all monks there and there is much more space over there compared to us.” Jiang Xiaohe asked, “How far is Yongshan Temple from here?” The nun replied, “Head west over two mountain ridges, about a dozen or so miles out. But we have only heard about it from others. No one here has ever ventured over there.” Just now, melodious bell chimes floated in from outside, and the nun quickly turned around and left to eat.

Jiang Xiaohe wished he could just smash the wooden tray and shatter the rice bowl. From the bed, Aluan groaned, “Why don’t you go for now...?” Jiang Xiaohe stood, staring angrily into the middle distance before walking over and saying to Aluan, “Aluan, I am so sorry that our experiences are so bitter! Not only do I hate your grandfather right now, but I also despise my father! If he had never engaged in his misdeeds and broken the rules of the Kunlun School, he would never have suffered his tragic fate. The two of us would have long been married. Ah, these are all injustices are as if the work of gods and demons...!”

By the time he said this, Aluan’s face was covered in tears. He was on the verge of stamping his foot and weeping as well, saying, “Now... Ah! Let us not mention these matters anymore! As long as I see that your wounds have healed, I will be at ease! And then I will leave here alone, never to come after your grandfather or see any of my old friends again. Neither will I fight to surpass those in Jianghu. But I feel it unsuitable for you to recuperate here. The nuns at this abbey are hateful, not to mention that Daocheng, the one who I’d just let go was very strong in the martial arts. She was defeated by my hand today, but she will certainly not be one to let the matter rest in the future. This mountain is also too dangerous and remote. Who knows what kind of people we’ll encounter or what will happen here, so I am apprehensive. But I will forever be here to protect you, even though the nun refuses to feed or house me. I cannot even try to find you medicine! If indeed you feel that can endure your condition, I will carry you down the mountain. There are a couple dwellings at the base of the mountain. We can go and you can slowly recover there. It will be leagues better than staying here!”

Aluan shed quite a few tears and moaned for a while before she stammered, “We are destined for each other! When you ran away when we were little, I hated you. But I would also think of you, but never be able to express it...! Though Ji Guangjie and I were... But...we were never husband and wife... When my wound heals, I will not be with him. But I cannot forget him either! Because he has risked his life for me...!” She began to sob loudly, but continued, “I can’t even esteem my grandfather anymore! He... I heard the Iron Staff Monk’s disciple say the day before last that my grandfather killed a poor child in Northern Sichuan. He’s just too cruel...”

She burst into tears again for a spell and then moaned a few times. She said, “Just go! Don’t worry about me. I was rescued by the Iron Staff Monk, so they cannot treat me poorly. It’s merely that they all hate you and fear you. Go! But come here often to see me. I no longer have the strength to speak further, but if I am able to recover, I have countless things to tell you. If I die, please don’t forget about me. Ten years ago, when you suffered hardship in our household, you must know how much heartache I felt! My grandfather often desired to kill you, you must know how worried I was! When you ran away and I didn’t know if you were dead or alive, I was so...” When she got to here, she doubled over in tears and felt a strange pain in her chest where her wound was. She suddenly furrowed her brow tightly and moaned, unable to speak any longer. Jiang Xiaohe wiped his tears and urged her, “You mustn’t feel sad either! Your heart and mine, we both now know each other’s. All future matters will be easy to take care of, so do not worry!”

All this time, what was in the bundle at his back were a couple changes of clothes and a few silver taels, nothing heavy or cumbersome. But when Jiang Xiaohe noticed that Aluan was wearing blue shoes, he couldn’t help but be reminded of the red shoe amongst his things. Then he thought back to that night in the Qin Mountains when Aluan tumbled down the mountain stream and disappeared. At the time, he’d thought she had been carried away in the mouth of a ferocious tiger. Who knew that she had been rescued by the Iron Staff Monk! Then he thought, Neither the Iron Staff Monk nor Daocheng seemed to know their place as ascetics, but they both had a hand in saving Aluan’s life. I have estranged Aluan from her grandfather and husband and caused her to make an attempt on her own life. Though she didn’t die, she did suffer from this grave injury. What good have I done her after all? Feeling deep shame and remorse, he sighed, “Then you stay here and rest and recover. I’ll go out to find a place to stay!”

Aluan murmured drearily to express her acknowledgement. Jiang Xiaohe scooped up the slingshot shaft and quickly left the room. He stood in worry under the eaves for a moment. A variety of birds chirped and chattered erratically, and other than the evergreen clouds in the sky, there remained a few as red as blood. The mountain wind whistled as it blew past, cold and dismal.

Jiang Xiaohe made his way out of the abbey with head hung low, sighing as he walked. He thought, No matter what, I must mend Aluan’s wounds. It is too late today to leave here, but tomorrow I will find some good medicine to fix her up with! When he reached the wall, he leapt over it. The shade under the trees outside was so dense and thick it may as well have been night.

At this time, three deer trotted over toward him. Because they had seen Xiaohe two or three times already, he had become somewhat familiar to them. They appeared not to fear him anymore. The buck with long antlers poked his nose at Jiang Xiaohe and gave him a sniff. After Jiang Xiaohe stroked its antlers, the deer jumped up the mountain slope and headed west, the buck in front and the two doe in the rear. Jiang Xiaohe used the slingshot staff in his hand as a walking stick on the rocky ground and walked up the mountain slope as well. He watched as the three deer turned behind the western wall.

Jiang Xiaohe thought this peculiar, so he followed after them. He saw outside of the abbey’s western wall, a low, windowless mud hut with two rooms. The three deer entered into the mud hut and laid down close to each other. The buck continued to swat at its hip while it watched Jiang Xiaohe. Jiang Xiaohe couldn’t help but smile as some of his anxiety dissipated temporarily. He thought, This is a good place. The Daoists at the abbey wouldn’t permit me to stay inside, but they can’t complain if I spend tonight in this deer shed. I’ll be able to take shelter from the mountain wind in this small hut.

Thus, he stooped down and darted inside the low hut just as the deer had done. He set the slingshot shaft down, grabbed some straw from the side and laid it out on the ground. He sat down and rested for a bit, but he started feeling hungry. His left arm was throbbing with pain as well, making it hard to raise it. He called to mind that when he had entered the abbey after buying medicine today, he had been unprepared and was struck by that nun with one of her slingshot. That hateful Daoist nun! She said she would wait for me on Mount Wudang. She must be acquainted with the Seven Great Sword Sages of the mountain. She wants to use the Seven Great Sword Sages to subdue me, but where would I have the leisure to go there and fight them? He recalled again his previous clash against Ji Guangjie on Mount Wudang. Ji Guangjie had been arrogant and treacherous. At the Ba Bridge, he had arranged for a net that nearly caused me misfortune and perhaps loss of life. Though he is Aluan’s husband, Aluan said it just now herself that they were completely forced into the match by the old man Bao. They are husband and wife in name, but not husband and wife in truth. With this being the case, why am I worrying about him? Aluan and I knew each other first and have always been close friends. Today old man Bao further declared that he no longer recognized her as his granddaughter. Why am I like one of those scholars, heartsick and unwilling to become closer to Aluan?

After thinking this, he became excited and the pain in his left arm faded. First, he fished out the red embroidered shoe from his roll, and then burst forth from the deer shelter, vaulting over the western wall and back into the abbey. He heard chanting coming from the inner compound, but it was faint. Jiang Xiaohe came again to Aluan’s room, though the interior was so dark he could not see the person lying on the couch. He heard Aluan’s voice as she asked, “Who’s there?”

Jiang Xiaohe replied, “It is I!” He was glad that Aluan was still conscious. He ran up a couple paces and said, “Aluan! Even though you are injured now, it is not terribly convenient for you to stay here. We need to find a way to quickly leave this place. I will descend the mountain now and go to negotiate a wagon from Plaguetown, and then I’ll come get you early tomorrow morning. We will go to Langzhong. I have two good friends there, one is Jiao Dechun the Golden-armored God and the other is Xu Lin the Xia of Langzhong.” Aluan moaned, but didn’t say anything.

Jiang Xiaohe continued, “I drifted about Jianghu for ten years and trained in the martial arts with two central intentions, to avenge my father and to marry you. But I have accomplished neither! I captured your grandfather. I hated him, but when I saw his beard so white and thought back to when we were young, you pulling on his hand, laughing and jumping about, I just couldn’t bear to kill him. So it is with our marriage as well. You are already married to Ji Guangjie. He is good man and I am not willing to steal you from him!” He stroked Aluan’s hand and handed the red shoe to her, saying, “This shoe belongs to you. That day you disappeared in the Qin Mountains, I looked all day for you to no avail. I found only this red shoe. I carried this shoe with me when I visited Ziyang. When I went to Tongjiang and Yilong, whenever I looked at this shoe, I would feel heartache and think of you. I have now come to a decision!”

Passion was aroused in his heart as he spoke, “Long Zhiqi was the murderer who killed my father, and I have already taken his head. I have avenged my father. Your grandfather, I pity his old age, so I can spare his life. As long as he stops doing bad deeds, I will leave him alone. Since you are not fond of Ji Guangjie, why not take the opportunity now to forget about him! We must act on the words we spoke to each other ten years ago under the willow tree. You will be my wife. We will set off tomorrow, and as we travel, we’ll heal your wounds. When we get to Langzhong, we will worship heaven and earth and become husband and wife. Then I will open my own security shop. Relying on my martial arts, I am certain to become the number one security captain in Sichuan and Shaanxi!” He smiled and then asked, “Are you willing or not? Speak quickly, this one sentence will make me very happy! But if you say you aren’t willing, I will not be angry!”

At this point, Aluan had stopped groaning, for quite a while before she responded sweetly but morosely, “I am willing...” Upon hearing this, Jiang Xiaohe laughed with delight, an unspeakable happiness in his heart and an unspeakable joy in his mind. But he also felt regret. Why hadn’t he told this to her earlier? Had he done that, they would be on the road by now. He repeated his response, “Good. Good! I will go now to Plaguetown to arrange a wagon. Because if I don’t do it tonight, it will be too late tomorrow. I must have them pad the wagon with a thick mattress, as your wounds cannot suffer bumps in the road.”

So saying, Jiang Xiaohe exited the room and hurried barged into the main hall, coming upon ten-some Daoist nuns chanting sutras. Half requesting and half threatening, Jiang Xiaohe called on them to assign people to properly take care of Aluan. He himself would come tomorrow with a wagon to take Aluan away, but if anything should happen to her tonight or she lacked water or was short the help she needed, he might not be so happy tomorrow. This he asked of them! After giving them these instructions, Jiang Xiaohe cheerfully descended the mountain in the twilight, running over to Plaguetown to procure a wagon and prepare everything.

After he left, the night at Cloudperch Ridge grew thicker. Bats fluttered erratically over the courtyard. The nuns’ evening sutras had been interrupted by Jiang Xiaohe. A director of the abbey sent one of the older nuns to see to Aluan. At this time, there was no light in Aluan’s room, so the Daoist nun in charge of taking care of her laid upon a prayer mat placed next to a shrine to Progenitor Lü in the outer room, as if she had fallen asleep.

Aluan was on the couch in the inner room. If she moved her body just a little bit, the sting in her chest would flare up like a stab to the heart. Though she was physically in pain and exhausted, she was mentally very excited. She was pleased because tomorrow Jiang Xiaohe would take her to get married, but outside of that pleasure, she was also a bit sorrowful. Her emotional state was all twisted up inside, especially now because she couldn’t help but recall her muddled feelings after she had been rescued from the lair of Hu Li the Silver Dart in the Qin Mountains...

The last time Aluan saw Ji Guangjie was a month previous, when she had been struck by one of Hu Li’s darts and hauled to Harrierfall Peak. Aluan had always loathed Ji Guangjie absolutely, but during that time, her heart had shifted slightly. Through iron bars, she had said with both appreciation and sorrow to her husband with whom she had gone through so many troubles, “Let these bandits kill us both! We will be husband and wife in the afterlife. I will be good to you there!” Ji Guangjie’s manner had been passionate with no fear of death, which made Aluan ever more grateful and a little regretful that she had treated him so callously in the past.

While imprisoned in the cave, Aluan was certain she was to die, unaware that that night, she would be rescued by Jiang Xiaohe. Jiang Xiaohe carried her in his strong arms as he leapt up cliffs and over mountain streams, his skill nimble beyond compare. She felt then admiration. It was especially so when Jiang Xiaohe brought Aluan to that wonderously high mountain peak and laid her gently atop a large, flat and smooth rock, saying, “Aluan, don’t be afraid. Wait here for me. In a moment, I will save Ji Guangjie and bring him back!” Even more, Aluan’s emotions could not help producing tears, thinking, Jiang Xiaohe is too good! His heart is not full of malice. He is cruel to my grandfather, but my grandfather was the one whose deeds were excessive first. He is a resolute man. Of course, he cannot set aside vengeance for this father just because he loves me. When I think about it, he has not done anything to me that he needs to apologize for. Rather, I am the one who has truly let him down. When I agreed to become his wife under the willow tree then, we were just playing a sort of game, but it was also like a real oath had been taken. I should not have softened my heart later because I felt bad for my grandfather to carry my own intentions to marry Ji Guangjie. If Jiang Xiaohe brings Ji Guangjie here in a moment, and the three of us all face each other, what can I do? Am I to leave with Ji Guangjie as before and tell Jiang Xiaohe to drift about alone, forever with his grudge, hardly ever to see him again? If that’s the case, I will die heartsick, but what if I cast aside Ji Guangjie and go with Jiang Xiaohe? It would be both against common decency and it would seem too heartless toward Ji Guangjie. Time and again he has suffered injury for my sake, nearly losing his life. Not only have I never shown him any love, but I would be abandoning him to become the wife of his enemy. What kind of person would that make me?

Thus, she found things extremely difficult and felt immense sorrow. On this high peak under a sliver of the moon, she caught sight of a deep mountain stream below and contemplated death. She would not wait for Jiang Xiaohe to rescue Ji Guangjie and bring him here. She would not wait to become entangled within these two feelings, this impossible to resolve situation, so she jumped off the precipice. In fact, this was a drop of over a hundred feet, and if one fell, it would be certain death. But Aluan was after all a woman of exceptional martial skill. Her abilities were not dull like those of ordinary people. At the same time, though her heart had decided on death, her hands and feet seemed still to have the instinct of self-preservation. She couldn’t help but straighten her body. What’s more, the middle of the vast mountain stream was twenty or thirty feet deep! And so, in an instant after she dropped down, she splashed into the water and sent it flying high. Her hands and feet struggled of their own accord, and her mouth and nose naturally closed up tightly. She sank and emerged a few times, never losing consciousness, though she kept her eyes closed.

By the time she opened her eyes, outside of the stream, she saw bits of the wide sky through the diffuse clouds and the hazy moonlight. She laid prone next to a large boulder. Her two legs were still immersed in water and her feet were numb. The mountain stream rushed continuously against her body, pushing her back out. Again, she instinctually pulled her legs out of the water and began to sob uncontrollably. She thought, Even to die is a challenge! After a moment, she heard an urgent shout echoing through the mountain. It seemed to say, “Aluan! Aluan!” It took her by surprise and made her feel even worse. She determined in an instant not to speak out. After some more time passed, the shouting gradually left the mountain.


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