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Thread: Legendary Book of Sun-Moon Swordplay - The Prequel

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    CHAPTER 19 --- LEGENDARY SWORDS, HEAVENLY WEAPONS

    Characters appearing in this chapter:
    Sun Fei Fei 孙菲菲---Fa Heung Yan a.k.a. Black Rose 花香燕
    Hu Ge 胡歌---Miu Jing Hung 苗靖雄
    Yang Mi 杨幂---Lau Ji San 劉紫珊
    Huang Xiao Ming 黄晓明---Lau Ming Leung 劉明良
    Wallace Chung Hon Leung 鍾漢良---Sit Chung Nam 薛钟南

    MORNING
    NORTH STAR TOWN
    MARKETPLACE

    “Is he bothering you, Clan Leader Black Rose?”

    Before Yan could turn around to respond, a masculine hand suddenly reached out from behind Yan and clenched hard around Young Master Yuen’s arm, forcing the privileged, arrogant man to yelp in pain.

    Yan jerked her head around at that moment, and recognizing her rescuer, sighed with relief. Before she could utter a singe word, the spoiled man gripping her arm exclaimed with outrage.

    “Hey!” Young Master Yuen sputtered. “How dare you? Who are you?”

    “Yes, who are you?” Young Master Yuen’s shorter friend rushed up and echoed.

    Miu Jing Hung ignored the shorter man and stared straight ahead into the tall, spoiled man’s face, although his eyes appeared to be sightless if one observed him closely. Calmly, Jing Hung adjusted his bamboo hat with one hand, while his other hand still clamped tightly around Young Master Yuen’s arm.

    “Young Master,” Jing Hung began, his voice even-toned and polite, “I suggest that you walk away and leave this young maiden alone.”

    Young Master Yuen snorted, his temper escalating as he attempted unsuccessfully to shake Jing Hung’s hand loose. “Who are you? Do you know who I am and what kind of trouble you are in by daring to interfere in my business? You better let go of my arm right now!” He demanded again, as he jabbed his finger at Jing Hung’s hand.

    “Yes, you better let Brother Yuen go before you experience the wrath of the Yuen family!” The shorter man exclaimed.

    However, before Miu Jing Hung could respond to the two wealthy young masters, the shiny glint from his Imperial Constable crest caught Young Master Yuen’s eyes. The belligerent young man narrowed his eyes at the surname “Miu” etched onto the shield.

    Recognizing the crest of the Imperial Constables, Young Master Yuen laughed contemptuously. “I thought you must be the Emperor himself to dare interfere today, when in reality, you are only a lowly constable. Judging from the imperial crest you have hanging from your waist sash, you must be the famed Imperial Constable Miu Jing Hung, who has never failed an assignment, no matter how wily the opponent.”

    Young Master Yuen paused, his lips twisted in derision. “However, no matter how outstanding you are at capturing felons, you are only a humble servant of the imperial court. On the contrary, do you know who I am?” He insolently puffed out his chest and lifted his chin, as he stared down his nose rudely at Jing Hung. “I am royalty. Nine generations of my family have been high ranking imperial court officials. My great aunt was the Dowager Empress two generations ago, my uncle is the current prime minister, and my younger sister is now the Emperor’s favorite concubine.”

    “So Great Constable Miu,” Young Master Yuen concluded sarcastically, his hand still clenched possessively around Yan’s arm as he glared challengingly at Jing Hung, “if you don’t step aside right now and mind your own business, you won’t live to see daylight tomorrow.”

    Unimpressed with Young Master Yuen’s threats and relation with royalty, Jing Hung continued to stare somberly at the other man. Since his encounter with Poison Snake two nights ago, the effects of Poison Snake’s vision-impairing powder still had not cleared. He could barely see and could only make out blurry, amorphous shapes. Yet, he carried himself confidently without betraying any clue that he really could not see well at all.

    “It doesn’t matter how closely related to the Emperor you are.” Jing Hung replied. “What matters is that you are harassing this young maiden against her wishes, and that is against the law. Nobody is above the law, not even the Emperor himself.”

    “Why you...!” Young Master Yuen gasped at Jing Hung’s audacity.

    With his free hand, Young Master Yuen reached toward the fan tucked into his waist sash and flicked it open. He fanned himself calmly for a moment, and then without warning, he snapped the fan shut and tried to whack Jing Hung’s hand with the fan, in an attempt to free himself.

    Though Jing Hung could not see well, he could hear the swoosh of the fan as it swung through the air toward his hand. With quick reflexes, he grabbed the tip of the fan before it could hit his hand and wrenched the fan out of Young Master Yuen’s hand. With a flick of his wrist, he flipped open the commandeered fan and thrust it toward Young Master Yuen’s face, forcing his opponent to back away several steps, thus releasing Yan’s arm. Quickly, Jing Hung yanked Yan toward him and pushed her behind him.

    “Hey!” Young Master Yuen hollered indignantly. “Give me back my fan! Do you know how much that fan costs?”

    He rushed toward Jing Hung, determined to reclaim his fan. Though Jing Hung could not see his opponent clearly, the loud, livid man made so much noise that he had no problem determining his location through sound alone. As Young Master Yuen approached, Jing Hung snapped the fan shut and brought it down hard enough onto Young Master Yuen’s head to force him to back off, but not hard enough to injure him.

    “Ouch!” Young Master Yuen screamed. “Miu Jing Hung! I’ll have you arrested for this!”

    The irate Young Master Yuen rubbed his forehead and swiveled around to glare at his companion. “Well, don’t just stand there! Help me teach this peasant a lesson!”

    “Right! Right, Brother Yuen!” The shorter man jerked to attention.

    The friend glanced anxiously at Miu Jing Hung and shifted his feet hesitantly for a few seconds, swallowing his saliva.

    “Hurry up!” Young Master Yuen prodded his friend. “Charge!”

    “All right! All right!” The friend replied and lunged forward after inhaling nervously twice.

    Off to the side, Young Master Yuen also dashed toward Jing Hung, determined to rush at the constable, confident he would emerge victorious with two against one.

    In the background, the middle-aged proprietor hopped nervously on her feet, yelling for the men to please quarrel somewhere else and spare her small, humble food stand. Unfortunately, no one paid attention to her.

    The friend dived first at Jing Hung, who made no move to retreat. As the short man approached, Jing Hung opened the fan and swept it toward the left side of the man’s face. Though the parchment paper fan was lightweight and harmless, the internal energy behind the sweeping motion knocked the short man to the side. As the man reeled backward, he bumped right into Young Master Yuen, who was in the process of rushing forward toward Jing Hung. Both men smashed into the table behind them, sending dishes of food crashing to the ground.

    “Oh, please, please, young masters!” The food stand owner wrung the dish towel in her hands, distressed. “I just make a very small profit daily. I cannot afford to replace all the broken tables and chairs!”

    Again, her words were unheeded as Young Master Yuen and his reluctant friend leapt to their feet. They picked up two wooden stools nearby and hurled them at Jing Hung, who tilted his head slightly, listening closely to determine the location of the stools in the air. He then somersaulted swiftly into the air and kicked at the two stools to divert their trajectory. The stools landed neatly next to each other a few paces away. While still airborne, Jing Hung executed a backward somersault and landed onto one of the stools.

    Jing Hung sat calmly on the stool, hoping the men would admit defeat and spare themselves further embarrassment. Unfortunately, he heard the two men charge forward again. Sighing inwardly, Jing Hung kicked out with one foot, sending the second stool next to him skidding across the ground. The friend, being pushed by Young Master Yuen to charge first, tripped over the stool and landed in an inelegant heap. The stool, propelled by the force of Jing Hung’s internal energy, continued sliding forward and knocked hard into Young Master Yuen’s shins, causing him to topple forward. He landed face first onto the ground and choked and coughed as dust particles irritated his upper airways.

    Scrambling to their feet, both men huffed and puffed, groaning slightly from their minor injuries. The friend managed to regain his footing first, and tried to help Young Master Yuen up, but his mortified Brother Yuen shook him off.

    Young Master Yuen pursed his swollen, bleeding lips tightly together, incensed. Streaks of dirt colored his previously pristine and clean face with brown. He panted, humiliated, as he looked down at himself. His expensive robe was torn and wrinkled, and he looked like a ridiculous, unkempt beggar. Worse, his pride stung as he looked around at the small crowd now gathered to gawk at their tussle. As the crowd murmured and jeered, Young Master Yuen shook with fury.

    “What are you all staring at?” He hollered indignantly. “Scram! There is nothing to look at!”

    After pointing and smirking quietly, the crowd slowly dispersed. Still huffing, Young Master Yuen jerked his head back toward Jing Hung and Yan’s direction. Seeing Jing Hung still coolly sitting on the stool, Young Master Yuen made a move to rush forward again, but his companion quickly pulled him back.

    “Brother Yuen!” The shorter man spoke to the angry Young Master Yuen in a low voice. “Let’s just go. A gentleman can wait ten years to exact his revenge. We’ll teach this lowly constable a lesson another day.”

    Young Master Yuen paused, still out of breath. His entire body ached, and he thought he might have sprained his back. Swallowing his resentment and pride, he nodded in agreement.

    “Let’s go!” Young Master Yuen huffed.

    As he hobbled by Yan and Jing Hung with his companion’s help, he halted briefly to glare at the two.

    “Don’t think this is over, Miu Jing Hung! I’ll have you thrown in prison for assaulting royalty!” Young Master Yuen boldly threw out that empty threat.

    Jing Hung did not speak but quietly stood up and handed the fan back to Young Master Yuen.

    Now completely humiliated, Young Master Yuen jerked the fan out of Jing Hung’s hand and hurled it at the ground, stomping on it with a surly expression on his face.

    “You’ll regret butting into my business, Miu Jing Hung!” Young Master Yuen vowed before smirking lasciviously at Yan. “And you, my darling... I will be back for you...”

    Hardly intimidated by the disheveled, limping man, Yan raised one eyebrow at his words, but did not respond. She watched Young Master Yuen and his friend hobble down the street and eventually disappear around the corner of a tall building. Once the two spoiled brats left, she turned her attention to her savior.

    “Thank you for helping me, Constable Miu.” Yan smiled gratefully.

    Jing Hung acknowledged her gratitude with a slight nod. In the background, he could hear the middle-aged food stand owner moaning over the destruction of her food stand. Jing Hung picked up the stool he had been sitting on and walked over to the proprietor.

    “I apologize for any inconvenience, Madam.” He apologetically handed the stool back to her before reaching into his gown pocket for a small bag of gold coins. “Please accept this as compensation for your losses.”

    The middle-aged woman glared angrily at Jing Hung and Yan, but snatched the bag of coins from Jing Hung, anyway. “Humph! How could this pitifully small amount of money be enough to reimburse my losses?” Even as she complained, she pocketed the coins.

    Yan hurried over and started to help the owner pick up the fragments of broken dishes. “We are sincerely sorry. Here, Madam. Let me help you clean up.”

    “No, no!” The woman brushed off Yan. “Just please go! Haven’t you caused enough problems today?”

    “But...” Yan began.

    However, the owner rudely pushed her away. “Go, go!” She shooed, as if trying to get rid of vermin.

    Jing Hung nodded politely. “All right, Madam. We will respect your wishes.” He adjusted his bamboo hat and walked off.

    Yan watched Miu Jing Hung slowly navigate the crowded marketplace. She recalled the black blinding powder her older sister, Ling, had used to injure Miu Jing Hung with two nights ago. That particular poison did not blind permanently, but would cause enough inflammation and irritation of the eyes to handicap the victim for at least half a month. An inexperienced physician would not recognize such a poison and would simply assume the patient would recover his eyesight within forty-eight hours, the most common recovery period expected for the garden variety eye poisons. Such a physician would also not know that it was crucial to keep the victim’s eyes covered and protected from bright lights, or else the inflammation will linger and could cause eventual scarring of the optic nerves, thus leading to permanent blindness.

    Yan observed Miu Jing Hung’s retreating figure for a little longer. For someone who could not see very well, he was maneuvering relatively well through the busy streets. However, she could sense him hesitating slightly every so often. Given that he had just helped her, she decided to help him in return.

    “Wait, Constable Miu!” Yan called after him.

    When he paused, Yan rushed up to him. “Constable Miu, how are your eyes?”

    “They are fine.” He lied.

    Yan sighed inwardly, unsure why men persist in acting nonchalant and invincible when they obviously need assistance.

    “No, they are not fine.” Yan rebutted. “The poison my sister threw at you two nights ago causes temporary swelling of your optic nerves, which is why you cannot see.”

    Jing Hung remained quiet, but did not deny the symptom Yan listed.

    Yan rummaged through her travel sack and dug out a small container. She pushed the small jar into Jing Hung’s hands.

    “Here, take this.” Yan instructed. “I don’t have an immediate cure for my sister’s poison, but I can help make sure your eyes heal properly without lasting damages. Apply this salve to your eyes every day in the morning and at night for half a month. You also need to keep your eyes covered with a clean cloth to protect it from bright lights.”

    Jing Hung hesitated at first, but then gripped the jar firmly and nodded. “Thank you, Clan Leader Black Rose.”

    When he started to walk off, Yan stopped him. “Constable Miu, you shouldn’t be alone while your eyes are still injured, in case you are attacked. Where is your wife?”

    Jing Hung tensed at the mention of Bak Yeuk Lam, and an almost imperceptible sadness flashed briefly across his eyes. “She’s not here.”

    Yan laughed with exasperation. “Yes, I can see that she is not here.” When Jing Hung did not elaborate further, Yan sighed. “Do you want me to go look for her? You need someone to take care of you for at least half a month.”

    A pregnant silence followed, as Jing Hung remained stubbornly quiet. That fleeting wistful but sorrowful look returned to the reserved constable’s face, causing Yan to soften her tone.

    “Do you know where she is?” Yan asked more sympathetically this time.

    Jing Hung shook his head. At that very moment, the proud and very capable swordsman suddenly appeared tired and defeated.

    “Would you like me to help you find Miss Bak?” Yan questioned. “You really do need someone to take care of you while your eyes are still injured.”

    “No, she won’t come, even if you find her.” Jing Hung replied in a somber voice.

    “Do you have any other family members I can notify to come and take care of you?” Yan persisted, not entirely comfortable leaving him alone to fend for himself.

    “No,” Jing Hung answered.

    Before Yan could prod any further, he sighed and straightened. “Thank you for the salve, Clan Leader Black Rose. I will make sure I follow your treatment instructions.”

    Without giving Yan a chance to respond, he somersaulted into the air and vanished.

    “Wait!” Yan yelled at the empty space in front of her. She blinked in surprise and shook her head. “Ugh!” After glancing one more time in the direction which Jing Hung had disappeared, she muttered glumly under her breath, “I was going to ask you if I could borrow some money for breakfast, but never mind.”

    With her stomach now grumbling more loudly than ever, Yan dejectedly shuffled down the street. Her hands shook from hunger, and she began to feel slightly dizzy from lack of food. In addition, the weird sensation of being watched and followed returned. She scanned the area briefly, but like earlier, all she could see were unfamiliar townspeople.

    Frowning, she quickened her footsteps. At that moment, she heard another set of footsteps also hurrying behind her. Immediately, she stopped and whirled around, but again, she could not identify anyone suspicious. Her heart unsettled, she turned back around and took off at a run. The footsteps behind her followed, also moving quickly.

    Without notice, Yan halted and swiveled around. “Aha!” She yelled triumphantly.

    The jolly elderly man nearly jumped a mile high when Yan suddenly jerked around and screeched into his face. He was following so closely behind Yan that he couldn’t stop in time and crashed into her, knocking her over. The large gray sack he carried fell on top of her, too. The sack opening loosened and all the junk inside smashed onto Yan’s face. Some pieces of junk were attached to long chains and ropes, which entangled around her arms and legs.

    “Ugh!” She groaned, a bit dazed, as she lay there on the ground.

    “Oh! Oh! I am so sorry, little girl!” The elderly man apologized profusely.

    He quickly disentangled himself from her and helped pull Yan to her feet. She stumbled around slightly, weighed down by the old man’s junk still dangling from her arms and neck.

    “Ouch!” Yan rubbed the back of her head and then looked at herself, confused by the assorted rusty objects attached to her by long chains and ropes. “What is all this stuff?”

    “Oh! Oh! Those precious treasures are all mine, little girl.” The elderly man answered. “Here, let me help you remove them.”

    When Yan tried to shake the objects loose, the old man hyperventilated. “Be careful! Be careful! Those pieces are invaluable, highly coveted items!”

    Yan stopped jiggling the junk pieces and gaped at the old man. “Elder, you’re kidding, right?” She pointed incredulously to the pair of rusty swords secured together by their hilts with a heavy steel chain currently dangling around her neck. “This junk is priceless and highly coveted?”

    The old man gasped, clearly affronted by her choice of words. “Junk! Little girl, these treasures are not junk!” He carefully collected all the junk pieces from Yan and gently placed them back into his gray sack, leaving only the pair of tarnished swords still hanging around her neck.

    “Umm...Elder, you forgot to take these,” Yan cleared her throat and pointed discreetly to the old swords swaying from the heavy chain around her neck.

    “Oh, no, those are my gift to you, little girl.” The elderly man grinned at her, revealing a few missing front teeth.

    “Uh, no, thanks, Elder,” Yan darted her eyes self-consciously toward the crowd that had gathered around to gawk at the commotion. “I really cannot accept such junk...err...treasures.”

    “What?!” The old man hopped up and down, insulted that she had rejected his generosity. “Little girl, do you know how many renowned pugilists have begged me to gift them these swords? Yet, I have turned them down every time.” He thrust his face right in front of hers, his gray, bushy eyebrows raised up high, his gaze supposedly piercing and serious but only seemed comical to Yan. “Do you know why?”

    Yan took one step back and coughed twice to keep from bursting out in laughter. She stared at the elderly man in front of her. He appeared like someone’s underfed grandfather, thin and gangly. His drab, gray gown hung from his skinny body like an ill-fitting sack. His hair, completely gray, draped over his shoulders in a wild tangle. His gray beard nearly reached his abdomen. However, despite his impressively long beard, the most remarkable part of his face were his twinkling, bright eyes, which seemed to gleam with merriment.

    In the background, the crowd slowly started dispersing, after getting a clear look at the old man and deciding that he was probably some old crazy beggar. Soon, everyone left and the townspeople continued on their way, ignoring the young maiden and the elderly beggar.

    “Do you know why I have refused to give those swords to every martial artist who has asked me for them in the past?” The old man asked again, his voice becoming shrilly when Yan took too long to answer him.

    Yan blinked and shook her head. She delicately disentangled the twin swords from around her neck and sighed in relief once the heavy blades were lifted from her neck.

    “It’s because those pugilists, as superb as they are, are not the destined wielders of these legendary swords.” The elderly man answered his own question. “But after waiting for decades, I have finally found the rightful owner.” He leaned forward and jabbed his finger at Yan. “You, little girl, are the one I have been waiting for! That is why I have been following you.”

    Yan raised one skeptical eyebrow at the old pieces of metal in her hands and then shifted her eyes to the man. “Um, well,” she paused awkwardly, unsure how to kindly reject this adorable, but clearly delusional, elderly man’s present. “I am honored, Elder, but I think there may be a misunderstanding here. You see, I no longer have any martial arts skills, so I cannot be the destined wielder of these legendary swords. These fabulous weapons would be wasted on me, so you should take them back.”

    She politely tried to hand the rusty blades back. However, the elderly man pushed the swords back toward her.

    “Oh, no, no, little girl.” He chuckled with mirth. “You misunderstand. You are not the destined wielder of the Twin Swords of Sun and Moon.”

    “Then why are you insisting that I take these weapons?” Yan asked, puzzled.

    The old man laughed again. “You may not be the destined owner of the swords,” he paused and leaned down slightly, pointing at her flat abdomen, “but the child in your womb will be.”

    At his statement, Yan sputtered in outrage. “Nonsense!” She covered her flat belly with her hands, very insulted. “I’m not pregnant!”

    “You may not be with child now, but you will be soon.” The old man replied, the teasing twinkle in his eyes now replaced with a very profound expression. “It is my duty to pass on these swords to the parents of the new protector of the Twin Swords of Sun and Moon.”

    “This is ridiculous!” Yan threw up her hands in exasperation. “Elder, you should probably go home and rest. You’re obviously delusional.”

    When she attempted to leave, the old man grabbed her arm firmly, forcing her to turn back. “Little girl, I am not delusional, nor am I joking. These twin swords are specialized and rare weapons which cannot fall into the wrong hands.”

    Yan sighed and looked down at the man’s tight grip around her arm. Since she cannot get rid of the elderly man easily, she decided to play along. “All right, if these weapons cannot fall into the wrong hands, then you really shouldn’t hand them to me, since I have no ability to protect them.”

    “Ah,” the old man smiled, “you may not have to ability to protect the swords, but your son’s father does. Your responsibility is to bring the destined owner of the Twin Swords into this world. Your husband’s responsibility is to protect the swords until the child becomes old enough to wield the weapons and bring them to their full power.”

    “My husband?” Yan rolled her eyes. “I don’t have a husband.”

    In response, the elderly man merely smiled serenely at her.

    Yan stared at the man for a long moment, and then sighed. “All right, this is such an absurd conversation! I’m leaving, and please don’t follow me!”

    She tossed the rusty swords onto the ground near the old man’s feet and darted off swiftly before he could say another word.

    This time, the elderly man did not bother to chase after her. He leaned down and picked up the swords before gingerly placing them into his gray sack. He straightened and stared after Yan’s disappearing figure, his fingers stroking his long beard pensively.

    “We will meet again, little girl.” He murmured solemnly. “We will meet again.”

    He then turned and walked off, his large sack slung over his shoulders.

    From a distant restaurant balcony, a person sat calmly at a table, sipping tea, while observing the scene below him. This person watched Yan’s rapidly disappearing form as she blended into the crowd, and then he shifted his eyes toward the elderly man as he walked away in the opposite direction.

    Leisurely, the person lifted the teacup to his smiling lips, a predatory gleam in his eyes. “So the Twin Swords of Sun and Moon have finally made an appearance...”

    AFTERNOON
    OUTSKIRTS OF NORTH STAR TOWN

    Despite the fierce winds last night indicating the likely possibility of an impending storm, by afternoon, the sun managed to fight through the thick layers of dark clouds to bathe the earth with its golden, radiant rays. However, the wind continued to whistle furiously through the forest, its icy, invisible fingers rattling the leaves, challenging the warmth of the sun’s beams. It stirred the sand and debris on the ground, creating mini tornados of dust. Above in the heavens, the storm clouds fought with the sun for domination, hovering ominously close to the sun, threatening to drown out its bright rays any minute. Thus, the sky alternated between light and gray.

    The lone man slowly navigated across the rocky path, using touch and hearing to help him travel. He hunched his shoulders against the raw cold as a gust of wind swept by. However, he welcomed the chill if it indicated that the sun would retreat soon and the dark clouds would dominate, tempering the sun’s brightness.

    Despite the liberal amount of Yan’s eye salve slathered over his eyes and the thick black cloth covering his eyes, Jing Hung’s eyes still stung from the sun’s brilliance. If only the sun would hide behind the black clouds, then his eyes could find some relief. Reaching up, he adjusted the strip of fabric more securely over his eyes to block out as much light as possible.

    Satisfied with his eye cloth’s position, Jing Hung took a step forward, about to continue on his journey toward Floating Cloud Summit. There was an outstanding arrest warrant on Sit Chung Nam, and since so many constables had failed to capture the ruthless and highly skilled bandit, the Emperor had tasked him with the challenging duty to bring Sit Chung Nam to justice. Even before his eyes had suffered an injury, he didn’t have absolute confidence that he would be able to triumph over the notorious bandit. He never doubted his own skills, yet he was not foolish enough to underestimate a dangerous opponent. Now with his sight compromised, his chances of successfully completing his task decreased even further. Nonetheless, the Emperor’s command must be carried out, no matter how difficult or impossible.

    Jing Hung sighed and forged forward, carefully making sure he did not slip down the rocky terrain. Above, the heavens blackened and the wind roared. It appeared that the sun had lost its battle with the wind and clouds. A tempest neared, judging from the intense chill in the air. Seconds later, heavy droplets shot down, plopping loudly onto the dry earth, right before the heavens suddenly opened up and rain gushed from the sky.

    The downpour nearly drowned out the subtle sound of multiple footsteps racing lightly over the wet earth. However, Jing Hung could sense the faint shift in the surrounding air. Alarmed, Jing Hung tilted his head slightly, listening intensely. In that instant, three arrows sliced through the rain, heading straight toward Jing Hung. Immediately, he backflipped consecutively three times, avoiding the projectiles. Jing Hung landed onto the ground, just in time to feel the air move again as three more arrows shot out of the woods and flew towards him. He reached behind him and unsheathed the sword strapped to his back, and with three swift stances, struck down the oncoming projectiles with his sword.

    Thunder rumbled amidst the loud patter of raindrops striking the earth. In the distance, lightning flashed, illuminating the darkened woods, as if announcing the arrival of intruders. From the depths of the forest, ten people emerged and somersaulted forward, surrounding Jing Hung, blocking all exit routes.

    Eight of the ten people dressed in black and held disc-like weapons with metal rings lining the circumference of the discs. The remaining two people appeared to be the leaders of the group, a young man dressed in a dark, forest-green robe and young woman wearing a lavender gown.

    The green-robed man carried a silver-colored bow, with a quiver filled with silver-colored arrows strapped to his back. He stood tall and proud, his handsome, chiseled features stern, his gaze unwavering as he looked straight at Jing Hung.

    Next to the tall, imposing green-robed man, the young maiden next to him appeared fragile. She held a pipa with unique metallic golden strings in her hands. The hooded, dark purple cloak she wore over her lavender gown protected her from the soaking rain. Her presence seemed incongruous among this group of men wielding lethal weapons. Yet, her proud aura matched the one exuded by the green-robed man standing by her side. The expression in her eyes burned with hatred as she glared at Jing Hung.

    The green-robed man and lavender-gowned woman separated from the group and stepped forward.

    “Constable Miu Jing Hung,” the green-robed man asked, “do you know who we are?”

    Jing Hung furrowed his brows, trying to place the man’s voice.

    When Jing Hung did not answer immediately, the young maiden spoke coldly. “Why bother talking to him, Eldest Brother? We should just execute him like he did Second Brother.”

    “Your second brother?” Jing Hung frowned with confusion.

    Though he could not see the brother and sister pair, he did not recognize their voices at all.

    “Don’t pretend you don’t remember what you did to my second brother!” The young woman did not raise her voice, yet her furious words rang clearly above the rumble of distant thunder. She then turned to the man beside her and demanded, “Eldest Brother, why are we wasting time conversing with this murderer?”

    The man shook his head at his younger sister, his expression slightly reprimanding.  "Ji San, the Heavenly Weapons Manor will not kill someone without first giving the culprit a chance to defend himself."

    At the mention of the name Heavenly Weapons Manor, Jing Hung frowned even further. If these people surrounding him today belonged to the Heavenly Weapons Manor, then the young man and young maiden leading the group must be the Lau siblings, the young master and young mistress of the manor. However, why did Young Master and Young Mistress Lau of the Heavenly Weapons Manor want him dead?  As an imperial constable carrying out the Emperor's orders, he had indeed pursued highly skilled pugilists who had repeatedly broken the law or had threatened the safety of the empire.  Yet, he did not recall antagonizing or even encountering anyone from the revered and lofty Heavenly Weapons Manor.

    The Heavenly Weapons Manor had always kept its distance from wulin affairs, its descendants rarely leaving Horizon Peak where the manor was located. For many years, the pugilist world and the Heavenly Weapons Manor had maintained an unspoken agreement. Each would coexist with the other as if in parallel universes, never intersecting.

    The manor was famed for its vast and comprehensive collection of the world’s deadliest and most powerful weapons. The original founder of the Heavenly Weapons Manor, the Lau siblings’ great-great-grandfather, had been one of wulin’s most respected chancellors, who had commanded the pugilist world’s four main orthodox schools and eight minor orthodox clans with wisdom and impartiality. However, due to constant infighting among the orthodox clans and schools at that time due to greed for power, the disillusioned Chancellor Lau had announced his retirement from the position of chancellor and retreated from the power struggles of the pugilist world. He withdrew to Horizon Peak with his wife and only son. Due to his interest in all types of weapons, he started collecting them, and eventually began using his own rare talent to create his own specialized weapons. As time passed, he gradually possessed some of wulin’s most rare and powerful weapons. Eventually, the pugilist world bestowed his residence with the title of Heavenly Weapons Manor.

    After Chancellor Lau had abdicated, the coveted position of Wulin Chancellor remained empty. The orthodox clans and schools fought endlessly and viciously with each other, but no supreme leader managed to claim the position of chancellor. As internal strife among the clans and schools continued, the minor clans’ numbers started to dwindle to the point that they eventually became extinct or became absorbed into the larger, stronger groups, leaving only five major clans and schools surviving - the Seven Soaring Flags Clan, the Heavenly Crane School, the Red Raven Clan, the Mount Soaring Eagle School, and the Golden Tiger Clan.

    To bring peace to wulin and to stop further bloodshed, the leaders of the five surviving clans and schools agreed to retain their sovereignty and abolish the position of Wulin Chancellor. They would cooperate and fight alongside each other as brothers, but no one person would ever rule over the others.

    However, despite the tentative truce, the leaders feared that one day they would lose their independence should a more powerful and capable authority arise. As the Heavenly Weapons Manor’s collection of extraordinary weapons increased, the orthodox clan and school leaders began to worry that the manor’s descendants would grow too powerful and hence threaten their sovereignty. Therefore, they started to send disciples to attack Heavenly Weapons Manor.

    To protect his home and family, the retired chancellor reluctantly erected deadly traps and mazes around and within Heavenly Weapons Manor to keep intruders out. After losing hundreds of lives to the traps and mazes, the leaders of the five orthodox schools and clans wisely gave up their hopes of invading Heavenly Weapons Manor. An unspoken truce formed between the prior chancellor and his former followers, in which the orthodox clans and schools would never again step foot onto Horizon Peak and Heavenly Weapons Manor in exchange for a promise from the Heavenly Weapons Manor that its descendants would never unleash its powerful arsenal of weapons onto the pugilist world and dominate it.

    After the former Chancellor Lau passed away, his only son followed in his footsteps, keeping his distance from wulin affairs. Each generation thereafter did the same and remained detached from the struggles of the pugilist world. Because the descendants of the Heavenly Weapons Manor rarely entered wulin, many in the pugilist world have not even met the manor’s current generation of leaders - Eldest Brother Lau Ming Leung, Second Brother Lau Ming Hou, and Third Sister Lau Ji San.

    Now suddenly, two of the three leaders of the Heavenly Weapons Manor entered the pugilist world to track down Miu Jing Hung. Whatever major incident prompted the Lau siblings to leave their seclusion, Jing Hung could not even fathom. However, he could sense their deep animosity and feared that he may not be able to escape today’s confrontation alive. Jing Hung tightened his hand around the hilt of his sword more firmly as he listened to the green-robed man speak.

    Lau Ming Leung, the eldest Lau brother, hooked his silver bow over his right shoulder. The rain had soaked through his dark green robe, and streaks of rainwater streamed down his face. Yet, he ignored such trivial matters as he focused his attention on Jing Hung.

    “Constable Miu,” Lau Ming Leung called out. “I have heard that you are an honorable man, who would not kill without a good reason.” He paused, a muscle at his jawline ticking, the only clue that he was fuming. “Why, then, did you murder my second brother? What enmity do you have against the Heavenly Weapons Manor?”

    Jing Hung shook his head in denial. “I do not know your second brother, and I have no reason to kill him.”

    “Miu Jing Hung, you coward!” The lavender-gowned Lau Ji San laughed bitterly. “So the righteous, brave Imperial Constable Miu is actually a wimp who refuses to admit responsibility for his crime. If you were brave enough to kill my second brother, why not be a man now and just admit it?”

    “I didn’t do it,” Jing Hung gritted his teeth. “I refuse to admit guilt to a crime I did not commit.”

    “Oh, and I suppose we should trust your word and simply leave, correct?” Lau Ji San mocked. “Today, I will show you the consequence of antagonizing the Heavenly Weapons Manor!”

    Without waiting for Jing Hung’s response, Lau Ji San leapt forward before her eldest brother could stop her.

    “Ji San, wait!” Lau Ming Leung called out to his younger sister.

    However, Lau Ji San ignored her brother. As she approached Jing Hung, she plucked off two of the golden metal strings on her pipa. Swiftly, she strapped the instrument to her back and then stabbed the ends of the two metal strings together. The ends merged the minute they touched, forming a slender, golden staff. She twirled the staff expertly and struck forward, aiming for Jing Hung’s head.

    Unable to see, but able to feel the slight vibration in the air as the golden staff neared his head, Jing Hung lifted his sword. The blade clashed with the staff. The staff, though appearing very dainty and thin, withstood the internal energy force emitted by Jing Hung’s sword.

    As sword continued to clash with staff for ten stances, the eight Heavenly Weapons Manor disciples dressed in black standing in the background looked to their Young Master Lau Ming Leung for guidance.

    “Young Master Leung, should we intervene and help Young Mistress San?” One of the men inquired.

    Lau Ming Leung watched the battle closely and then slowly shook his head. “No,” he answered, “let Ji San handle this. We do not want Heavenly Weapons Manor to be accused of achieving victory only through ganging up on those with smaller numbers.”

    As the match continued, Jing Hung somersaulted into the air, avoiding a strike from Lau Ji San’s staff. Mid air, he flung his sword toward his opponent. The sword encircled Ji San, who backflipped away to evade the oncoming blade, but not quickly enough to avoid getting a lock of her long hair sliced off by the sword. The sword completed its full arc and returned to Jing Hung, who plucked it mid air and landed neatly onto the ground.

    Jing Hung could have quickly ended the fight at that moment, as Lau Ji San’s internal energy and skills could not compare with his. However, he chose to show his opponent mercy, as he knew this misunderstanding would be even more difficult to resolve if he were to injure the Heavenly Weapons Manor’s young mistress.

    Ji San, too, landed onto the ground and touched her hair, enraged. Without pausing, she thrust her staff forward. Feeling the shift in the air, Jing Hung swiveled to the left, dodging the weapon. With his sword, he stopped the oncoming staff and forced it to the side. Just when Jing Hung was about to wrench the weapon away from Ji San, the rain suddenly subsided, and the sun chose that very moment to emerge from behind the gray clouds.

    Unfortunately for Jing Hung, the sunlight shone directly onto the golden staff, the reflected glare hitting him right in his already light-sensitive eyes. Despite the thick black cloth covering his eyes, his injured eyes nonetheless stung from the brightness. As he blinked behind the cloth, Ji San, taking advantage of her opponent’s hesitation, kicked outward. Jing Hung, hearing the movement of her leg, could not avoid the attack in time. He braced himself for the assault, but did not anticipate the metal cleats which protruded from the underside her shoe. As the sharp metal objects sank into his chest, Jing Hung grunted in pain and stumbled backward, shocked that the revered Heavenly Weapons Manor would use underhanded tactics.

    Clenching his teeth, he endured the agony and immediately righted himself. Lifting his sword into attack position, he prepared to take the offensive this time. However, his body jerked as he felt an uncomfortable stinging warmth at the injured site on his chest right before the area turned numb. Realizing the metal cleats had poison painted on them, Jing Hung immediately assumed a meditating position, as he tried to force the poison out of his circulation with his internal energy. Sensing victory within her grasp, Ji San lunged forward, determined to avenge her second brother’s death.

    Just when Lau Ji San was about to send another kick toward the poisoned Miu Jing Hung, a shadowy white figure suddenly approached at rapid speed. The person dashed toward the eight Heavenly Weapons Manor disciples, and before they even detected his presence, the person pierced the men’s hearts with his invisible qi swords. He commandeered their disc-like weapons easily and hurled the eight metal discs toward Ji San.

    One disc sliced at her right leg, preventing her from further kicking Jing Hung. Surprised, Ji San glanced upward, her expression horrified as she noticed the seven discs spinning at lightening speed toward her head. Luckily, right before the discs decapitated her, seven silver arrows flew through the air and struck down the discs.

    After releasing his arrows to stop the flying discs, Lau Ming Leung flipped through the air and grabbed Ji San by the shoulders. Setting her down onto the ground safely out of attacking range, he turned around to see the white shadow race toward him. In an instant, a palm shot forward, clashing with his palm. The qi energy surrounding the two men vibrated and shook the leaves on the nearby trees.

    Ji San ran toward her brother, intending to help him, but as she approached the two men, the sphere of qi surrounding the combatants knocked her backward.

    “Stay away!” Lau Ming Leung warned his sister, as he kept he his eyes focused on his new opponent.

    With eyes steady and calm, both men stared challengingly at each other. Since both combatants possessed great internal energy, this internal energy competition could have lasted for a very long time. Yet, it seemed like the white-robed man did not wish to waste too much time quarreling. He broke off the match and back flipped away from Lau Ming Leung, who also somersaulted backward.

    As Lau Ming Leung landed a few paces away from the white-gowned man, Lau Ji San rushed forward in concern.

    “Eldest Brother,” she began.

    However, Lau Ming Leung cut off the rest of her words with a flick of his hand, while keeping his eyes trained on his opponent.

    Although he rarely left Heavenly Weapons Manor, Lau Ming Leung kept himself informed about wulin’s major players. Recognizing the shadowless swords of pure qi energy used by his opponent just moments ago to kill the eight Heavenly Weapons Manor disciples, he realized this white-robed man was Floating Cloud Sect Leader Sit Chung Nam, a man who would make a very dangerous enemy.

    “Sit Chung Nam?” Lau Ming Leung called out.

    Chung Nam merely smiled slightly, without bothering to answer the green-robed man.

    “My Heavenly Weapons Manor and your Floating Cloud Sect have always coexisted in peace. Why are you interfering in Heavenly Weapons Manor’s attempt to seek revenge today?” Ming Leung demanded.

    Chung Nam smirked as he crossed his arms across his chest arrogantly. “I do not need to explain my actions to you.”

    Furious, Lau Ji San jabbed her finger toward Sit Chung Nam. “Why, you pompous...!”

    Her brother cut her off firmly before she could continue. Less rash than his sister, Ming Leung knew that Sit Chung Nam’s unscrupulous fighting methods and his very accomplished martial arts skills should not be taken lightly. Though Miu Jing Hung was injured, the constable’s impressive martial arts prowess may still allow him to fight and win, despite his wounds. Now with the addition of Sit Chung Nam, he and his sister’s chances of winning in a two-against-two match decreased considerably. Therefore, Ming Leung wisely chose to retreat.

    Lau Ming Leung narrowed his eyes at Sit Chung Nam, and then he shifted his gaze to Miu Jing Hung. “Since Sect Leader Sit chooses to antagonize Heavenly Weapons Manor today, then be warned that the Heavenly Weapons Manor has a very long memory. We shall meet again.”

    With those words, Ming Leung grabbed his sister’s shoulder and raced through the air, quickly vanishing from sight.

    Glancing toward the direction which the Lau siblings have gone, Chung Nam snorted, completely unimpressed with the green-robed man’s warning.

    Still seated on the ground in a meditating position, Jing Hung asked, “Sit Chung Nam, why did you help me?”

    Instead of turning around, Chung Nam kept his back turned to Jing Hung. For a long moment, it almost appeared that Sit Chung Nam would not answer.

    Then, he surprisingly responded, “Before Yan Yan and I were separated, she told me that you had helped save her from Poison Snake’s attack a couple of nights ago.” Chung Nam paused and then said, “Thank you.”

    Without saying anything further, he started to walk off, but Miu Jing Hung stopped him.

    “Sit Chung Nam!” Jing Hung called out. “If you’re looking for Clan Leader Black Rose, I just saw her earlier this morning at North Star Town’s marketplace. If you hurry, you may be able to find her before she leaves the town center.”

    Chung Nam hesitated at this piece of information. This time, he turned around to face the constable.

    “Thank you,” Chung Nam nodded once with uncharacteristic gratitude.

    Without another word, he flipped into the air, heading toward North Star Town’s marketplace.

    **********

    Hi. If you enjoy the story, please let me know by leaving me a comment either here or at Cloud Manor. I would really love the support and encouragement. Happy New Year, everyone!

  2. #322
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    Hi Melanie. Thank you for the latest chapter. I've read your previous work as well and I'm very impressed by the time and dedication that you've put into it. Please keep it up.

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    Senior Member Melanie's Avatar
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    Hi Sjohnb! Thanks so much for your support! Sorry for taking so long to reply. I don't check on this thread that often anymore, since I don't think anyone is still reading. Your kind words are very much appreciated!

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    Melanie, Thank You! I've really enjoy your work. Please keep it up!

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    Senior Member Melanie's Avatar
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    Hi spynet! Thank you for reading! I will keep on writing as long as I know that there are people reading.

    CHAPTER 20 --- ONE STEP BEHIND

    Characters appearing in this chapter:
    Sun Fei Fei 孙菲菲---Fa Heung Yan a.k.a. Black Rose 花香燕
    Yuen Siu Mo 袁劭武
    Wallace Chung Hon Leung 鍾漢良---Sit Chung Nam 薛钟南

    AFTERNOON
    NORTH STAR TOWN
    ALLEYWAY OFF TO SIDE OF MARKETPLACE

    Yan had never felt so miserable before. Her stomach now protested every few seconds with loud grumbles, and she started to shake slightly from hunger. Weakly, she meandered slowly into an alleyway, away from the humdrum of the busy main street. Stopping midway in the alley, Yan squinted up at the sky.

    Just a few minutes ago, the storm clouds had blocked out all traces of sunlight, but now the sun somehow managed to fight its way past the gloom and cast its warmth and brightness onto the earth. Feeling dizzy from the glare, Yan carefully lowered herself onto the ground and leaned against the stone wall of the alley, huffing and puffing, trying to keep herself from fainting.

    She closed her eyes, hoping to solve her hunger problem by thinking serene thoughts of gentle flowing waters and soothing qin music. Unfortunately, her traitorous mind kept conjuring up images of delectable dishes of steamy food. Soon, she even began to smell food. Then from her left, she heard a woman’s voice asking if she wanted to eat. Frowning, Yan popped open her eyes and jerked her head toward the voice. She blinked at the sight in front of her, thinking she had gone crazy from extreme starvation.

    The middle-aged woman had a tanned, weathered face. Her kind, sympathetic eyes stared back at Yan. She held a large bowl filled with fragrant rice sprinkled with steamy vegetables and juicy chunks of chicken.

    “Child, you’re shaking and pale!” The woman gasped. “You must be so hungry!”

    Before Yan could answer, her stomach responded for her with a resounding, affirmative rumble. Yan could only blush as she silently nodded, her eyes focused on the bowl in front of her.

    “Would you like some food?” The woman pushed the bowl closer toward Yan.

    Yan hesitated and then glumly answered, “Thank you, Madam, for your generosity, but I do not have any money to pay you.”

    “Nonsense, child!” The stranger smiled. She placed the bowl firmly in Yan’s hands. “This is free of charge. I have lived through famine and personally know what it is like to be hungry. Just eat and do not worry about payment.”

    Yan clutched at the bowl gratefully. “Thank you, Madam! I will remember your kindness to me today.”

    The woman dug out a pair of chopsticks tucked in the pocket of her apron. “My husband and I own a small dry goods store down this alleyway.” She pointed to the end of the alley. “Our humble store is simple, but clean, and much better than this alleyway. Would you like to come inside and eat there? You can’t be very comfortable crouched outside here.”

    At the woman’s words, wariness briefly flickered across Yan’s eyes. The steam from the food in the bowl in Yan’s hands drifted upward, filling Yan’s senses. Then suddenly, that cautious look quickly disappeared. Her hands tightened around the bowl, as she smiled guilelessly at the woman.

    “Thank you, Madam.” Yan nodded. “If you don’t mind the intrusion, I would love to have a clean place to sit down and eat.”

    Beaming, the woman led Yan down the alleyway toward a small store near the end of the narrow street. A tall, middle-aged man with a short gray beard hovered near the store’s entrance. When he spotted his wife, he sighed with exasperation.

    “Wife, where did you go?” He threw his hands up in the air. “I told you to watch the storefront while I went to the storage room in the back to take inventory! What if someone ran in and robbed us while I was in the back?”

    “Oh, who would burglarize us, Husband?” The woman scoffed. She gestured to the miniscule-sized store lined with a few wooden shelves of dry goods. “We have nothing of value here.”

    The man grunted in offense. “Our business may be inconsequential, but it has fed our entire family for years.”

    “All right, all right, Husband,” the woman admonished him. “Lower your voice! We have a guest.” She pulled Yan from behind her.

    The middle-aged man squinted at Yan. “Hmph, who are you?”

    “I found this poor dear crouched not far outside our store, shaking and pale.” The woman answered on Yan’s behalf. Turning toward Yan, she smiled kindly. “Here, child. Sit down and eat.” The woman pulled Yan toward a wooden table flanked by two aged benches at one corner of the store.

    Yan sat down and nodded politely at her. “Thank you, Madam.”

    “Oh! There is no need to be so formal!” The woman clasped her hands together, beaming at Yan affectionately. “Everyone calls me Aunt Ko.” She pointed to her husband standing to her right side. “You can call him Uncle Ko.”

    Yan nodded again in greeting. “Aunt Ko, Uncle Ko.”

    The middle-aged man grunted in response and then shuffled toward one of the shelves. Ignoring Yan, he started reorganizing the bags of dry snacks on the shelf.

    Aunt Ko, much more gregarious and hospitable than her husband, sat down on the bench opposite Yan and pushed the bowl of rice closer toward Yan. “Well, hurry up and eat, child. The food is getting cold.”

    Yan smiled brightly at the woman. “Thank you, Aunt Ko.” She dug through her travel sack and pulled out a small fabric pouch. She then sprinkled a fine red-colored powder from inside the pouch onto her rice.

    Aunt Ko frowned in confusion. “What is that, child?”

    “Oh, this is just an herb to spice up the rice,” Yan explained. “I prefer spicy foods.”

    Without further words, Yan ravenously dived into her food, nearly inhaling it within minutes. Aunt Ko looked on sympathetically. She reached over and patted Yan on the head with a compassionate, motherly expression.

    “Oh, you poor dear,” Aunt Ko shook her head. “You must be starving to eat that quickly. Would you like more food?”

    Before Yan could answer, the woman grabbed Yan’s empty bowl and strode over to the tiny adjacent room used as a cooking area. Spooning more rice, vegetables, and chicken into the bowl, she emerged with a happy grin.

    “Here, child. Eat more.” She pushed the bowl toward Yan. When Yan politely shook her head, she insisted, “You’re so fragile-looking that I don’t think you can afford to lose any more weight.” Aunt Ko clucked.

    Yan eyed the bowl hungrily, and at Aunt Ko’s gentle urging, sprinkled more red-colored spice onto the rice before devouring the food.

    Opposite Yan, Aunt Ko watched Yan chew enthusiastically. A flash of bewilderment briefly danced across her eyes as she observed Yan’s vigor. With warm food in her stomach, Yan’s complexion glowed a pink rosy shade and she appeared lively, a huge contrast to her previous pale and weak state. Aunt Ko surreptitiously glanced toward her husband, who met her eyes with a peculiar look. Quickly, the couple disengaged their eyes, and while Uncle Ko returned to rearranging the items on the shelf, Aunt Ko peered at Yan with a bright smile.

    “What is your name, child?” Aunt Ko asked, attempting to make idle conversation.

    “Please call me Yan, Aunt Ko,” Yan glanced up briefly before returning to eating.

    “Haha, Yan, what a beautiful name!” Aunt Ko chuckled, a trace of anxiety sneaking into her voice. “Um, how are you feeling now, Yan?”

    Yan quickly finished her second bowl of rice and bestowed Aunt Ko with a dazzling smile. “Thank you for your generosity, Aunt Ko. I am feeling much better.”

    Aunt Ko narrowed her eyes at Yan. “You’re feeling fine?”

    “Of course,” Yan nodded, “thanks to you.”

    “You don’t feel dizzy and weak?” Aunt Ko persisted.

    “No, why would I?” Yan widened her eyes innocently. “Your delicious food has revived me.”

    Yan rummaged through her travel sack and carefully brought out a flower that resembled a lotus. She placed the flower on Aunt Ko’s palm.

    “Aunt Ko, I may not have any money, but I would like to repay your generosity with this flower.” Yan gestured at the flower. “This is a rare bloom called the Sugar Lotus. Its sweet scent has healing properties and will help prolong one’s youth. The Sugar Lotus blooms once every ten years, and only three of these flowers exist currently in the world.”

    At Yan’s words, a flicker of greed flashed across Aunt Ko’s eyes. She lowered her head and studied the flower in her palm curiously. Even the aloof Uncle Ko wandered over to inspect the bloom in his wife’s hand.

    “Go ahead,” Yan prodded. “Sniff it. It has a wonderfully fragrant smell.”

    Obediently, the couple leaned forward and inhaled deeply. The aromatic scent soothed and calmed.

    Nodding approvingly, Aunt Ko grinned at Yan. “Thank you, child! This Sugar Lotus is a rare treasure, indeed!”

    Smiling back, Yan picked up her travel sack and headed toward the door. “I’m glad you like my gift, Aunt Ko. Thank you for your hospitality. However, I must say farewell now.”

    The couple was so preoccupied with the rare bloom that they did not notice Yan quickly leaving. When they finally heard Yan’s words of farewell, the middle-aged woman hurriedly glanced up.

    “Wait!” Aunt Ko called out, but Yan had already left.

    Alarmed, the couple raced out the door and down the alleyway, anxiously looking for Yan. When they couldn’t find her in the alley, they ran out to the main street of the marketplace and nervously scanned the busy thoroughfare. Townspeople packed the streets, buying, bargaining, sightseeing. Yet, the couple could no longer see Yan.

    Returning to the dry goods store, Aunt Ko paced the floor apprehensively. “What are we going to do, Husband? What are we going to do? Where could she have gone in such a short time?”

    “It’s all your fault, Wife!” Uncle Ko yelled, his expression just as edgy. “If you hadn’t been preoccupied with this flower, she would not have escaped so easily!” He jabbed his finger accusingly at the Sugar Lotus bloom still in Aunt Ko’s hand.

    “What?” Aunt Ko stiffened defensively. “You were just as intrigued by the flower as I was. Besides,” she hesitated and sniffed at the bloom again, “if it’s true that this flower can prolong youth, then it’s truly a special gift!”

    “Great!” Uncle Ko threw his hands up in defeat. “We now have a flower which may or may not bring back your youth, but we have lost our prey. What are we going to tell Young Master Yuen when he comes to collect his prize and finds out that we have failed to drug the young maiden? Do you think he will still give us the reward money he promised us if we don’t have the girl?”

    “Well, it’s not my fault that the sleeping powder Young Master Yuen gave us to sprinkle onto the food did not work on that little girl!” Aunt Ko huffed, offended.

    As she grouched, she started to feel her eyelids droop. Feeling faint and weak, she sat down clumsily onto the wooden bench next to the table. Her limps felt rubbery and oddly heavy.

    “Do you feel strangely tired, Husband?” Aunt Ko murmured before sliding down to the floor in an unconscious heap.

    Behind her, Uncle Ko fell to the floor with a heavy thud.

    The Sugar Lotus rolled away from Aunt Ko’s open palm. It circled the small room once before stopping next to the unconscious couple, its cloying fragrance filling the store.

    **********

    Outside in the alley, a large, overturned woven basket shifted slightly and then inched slowly away from the dry goods store. After nearing the main street of the marketplace, the basket stopped moving. A pair of slender hands lifted away the basket and tossed it aside. The young maiden who emerged from underneath the basket glanced back toward the dry goods store with mischievous, twinkling eyes. She rubbed her full stomach and grinned.

    “Thank you for the free, delicious, sleeping-powder-laced meal,” Yan chuckled softly to herself. “Do you think such a common sleeping powder could fool me?” She dangled her small pouch of counteracting red-colored powder and kissed it happily. “Enjoy the sweet scent of the Sugar Lotus, Aunt Ko and Uncle Ko!”

    After stuffing the small pouch back into her travel sack, Yan skipped cheerfully into the busy streets of the marketplace and blended into the crowd.

    HALF AN HOUR LATER
    DRY GOODS STORE

    “Do you have her yet?” A deep voice called from outside the dry goods store.

    When no one answered, the tall, aristocratic young man, dressed in a dark blue robe made from expensive silk, narrowed his eyes suspiciously. He flicked his right hand once. The male servant behind him nodded and moved forward. The servant knocked three times. When no one answered the door after a short pause, he kicked open the door.

    A sweet-smelling fragrance wafted out. The tall man in the dark blue robe immediately recognized the smell and hurriedly covered his nose and mouth with his hand.

    “Try not to breathe in the fumes!” The blue robed man warned his male servant.

    Walking past his male servant, the tall man glanced down at the unconscious middle-aged couple lying on the floor. He narrowed his eyes at the delicate lotus flower sitting innocently next to Aunt Ko’s hand.

    The male servant stared at the beautiful bloom. “Is that fragrance originating from that flower, Young Master?”

    Young Master Yuen Siu Mo chuckled softly as he leaned down and picked up the bloom with one hand, while his other hand still covered his nose and mouth. “The Sugar Lotus. It seems that I may have underestimated the lovely maiden from the food stand this morning. Who is she?” He wondered to himself.

    He studied the flower with a bemused expression. Then without warning, Yuen Siu Mo closed his fingers around the lotus, his internal energy dissolving the bloom into a pile of ashes within seconds. With the Sugar Lotus destroyed, its cloying, sedative-inducing scent also vanished.

    Yuen Siu Mo calmly sat down on the wooden bench near the table, his posture straight and imposing, his demeanor now showing no traces of the spoiled and useless brat from this morning at the food stand. He leisurely poured himself a cup of tea before speaking to his male servant.

    “Wake them up.” He jerked his head toward the unconscious couple on the floor.

    The servant nodded. “Yes, Young Master.” He approached the slumbering couple and nudged them roughly with his booted foot. “Wake up!”

    After several harsh shoves, Uncle and Aunt Ko finally stirred.

    “Huh?” Aunt Ko rubbed her eyes and yawned loudly. “What is going on?”

    When her sleepy eyes finally focused on the tall man seated on the bench not too far away, she jerked upright, her eyes wide with anxiety. Quickly, she jabbed at her drowsy husband.

    “Wake up, Husband! Wake up!” Aunt Ko whispered nervously as she stumbled to her feet.

    “What?” Uncle Ko mumbled irately. “Will you stop poking at me?” However, when he finally noticed Yuen Siu Mo, he, too, scrambled to stand up. “Young Master Yuen!”

    “Where is she?” Yuen Siu Mo asked, his eyes piercing.

    “Uh...well...we don’t know,” Aunt Ko stuttered.

    “You...don’t...know?” Yuen Siu Mo repeated the words slowly as he narrowed his eyes.

    Terrified, the couple dropped to their knees immediately. “It’s not our fault, Young Master Yuen! That young maiden somehow was immune to the sleeping powder you gave us. I swear I had sprinkled a liberal amount of the powder onto the food, and yet, she devoured bowl after bowl without any hint of succumbing to the medicine!”

    At that explanation, Yuen Siu Mo tilted his head slightly with curiosity. “Really?”

    “Yes, yes!” Uncle Ko nodded his head rapidly. From the corner of his eye, he noticed on the table a few specks of the red-colored “spice” Yan had sprinkled on the food earlier. “It must be that strange red-colored spice!” Uncle Ko exclaimed loudly, pointing to the table surface, as he grasped for any excuse to explain why they had failed to drug Yan. “The young maiden kept sprinkling that red powder onto the food we offered her. She said that it gave the food a spicy flavor. That red powder must have somehow counteracted Young Master Yuen’s sleeping powder!”

    Yuen Siu Mo frowned as he darted his eyes toward the barely noticeable specks of red on the table. He rubbed the red powder between his fingertips. His thoughtful eyes filled with mirth the moment he recognized the substance.

    Laughing lightly to himself, he murmured, “It seems I have most definitely underestimated the little beauty from this morning. Who in wulin other than Clan Leader Black Rose Fa Heung Yan possesses that kind of knowledge of medicine and poison?”

    With apprehension, Aunt and Uncle Ko watched Young Master Yuen chuckle to himself. The entire town had always known that this young man, the only son from the powerful and politically connected Yuen family, was boastful and arrogant, yet weak and useless. He spent his days womanizing and bullying the townspeople with his condescending attitude. Nobody dared to offend this privileged brat, for his family practically owned North Star Town and had close ties to the royal family, yet everyone knew that he was harmless despite his bravado. However, today, Young Master Yuen seemed like a completely different person. The Ko couple could feel the fine hairs on the back of their necks tingle as Yuen Siu Mo chuckled, the sound calm, barely audible, yet sinister and deadly.

    The middle-aged couple exchanged anxious glances with each other. Initially, when Yuen Siu Mo had approached them earlier this morning, asking them to help him drug a young maiden in exchange for a generous monetary reward, the greedy couple had assumed the wealthy, spoiled man simply wanted to force the maiden to be his concubine and had readily agreed. After all, how bad could it be to become a rich, handsome man’s concubine? Now from Yuen Siu Mo’s shocking and unexpected transformation in demeanor, they could not help but shiver. What kind of man hid his true nature so well from the public and pretended to be a fool? Thinking of the maiden they were supposed to drug, the couple could only pity her if she were to fall into Young Master Yuen’s hands.

    Finally, Yuen Siu Mo stopped laughing. His eyes shifted to the Ko couple for a long moment, causing Aunt and Uncle Ko to tremble inwardly with fear. Then without warning, he reached inside his robe pocket and pulled out two gold ingots.

    He threw the ingots onto the ground. “Your reward,” he said curtly.

    Gulping, Aunt Ko spoke shakily, “Since we have failed Young Master Yuen’s task, we don’t dare accept any payment.”

    Yuen Siu Mo slowly stretched his lips into a feral smile. “Nonsense. This young maiden is special. If I had known her identity earlier, I would not have tasked commoners with the job of drugging her.”

    He stood up and walked toward the door of the dry goods store. As he passed the couple, he commanded, “Take the reward.”

    As he exited the store, Yuen Siu Mo shifted his eyes slightly toward his male servant before strolling off. The servant gave an almost imperceptible nod and reentered the store. From inside, screams erupted for a brief moment and then there was nothing but silence.

    Calmly, the male servant emerged from the store and followed behind his young master.

    “The couple has been silenced.” The servant reported to Yuen Siu Mo. “What about the young woman?”

    “Initially, I had wished to settle this matter quietly without involving myself too conspicuously by asking commoners to do the actual kidnapping, but now it looks like she may not be easy to capture.” Yuen Siu Mo sighed.

    “Young Master, would you like me to handle this matter?” The servant asked.

    “No,” Yuen Siu Mo responded. “I will take care of this myself. It appears that our target is not just any young woman; she is Clan Leader Black Rose of the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan.”

    “Why trouble yourself, Young Master? I heard rumors that Clan Leader Black Rose had severed ties with the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan. Her sister destroyed her martial arts skills before expelling her from the clan. She’s only a helpless maiden now.” The male servant scoffed.

    “A helpless maiden who also happens to be one of the foremost experts in medicine and poison.” Yuen Siu Mo countered. “Fa Heung Yan is not that easy to handle, as proven by this incident with the Ko couple, and we cannot risk her evading capture again.” He turned to his servant. “I want you to return to Yuen Manor and assure Father that I will be back shortly with the girl as planned.”

    With those words, Yuen Siu Mo disappeared into the bustling crowd milling about the marketplace.

    MARKETPLACE

    After escaping from the Ko couple, Yan tried to keep to the large crowds and busy streets, avoiding small, quiet alleyways. She did not know why the middle-aged couple wanted to drug her. Did they hope to sell her into prostitution, or were they under the direction of someone more dangerous? Who would want to harm her here in a town of complete strangers? Regardless, she knew if she stayed with a large group, it would be more difficult to snatch her in daylight with so many witnesses.

    A group of young women walked by, dressed in the finest silks, as they giggled demurely behind their feathered fans. In an obvious effort to convey daintiness, they seemed to be tiptoeing lightly on their slippered feet, perhaps to imitate how a fairy would glide gracefully across the heavens. Yan frowned, completely perplexed, as their actions merely convinced her that they had a gait problem. She wondered if this walking style was typical of refined, wealthy young maidens. No matter how absurd these women seemed, her best chance to blend in with the crowd would be to follow them, as they were the only large group of women in the vicinity. All other nearby large congregations consisted of men or older townspeople, and she would definitely stick out conspicuously in those groups.

    Sighing softly, Yan quickly trailed after the women, feeling ridiculous as she tiptoed behind them, imitating their walk, feeling like a thief sneaking around on tiptoes. She kept a respectable distance to avoid raising the group’s suspicion that she was following them. After traveling with the group down a few streets, Yan heard one young lady titter behind her fan.

    “Look over there,” the slender young woman whispered to her chubby friend next to her. “That man is so handsome! Tall, proud, arrogant, commanding! If he were my husband, I would feel so protected! Ahh!” She sighed, besotted.

    “Where? Where?” Her chubby friend looked around frantically, as she, too, hoped to catch a glimpse of this god.

    “Stop swinging your head around like a mad woman!” The slender woman hissed. “He’s over to our right, standing next to that vendor stand selling paintings. Oh! He’s looking over this way!” She quickly hid coyly behind her fan, only allowing her eyes to peek over the top of the fan.

    Curious, Yan also turned her head to the right, wanting to see this perfect man. However, before she could get a glimpse, the other women in the group piled in front of her, blocking her view. As she was the shortest of the group, she could barely see anything other than the back views of the young women’s expensive hair accessories.

    The women giggled as the man turned, his dark, intense eyes staring right at them. His gaze scanned their group briefly, as if searching for someone.

    “I’m going to faint! I’m going to faint!” One maiden in pink fanned herself rapidly.

    “Oh, you’re right! He’s so handsome! He has the refined air of a scholar, and yet, look at the breadth of his shoulders and the lean muscles rippling just beneath the surface of his white robe!” Another maiden in purple gushed unabashedly.

    “Oh, you are so shameless! Are those appropriate words spoken by a genteel lady?” The young woman next to the purple-robed maiden gasped. Yet, she, too, ogled the tall man’s physique.

    “I wonder which one of us he is looking at?” The slender woman, who had first spotted the man, remarked.

    Her chubby friend nudged her teasingly. “Of course, he must be looking at you, since you are the most beautiful among all of us!”

    The slender woman blushed prettily behind her fan at her friend’s words.

    **********

    Some distance away, Sit Chung Nam described Yan’s appearance to the vendor selling paintings.

    “Have you seen a young maiden about this tall?” He raised his hand to his chin level. “She has deep midnight blue eyes and the most beautiful face this world has seen.”

    The elderly painter laughed. “Young man, you must be describing a fairy then.”

    Chung Nam smiled slightly at the elderly man’s words. “Yes, you are right. She is a fairy...my little fairy.”

    The painter laughed again, but then suddenly became thoughtful as he remembered an incident at one of the local food stands this morning involving a young maiden and their town’s spoiled Young Master Yuen.

    “Does she look like the fairy in my painting?” The painter asked.

    The elderly man carefully unrolled a scroll to reveal the painting of an exquisite beauty, her delicate features otherworldly, her large, expressive eyes enticing even as she glared icily at something or someone not drawn in the painting.

    Chung Nam stared at the painting of Yan in amazement. “This is the maiden I am looking for!” He glanced at the man in confusion. “Do you know her? Why do you have a painting of her?”

    “I don’t know her, but I saw her this morning by the food stand at the end of this street.” The elderly man explained. “After seeing her, I simply had to capture such dazzling beauty onto a painting to immortalize her loveliness.”

    “Where did she go?” Chung Nam asked urgently.

    “I don’t know,” the elderly man answered. “She was involved in an altercation with Young Master Yuen, the young master of Yuen Manor, this town’s wealthiest and most powerful family. Thankfully, some constable appeared and saved her. After that, I don’t know what happened to her.”

    The painter hesitated at the brief flicker of disappointment in Chung Nam’s eyes. He smiled kindly, rolled his painting back up, and placed it in Chung Nam’s hand. “Take this painting with you to show around town. Perhaps it will help you locate your little fairy more quickly.”

    Chung Nam reached into his gown pocket and took out a gold ingot. “Thank you.”

    The elderly man shook his head, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “No, no, consider the painting a gift.”

    At that moment, the sound of muffled feminine laughter could be heard not too far away. Both the elderly man and Chung Nam paused in their conversation. Chung Nam turned his head toward the noise and found a group of five or six women huddled together, whispering and fluttering their fans madly. They seemed to be staring at him. His piercing eyes examined the group briefly, and not finding the person he was looking for, dismissed them.

    The elderly painter teased, “It looks like you have your own group of admirers, young man.”

    Chung Nam grunted, disinterested. However, he hesitated at the painter’s next words.

    “Maybe you should ask those young maidens if they have seen your fairy.” The elderly man suggested. “Those maidens stroll around this marketplace every day, flirting with the young men around here. They might have seen the person you are looking for.”

    Nodding slightly, Chung Nam thanked the painter and bade him farewell. He strode toward the giggling group. As he slowly neared the group, the women chortled bashfully, their faces reddening as they batted their eyelashes at him furiously. Chung Nam stared back at them indifferently and wondered why they kept shifting around on their tiptoes as if they had some kind of lower limb disability.

    Meanwhile, Yan, standing behind this group of tittering women and completely unaware of Chung Nam’s approach, tried to raise herself up on tiptoes to make herself as tall as possible. Unfortunately, she still could not see this male model of perfection. Finally, she shrugged and gave up. At that moment, she felt a presence behind her. Uneasy, she swung around and surveyed the area behind her. However, nothing seemed suspicious as townspeople continued about their daily activities. Nonetheless, the feeling of being watched remained, and so when another group of women passed by, Yan quickly blended into this second group and left the area.

    Yan left the first group and merged seamlessly into the second group just as Chung Nam reached the flirtatious maidens. Just as he was about to show the women the painting of Yan, his heart thumped loudly. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed another group of women walking by, and within that group, he thought he spied a petite slender maiden hugging a large travel sack protectively to her chest.

    Yan Yan!

    Chung Nam’s mind screamed her name.

    Quickly, he dashed after those women as they turned the corner...

    **********

    Thanks for reading, everyone. Does anyone have any suggestions for which actor I should cast as Yuen Siu Mo? I haven't been keeping up with dramas and actors lately, so I am out of ideas. Who's tall, handsome, and can play the role of a womanizing bully with a hidden agenda well? Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  6. #326
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    Thanks for another well done chapter Melanie. Looking forward to more.

  7. #327
    Senior Member Melanie's Avatar
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    Thanks for reading, Sjohnb!



    CHAPTER 21 --- TO EARN A BEAUTY’S EMBRACE

    Characters appearing in this chapter:
    Wallace Chung Hon Leung 鍾漢良---Sit Chung Nam 薛钟南
    Sun Fei Fei 孙菲菲---Fa Heung Yan a.k.a. Black Rose 花香燕
    Yuen Siu Mo 袁劭武
    Yuen Ji 袁智
    Old Beggar 老乞丐

    NORTH STAR TOWN
    MARKETPLACE

    Yan Yan!

    Chung Nam’s mind screamed her name.

    Quickly, he dashed after those women as they turned the corner.

    “Yan Yan!” Chung Nam called out, but she had already disappeared.

    He rushed around the corner to find himself facing a maze of narrow alleyways in a residential area. He strode swiftly down one alleyway, but soon found himself at a dead end. Frowning, he retraced his steps and hastened down another alley. This time, instead of a dead end, the alley looped in a big circle and brought Chung Nam back at his starting point.

    After several more unsuccessful attempts to navigate through the unfamiliar maze of alleys, Chung Nam let out a frustrated growl. Very deliberately, he raised his hand, and with one swift move, swept his palm forward toward the stone wall of one side of the alley. The palm lightly touched the wall and then retracted in a flash, leaving the deep outline of a hand on the wall. Using this method of marking the walls, Chung Nam managed to quickly navigate through the maze in a systematic fashion, all the while calling out for Yan. Unfortunately, only silence answered his calls. Refusing to give up, he backtracked through the series of alleys again, shouting her name.

    Three alleyways away, Yan, who was also wandering around the maze of narrow streets lost, halted her steps and looked around, puzzled. She heard someone calling her name, but the sound was so faint that she thought she might be hallucinating. She stood completely still and listened carefully, but the sound seemed to have vanished. Yan shook her head, admonishing herself. She started to walk again, but then she heard the distant call again.

    Yan Yan!

    Yan’s heart skipped a beat at the familiar voice. One second, two seconds, then three seconds passed. Suddenly, the voice called out again.

    Yan Yan!

    Relief and pure joy blossomed through her heart. Sit Chung Nam! He came for her, Yan thought.

    She swung her travel sack more securely over her shoulder and raced excitedly toward the voice.

    “Sit Chung Nam!” Yan Yan yelled happily. “Sit Chung Nam, I am here! Sit Chung... Ah!”

    Suddenly, from a dark corner, a shadow flashed out so swiftly that Yan did not even have time to back away. With lightning speed, the dark shadow reached forward and pressed firmly at the acupressure point between her eyebrows. Immediately, her vision started to blacken as she stared, shocked, into the eyes of a tall man. He was garbed completely in black and with a black handkerchief covering the lower half of his face. Only his eyes remained visible. Right before she lost consciousness, she recalled seeing those eyes very recently before...

    Three alleys down, Chung Nam’s heart also skipped a beat, just as Yan’s had. Positive that he had heard her respond to his calls, he dashed toward the direction of her voice.

    He arrived just in time to see a black shadow throw an unconscious Yan over his shoulder. The shadow immediately sensed his presence and swung around. The black-robed man released a series of flying daggers. The weapons sliced through the air with lightning speed. Sensing a formidable opponent from the speed, efficiency, and precision of the daggers’ trajectories, Chung Nam quickly tucked the painting of Yan into his robe and twisted through the air adroitly, dodging the first wave of daggers. As a second wave of knives approached, Chung Nam unsheathed his Shadowless Swords. Two invisible blades of qi multiplied into four and then eight, twirling rapidly to form a shield of internal energy to block and deflect the oncoming weapons.

    Seeing his daggers drop harmlessly to the ground, the black-robed man narrowed his eyes briefly, recognizing the qi swords unique to Sect Leader Sit Chung Nam of the Floating Cloud Sect. Choosing to avoid prolonged confrontation with an equally capable opponent, the stranger turned and leapt into the air, with Yan flung over his shoulder.

    Chung Nam sheathed his qi swords and immediately gave chase. He somersaulted through the air. Yan’s kidnapper appeared to be equally proficient at lightness kung fu as he dashed through the maze so quickly that he became a black blur. Close behind, Chung Nam unsheathed one qi sword midair and sent a spear of internal energy shooting toward the far alley wall in front of the kidnapper. The energy blade sliced through thick stone, causing the alley wall to collapse, thus forcing the kidnapper to swerve.

    With his path obstructed, the black-robed man pivoted around, now facing the rapidly approaching Chung Nam. With his left arm still tightly looped around Yan’s waist, he thrust his right palm out to receive Chung Nam’s oncoming palm. As the palms collided, concentric circles of internal energy rippled outward, cracking the stone walls of the alley maze.

    As Chung Nam retracted his palm and then swiftly punched forward again, his opponent suddenly jerked Yan’s unconscious body slightly toward center, using her body as a shield for himself. Alarmed, Chung Nam immediately disengaged. His opponent took advantage of Chung Nam’s brief loss of concentration and punched forward with his right fist. Chung Nam recovered swiftly and intercepted the fist with his open palm just before it could contact his chest.

    Both combatants backflipped away from each other before kicking off from opposing alley walls and charging toward each other again. Midway, the black-robed man, foreseeing a long and unpredictable fight, decided to retreat while he still had Yan in his possession. He released another torrent of daggers and flew straight upward, leaping over rooftops.

    Chung Nam twisted and somersaulted, and within seconds, burst through the blanket of knives. However, those few wasted seconds were enough to give the kidnapper, who had very impressive lightness kung fu, a significant head start.

    As Chung Nam, too, raced over the rooftops, he could only see a distant speck of black. Improvising, he kicked at the roof tiles with his feet, sending the tiles hurtling across sky. The black-robed man, hearing the whizzing noise of the tiles, ducked, avoiding the first few tiles. Forced to slow down, he swiveled around and kicked at the oncoming tiles, breaking them.

    Meanwhile, Chung Nam rapidly closed the distance, his right leg extended, intending to kick his opponent in the chest. At that instant, several spears thrust forward, their tips forming a solid barrier and blocking Chung Nam’s foot. Chung Nam backflipped away and landed onto the rooftop, facing his newly arrived opponents.

    A few feet away, four men, holding long spears, faced Chung Nam. They formed a human blockade, shielding the black-robed man from Chung Nam’s attack.

    The tallest of the four men called out to the black-robed man behind him, while keeping his eyes cautiously trained on Chung Nam. “Young Master, you leave first with the girl. Old Master is waiting for you. We will take care of your opponent.”

    Without speaking a word, the black-robed man nodded. He turned and flew across the rooftops, carrying Yan away.

    Immediately, Chung Nam attempted to follow, but the four men surrounded him. Chung Nam narrowed his eyes, scrutinizing his new opponents. The four men wore simple, cream-colored long robes, their plain attire and their reference to the black-robed man as “young master” indicating that they must be the kidnapper’s servants. Not many households had common servants also trained in martial arts, which meant whoever abducted Yan must belong to a prominent and powerful family.

    “Stand down and I will let you live.” Chung Nam commanded arrogantly as if the servants were under his rule.

    Naturally, the four men ignored him and charged, their spears held in attack position.

    Chung Nam smirked at the rapidly approaching men. “Fine, you’ve been warned,” he murmured to himself.

    Using this opportunity to test out his newly imitated and modified Blood Shadow Palm technique, Chung Nam shot forward, his left hand grabbing all four spears easily as they thrust toward him. With an efficient twist of his left wrist, he commandeered the weapons. He tossed aside three of the spears but kept one in his left hand. Before the four men could blink, Chung Nam’s right palm flashed forward and knocked down three of his opponents, killing them immediately. Though without the signature poison of Poison Snake’s Blood Shadow Palm, Chung Nam’s modified version of the palm technique was swifter and much deadlier, backed by the tremendous force of his internal energy.

    The remaining male servant, the one who had accompanied Yuen Siu Mo earlier this afternoon to the Ko couple’s dry goods store, fearlessly lunged toward Chung Nam, determined to delay Chung Nam for as long as he can, thus allowing Yuen Siu Mo a greater head start. Instead of delivering a fatal blow, Chung Nam decided to keep him alive. As the servant approached, he used his commandeered spear to whack his opponent on the shoulder, forcing him down onto his knees.

    Pointing the sharp tip of the spear at the servant’s throat, Chung Nam asked coldly, “Where did your young master take my woman?”

    The servant spat on the roof tiles before answering defiantly. “I won’t betray my master’s family. Kill me!”

    Chung Nam narrowed his eyes at the man’s response, but did not advance the spear as the servant expected. Instead, Chung Nam merely threw him off the roof. Taken off guard, the male servant did not have time to try to break his fall. He fell straight down onto the ground below. Luckily, a few large burlap sacks of rice piled outside a rice store nearby cushioned him, allowing him to escape with only a sprained ankle. As the man limped away, Chung Nam watched from above, his eyes calculating.

    NORTH STAR TOWN
    YUEN MANOR

    The jostling around stirred Yan. She slowly opened her eyes, confused at the darkness in front of her, before she realized that someone had blindfolded her eyes. She was hanging over someone’s shoulder as that person calmly walked. Another pair of footsteps came up to the person carrying her, and the person whose shoulder she was dangling over paused.

    “Young Master, welcome back,” a woman’s voice said. “Old Master is waiting in his study for you.”

    “Very good,” the man carrying her responded. “Tell Father I will be in shortly.”

    The woman walked away. As her footsteps faded away, Yan regained her senses and started to struggle, but her captor pressed his free hand down hard on her lower back, forcing her to become still.

    “Who are you?” Yan demanded. “Let me go!”

    The man ignored her and continued walking. She heard the squeak of a door opening, and then she felt herself being dumped onto a bed. Scrambling up to a sitting position, Yan immediately reached for the blindfold covering her eyes. However, her captor immediately reached forward and immobilized her by sealing two acupressure points at the angles of her jaw.

    “Who are you and what do you want with me?” Yan asked, furious, as she sat on the bed, unable to move and still blindfolded.

    “Relax, Miss,” the man chuckled. “I am not going to kill you. I just need you as bait.”

    “Bait?!” Yan repeated, alarmed. “What bait?”

    The man did not bother to answer her. He simply walked out and locked the door to the chamber.

    “Hey! Come back!” Yan yelled from inside the room.

    Unfortunately, only silence greeted her demands.

    **********
    Outside the chamber, Yuen Siu Mo waved over two male servants and a maid. He first addressed the two male servants.

    “I want you to stand guard here and make sure she does not leave the room.” Yuen Siu Mo ordered.

    He then turned to the young maid. “If she needs assistance with anything, see to her needs, but do not allow her to wander around.”

    He gave all three servants a hard stare. “You all know what the consequences are if the young woman in that chamber escapes.”

    After issuing that warning, Yuen Siu Mo turned to the six other male servants acting as guards surrounding the courtyard outside of Yan’s chamber. “Did you all hear that? I want her guarded day and night.”

    “Don’t worry, Young Master, that we will watch her closely.” One of the male servants assured him.

    Nodding, Yuen Siu Mo headed toward the study to meet up with his father.

    YUEN MANOR
    EAST WING
    OLD MASTER YUEN’S STUDY

    A tall, distinguished man in his early sixties sat at the ornate reading table at the far end of the study, perusing a manuscript of military tactics. Despite his graying hair and mature age, he still appeared handsome with his aristocratic carriage and chiseled, attractive features very similar to his son’s.

    “Father,” Yuen Siu Mo addressed the elder gentleman reverently.

    Yuen Ji glanced up as his son entered the room. “Do you have her?”

    “Yes,” Yuen Siu Mo nodded. He paused slightly before speaking again, “Father, I just discovered that she is Fa Heung Yan of the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan.”

    Upon hearing this information, Yuen Ji frowned. “The young woman we need as bait is Clan Leader Black Rose of the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan?” He placed the manuscript in his hand down onto the table. “Siu Mo, are you sure?”

    “Yes,” Yuen Siu Mo answered. “Although I have never met Black Rose, everyone in wulin knows of her peerless beauty and her expertise with poisons and medicine. This maiden fits the description. I had initially bribed some peasants to drug her. That way, I would be able to avoid personally kidnapping her myself. Like Father said, the less people know of our plans, the better. However, she evaded capture through her knowledge of medicine. In the end, I had to handle this matter myself.”

    Yuen Siu Mo handed Yan’s travel sack to his father. “I rummaged through her travel bag and found this.” He dangled from his fingers the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan Leader’s crest with the emblem of a snake entwined around a single rose on one side. The characters “Clan Leader Fa Heung Yan” were etched onto the other side of the crest. “It’s Clan Leader Black Rose’s crest, with her name engraved on it.”

    The elder gentleman examined the crest and sighed. “Her identity complicates our plans.” He looked at his son. “Siu Mo, are you sure Fa Heung Yan is the person we need as bait? We do not want to offend the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan needlessly, especially if she turns out to be the wrong person to use as bait.”

    “Unfortunately, she is indeed the person we need to lure Old Beggar out.” Yuen Siu Mo sighed, too. “When I saw her this morning at the local food stand, I had assumed she was simply someone passing through North Star Town and did not give her a second thought after putting on my usual entitled, womanizing act in front of the whole town. However, not long after, I met our contact, who notified me that he had spotted her with Old Beggar at the marketplace. According to our contact, Old Beggar had taken an interest in her and kept trying to give her the Twin Swords of Sun and Moon.”

    “Really?” Yuen Ji’s eyes narrowed curiously. “Is our contact sure of what he saw?”

    “Our contact is a very meticulous, intelligent person. Ever since our collaboration with him, have you ever known him to be incorrect?” Yuen Siu Mo countered.

    The elder gentleman nodded thoughtfully as he slowly stroked his short, gray beard. “If this information is true, then Fa Heung Yan’s presence here will surely lure Old Beggar out.” He leaned back in his chair and asked his son, “Have you made preparations and laid out the traps yet? The old man will soon find his way here to collect the girl.”

    Yuen Siu Mo assured his father. “Yes, Father. All the traps have been set up, and I have notified all the servants in Yuen Manor to prepare for Old Beggar’s arrival.”

    “Good, good,” Yuen Ji patted his son approvingly on the shoulder. “Remember, Siu Mo, do not underestimate Old Beggar. He is not an easy opponent.”

    “The old man is only one person, whereas we have a much larger number of people.” Yuen Siu Mo reasoned. “When Old Beggar comes to save Fa Heung Yan, we should have no problem taking the Twin Swords from him.”

    Yuen Ji shook his head reproachfully at his son’s underestimation of the enemy. “Countless top pugilists have tried to steal the Twin Swords of Sun and Moon from the old man, but none have been successful. By luring the old man onto our turf, our chances of taking the swords from him will increase dramatically in our favor. However, we must not take our opponent lightly, or the swords will slip from our grasp.”

    The elder gentleman stared off into the distance, ambition gleaming in his eyes. “Legend claims that the Twin Swords of Sun and Moon can magnify the wielder’s skills one-hundred fold, peerless to no other weapons in this world.” The greedy glimmer in his eyes brightened even more, as he pumped his fist victoriously in the air. “If that is true, then once we possess these swords, we will no longer have to pretend to act like useless fools to deflect the that stupid Emperor’s suspicions away from us. We will be able to use these swords to take the throne!” The elder man threw his head back and laughed deeply as he imagined himself as Emperor.

    Yuen Siu Mo stood quietly by his father’s side for a long moment before clearing his throat. “There is one more complication, Father.”

    Yuen Ji’s laugh faded away as he turned his head slowly toward his son. “What complication?”

    “When I was abducting Fa Heung Yan, there was someone chasing me, wanting her back.” Yuen Siu Mo answered.

    “Who was chasing you?” Yuen Ji frowned.

    “Floating Cloud Sect Leader Sit Chung Nam,” Yuen Siu Mo responded. “I recognized his Chung Nam Shadowless Swords.”

    “Sit Chung Nam?!” The elder gentleman narrowed his eyes. “Why is he involved?” He murmured to himself. After a moment, he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter why he’s involved. Nobody is stopping me from taking the Twin Swords. However, this bandit leader is a formidable opponent.” He waved his hand at his son. “Go and make sure there are no loose ends with the traps. Not only do we have to worry about Old Beggar, we now also have to prepare for the possibility of Sit Chung Nam’s attack.”

    “Yes, Father,” Yuen Siu Mo bowed respectfully before collecting Yan’s travel sack and leaving the study.

    MEANWHILE...
    WEST WING OF YUEN MANOR
    GUEST CHAMBER IN WHICH YAN WAS LOCKED IN

    While Yuen Siu Mo was discussing the Twin Swords with his father in the study, Yan had been yelling nonstop in her prison chamber, expressing her low opinion of her captor without reservation.

    “Open the door and let me out this instant!” Yan demanded loudly as she sat blindfolded and immobilized on the bed. “What kind of person kidnaps innocent, helpless maidens on the street?”

    When no one answered her, Yan responded to her own question quite loudly, “I’ll tell you what kind of person! A cowardly snake, who is so afraid of a woman that he needs to blindfold and immobilize her. If you’re still a man, I dare you to undo my immobilization acupressure point and fight fairly.”

    The more she thought about her predicament, the more infuriated she became. Right before her kidnapper knocked her out in the alleyway maze, she had recalled seeing his eyes somewhere before. Now along with his voice, she finally figured out his identity. He was the rude, obnoxious young master earlier this morning, who had cost her a meal at the local food stand at the marketplace. While she was grateful that Miu Jing Hung had intervened during her altercation with the annoying, boastful man, she now wished Miu Jing Hung hadn’t stopped her from spraying Young Master Yuen’s eyes with tearing powder. That man deserved it, Yan thought resentfully.

    Now he wanted to use her as bait. Bait for what, Yan thought to herself. Well, she was going to blow him up first, she thought peevishly. Of course, he had confiscated her travel bag with all the pertinent materials required to blow up people, so she somehow needed to find her sack.

    As Yan quieted down and plotted inside the chamber, the two male servants standing guard outside exchanged amused glances.

    The gangly servant chuckled, “Ah... Finally, there is some peace and silence. The ‘helpless’ little firecracker in there is so loud.”

    The stout man beside him looked at the door of Yan’s chamber. “Do you know who she is?”

    His gangly friend shook his head. “No, I just know that Young Master wants us to guard her closely.”

    The stout man snorted. “Well, then maybe we should go inside the chamber to check up on her. She’s so angry, I worry that she will self-combust in that room.”

    The tall man wrinkled his brow as he stared at the closed chamber door curiously. The young maiden in there had a sweet, melodious voice, even though she was mostly shouting. Someone with such a lovely voice must also be beautiful. When Young Master Yuen had brought her back earlier, nobody had a chance to see her face, since she was hanging over his shoulder. Now after hearing her voice, he couldn’t stop wondering what she looked like.

    However, inquisitive nature aside, he had always been a cautious man. If he ventured inside to satisfy his curiosity, Young Master Yuen may not be happy. After pondering the situation, the tall man gestured for the maid assigned to see to Yan’s needs to come forward. “Ying, perhaps you should go in and offer the young maiden inside some tea. She has been hollering for at least half an hour.”

    Ying twisted her lips sardonically. “I suppose you two would like me to report to you what the maiden in there looks like?” When the two guards nodded enthusiastically, Ying placed her hands on her ample hips. “What do I get if I help you?”

    The stout man thought for a while. “We’ll do your laundry chore for one day.”

    Ying brightened at this promise. “Fine!” She walked over to the nearby kitchen and emerged with a tray of tea and sweet and salty desserts.”

    Pasting on a smile, Ying knocked briefly on the door before unlocking the door and entering Yan’s chamber.

    YAN’S CHAMBER

    Upon hearing the rattling of the door, Yan held her breath and listened closely. She squinted her eyes, but could not see anything through the opaque black blindfold.

    “Who are you?” Yan asked coldly.

    Ying stared transfixed at the young maiden sitting stiffly on the bed. The swath of black cloth over the maiden’s eyes could not mask her delicate features. After staring for another moment, Ying cleared her throat and quickly answered.

    “Miss, my name is Ying. I am a maid here.” Ying answered. “You must be hungry and thirsty by now. I brought you some tea and desserts.”

    Yan remained silent for a moment. Then she answered politely, “Ying, thank you. I am feeling rather hungry and thirsty.” She smiled pleasantly. “Um, could you untie my blindfold so that I can see?” When Ying paused, Yan quickly assured her, “How can I eat without seeing the food? Besides, I don’t know any martial arts, so you don’t have to worry about any attempts at escaping.”

    The plump Ying bit her lip and sized up the dainty Yan, who appeared to be almost half her size. She guessed it wouldn’t be too difficult to tackle Yan if the tiny thing tried to run.

    “Please?” Yan added, making sure her voice broke with the slight hint of tears when Ying took too long to decide about the blindfold. “I’m scared and not being able to see makes everything even more frightening.”

    Ying’s easily swayed heart immediately faltered and she looked at her young master’s prisoner sympathetically. Her young master obviously had nefarious intentions toward this poor maiden. Why else would he capture an innocent, beautiful young woman?

    “Men!” Ying muttered under her breath angrily.

    Nodding decisively to herself, Ying moved toward Yan and pulled down her blindfold. With the cloth off, Yan blinked and focused in on her sympathizer.

    “Thank you, Ying,” Yan smiled gratefully at the maid.

    Yan carefully surveyed the chamber. Her heart quickened as she noticed several condiment jars, one of which consisted of red chilli powder, sitting next to a plate of dumplings.

    Ying smiled back. “Would you like some tea, Miss?”

    “That would be wonderful. Thank you.” Yan whispered.

    Ying poured some tea and handed Yan the cup. However, Yan helplessly stared back at the other woman. “Ying, I cannot move. Your young master has immobilized me.”

    “Oh, poor Miss!” Ying gasped at the cruelty of it all. “Here, Miss.” Ying helpfully brought the teacup up to Yan’s lips.

    As Yan gulped down the tea, she started coughing and choking. She peered up at the maid with an apologetic expression. “I’m sorry. Having my acupressure points sealed makes it difficult for me to swallow.” Yan coughed again to make her fib more convincing.

    Taking a few deep breaths, Yan smiled innocently up at Ying again. “Ying, would you mind giving me more tea?”

    Ying gave Yan an anxious look but poured her more tea, anyway. “Here is more tea, Miss,” Ying offered.

    Yan again gulped down the liquid with gusto and then suddenly gasped and croaked, as if she couldn’t breathe. Alarmed, Ying dropped the teacup to the ground. The sound of shattering ceramic brought the two male guards from outside running into the chamber.

    “What is going on?” The tall guard asked.

    “I don’t know!” Ying fretted, wringing her hands. “She was fine a moment ago, and then she started gasping for breath! She...she said something about having problems breathing because her acupressure points were sealed.” Ying looked at the two guards helplessly. “Maybe you could unseal her acupressure points to help her breathe more easily?”

    “Nonsense!” The stout guard brushed off Ying’s suggestion. “I’ve never heard of such a thing as difficulty breathing when a person is simply immobilized.”

    Meanwhile, Yan heaved even more dramatically.

    “Well, what should we do then?!” Ying was practically screaming by this point. “Young Master will punish us if she dies!”

    When the two guards continued to stand by looking powerless, Ying pushed the more easily persuaded tall guard over toward Yan. “Unseal her acupressure points! At least, see if that can help save her!”

    “All right, fine, fine,” the tall guard relented, as he also worried about Yuen Siu Mo’s wrath should anything happen to the captive.

    The tall guard placed his index and middle fingers together and applied just enough pressure to the acupressure points at the angles of Yan’s jaw, releasing her from her immobilized state.

    The moment she could move, Yan leapt up, and catching the two male servants off guard, she raced over to the nearby table and flung the jar of red chili powder into their eyes. As the men blinked and swore, Yan pushed the guards into the plump maid and raced out the door, leaving the three people behind in a tangle of arms and legs.

    “Hey, the prisoner has escaped!” The stout man yelled from inside the chamber, as he struggled to disentangle himself. “Somebody, stop her!”

    Quickly, Yan darted down the corridor, as two other guards, who were loitering in the courtyard, dashed after her.

    One of the guards somersaulted into the air and landed in front of her, blocking her path. Yelping, Yan quickly reached into the spice jar she had the foresight to bring with her and flung the remaining red chili powder into his eyes just as he lunged forward to grab her.

    “Hey!” The guard yelled indignantly as he inadvertently inhaled a lung full of the spicy condiment.

    As the first guard choked and gagged, the second guard behind Yan charged and wrapped his arms around Yan’s shoulders, bodily lifting her up. Immediately, Yan pulled out an acupuncture needle from her robe pocket and stabbed him at the acupressure point on the web space between his right thumb and index finger. The man yelped in surprise as his grip weakened. His hand limply slipped down his side. While he stared in shock at his right hand, Yan stabbed a similar pressure point on his left hand, which then also slipped from around Yan’s shoulders. As the man stood with his arms hanging uselessly by his side, Yan tore across the courtyard and raced down another long corridor.

    MEANWHILE...
    YUEN MANOR
    EAST WING

    Outside Old Master Yuen’s study, Yuen Siu Mo sighed. Exhausted, he stared out into the courtyard and absentmindedly tossed Yan’s travel sack onto the ground next to some flower pots.

    Two songbirds flitted by, one following the other. The first bird landed onto a branch and sang, its beautiful serenade calling to the second bird. The second bird immediately followed, landing next to the first. The two songbirds sat there, chirping excitedly. Not before long, they flew off together, side by side, soaring free in the skies.

    Yuen Siu Mo raised his head and enviously watched the two songbirds...so carefree...so happy. For a long moment, he stood, transfixed, his eyes unfathomable.

    “Young Master!” A hoarse voice croaked, shaking Yuen Siu Mo out of his reverie.

    Yuen Siu Mo turned. Before he could determine the direction from which the voice originated, the male servant, who had been thrown off the marketplace rooftop by Sit Chung Nam earlier, came crashing down onto him from above. Yuen Siu Mo quickly shifted to avoid being crushed. Simultaneously, he kicked a large rectangular planter toward the servant, breaking his fall as the servant landed onto the soft dirt and flowers.

    “Thank you for leading the way,” a sarcastic voice echoed from above.

    Yuen Siu Mo barely had a chance to glance up at the voice before a white shadow leapt from the high wall surrounding the perimeter of Yuen Manor. A palm suddenly emerged from the amorphous form rapidly approaching him. Yuen Siu Mo quickly raised his palm to intercept his enemy’s attack.

    The exchange of palms would have lasted longer, if it weren’t for the loud commotion coming from the nearby long corridor, which connected the East and West Wings of Yuen Manor. Out of the corner of his eye, Chung Nam spied a familiar figure running toward his direction, with four male servants close behind. Disengaging from his standoff with Yuen Siu Mo, Chung Nam somersaulted swiftly through the air and landed in front of Yan.

    Yan dashed down the long corridor. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted her travel sack tossed beside two potted plants. Exhilarated, she ducked and grabbed the bag while racing by. Behind her, the male servants yelled. Yan, preoccupied with peering behind her at her pursuers, did not notice Chung Nam until she rammed straight into his chest. A pair of strong male arms encircled her waist and kept her plastered against his tall body. Enraged, Yan, without even lifting her head, swung her acupuncture needle with lethal intent. When a callused hand caught her hand and held on firmly, Yan jerked her head up, determined to fight to her last breath. However, instead of looking into the face of a stranger, Sit Chung Nam’s handsome, familiar face grinned back at her.

    “Hello, my little fairy,” Chung Nam winked at her. “Did you miss me?”

    “Sit Chung Nam!” Yan exclaimed, an alluring smile blossoming on her face. “You found me!”

    “Of course,” he gave her a crooked grin. “Did you have any doubt? I’m not leaving my woman behind.”

    At his words, Yan turned flaming red, a frown replacing her smile. “I’m not your...!”

    Before she could finish her protest, Chung Nam leaned down and kissed her hard on the lips, silencing her. When she started to mumble furiously against his lips, he lifted his head and winked teasingly at her.

    “Oh, right, I forgot. It’s the other way around; I’m your man.” He backed away from her slightly, and bowed teasingly. “Sit Chung Nam is here to service Miss in any way needed.”

    At his statement, Yan could only stare speechlessly at him. If it was possible, her face turned an even deeper shade of crimson, and she darted her eyes guiltily around to see if anyone had heard him.

    At that moment, the four male servants chasing behind Yan approached. Chung Nam swiftly pushed Yan behind him. A long spear flew through the air, aiming for Chung Nam’s throat. As the spear neared, Chung Nam ripped off a branch from a nearby tree and parried the spear. With a simple yet forceful upward sweep of his branch, Chung Nam easily dislodged the much more powerful spear from his opponent’s hands with his flimsy tree twig. As the spear spun haphazardly in the air, Chung Nam somersaulted forward and snatched the weapon mid air. With his right leg extended, he executed a single kick to his opponent’s chest, sending him hurtling backward. Below on the ground, the other three male servants surrounded Yan. However, before they could advance forward to grab her, Chung Nam executed a backward somersault, and with a quick flick of the commandeered spear, sliced the throats of all three opponents.

    Landing silently in front of Yan, he expertly twirled the spear once and tucked the weapon behind his back with his right hand. He wrapped his left arm around Yan’s waist and prepared to leap over the tall stone wall of Yuen Manor’s courtyard. Unfortunately, from below, Yuen Siu Mo also flew up, and grabbing onto Yan’s foot, dragged Yan, along with Chung Nam, back down into the courtyard.

    The minute Chung Nam and Yan landed, twenty Yuen Manor male servants emerged from all corners and surrounded the couple. Eyes narrowed, Chung Nam pushed Yan protectively behind him, and with two calm twirls of the spear, brought the weapon to the front.

    “Sect Leader Sit,” Yuen Siu Mo stepped forward. He raised his right hand, motioning for his servants to stand down. “It has been an honor exchanging stances with you today. You are truly a worthy opponent. While I would love to continue sparring with such an infamous and highly capable opponent, I’m afraid Yuen Manor has other matters to attend to at this time. Therefore, you are free to leave without any interference from my people. However,” Yuen Siu Mo qualified, his tone firm, “Clan Leader Black Rose must stay.”

    Sit Chung Nam’s lips curved slightly as he studied the other man imperiously. He tightened his grip protectively around Yan’s hand. “It appears that this young master doesn’t quite understand my style. I do as I please, and today, it pleases me to bring Clan Leader Black Rose along with me.”

    “If that is the case, then do not blame me for being inhospitable today.” Yuen Siu Mo flattened his lips, his eyes cold.

    Yuen Siu Mo waved his right hand slightly, motioning the armed male servants forward.

    “I think we’re outnumbered,” Yan whispered anxiously into Chung Nam’s ear, as she warily assessed the situation. “Maybe...maybe you should leave me behind and come back when you have your Floating Cloud Sect members as reinforcements.”

    “Nonsense, sweetheart,” Chung Nam cast aside that ridiculous suggestion immediately. “Would you leave me behind?”

    Yan seriously thought about his question for a brief second before answering. “No, you’re just as important as my travel sack, and I wouldn’t leave my travel sack behind.” She hugged her bag tightly for emphasis.

    Chung Nam blinked, unsure if he had heard correctly. Did she just compare him to a sack? His infinite charm must be slipping. However, before he could ponder the issue further, his opponents charged.

    Rapidly, Chung Nam pushed Yan out of harm’s way, as twenty spears thrust toward him. In response, he shot upward vertically. As the sharp tips of all twenty spears converged into a single point, Chung Nam dived back down vertically from above. He stabbed his spear tip at that converged point and sent a burst of internal energy down the length his spear. As the qi coursed toward the tip of his weapon, it radiated outward and splintered the servants’ spears. Thrown backward by the force of Chung Nam’s internal energy, the servants collapsed to the ground.

    Chung Nam continued to drive his spear downward, stabbing the pointed tip into the ground at the center of the courtyard. He then executed a vertical flip and landed skillfully onto the top end of the narrow staff. He perched on top of the staff on one foot, like a god condescendingly surveying mere mortals groaning from injuries below.

    Chung Nam smirked at the ineptness of his opponents. With a quick twist of his body, he flew toward Yan, intending to escape with her.

    “Release the nets!” Yuen Siu Mo commanded.

    Suddenly from above, four male servants descended, each holding onto one corner of a large metal net with sharp, embedded hooks and spikes.

    “Yan Yan, watch out!” Chung Nam shouted urgently.

    He dived toward Yan and pushed her down to the ground, using his body to cover hers, thus protecting her from the sharp metal hooks and spikes. The heavy net weighed mercilessly down on Chung Nam’s shoulders and back. He gritted his teeth as the hooks and spikes dug into his skin.

    From all sides, the enemy converged, spears thrusting toward the trapped Floating Cloud Sect Leader. Tucking Yan safely underneath him, Chung Nam raised his right arm and unsheathed his qi swords. With quick and efficient movements, he blocked the oncoming weapons. As his opponents retreated, Chung Nam slashed through the metal netting with his qi swords. Mindless of the blood pouring from the cuts on his arm and hand, he grabbed the remnants of tattered netting and flung them at the enemy. The netting hit the servants with such tremendous force and speed that the men catapulted backward before collapsing unconscious onto the ground.

    Immediately, Chung Nam lifted Yan into his arms and somersaulted rapidly through the air, heading toward the high walls of the courtyard. Unfortunately, before he could clear the wall, another large metal net suddenly emerged, forcing Chung Nam back. This net seemed to be twice the size and weight of the previous one.

    Acting quickly, Chung Nam used his palm energy and sent Yan flying toward the wall of the courtyard. She landed onto the wide ledge of the high wall surrounding Yuen Manor. Shocked at what had just happened, Yan turned around just in time to see the second net completely collapse onto Chung Nam, this one nearly nailing him to the ground with its much heavier and more lethal spikes and hooks.

    “Sit Chung Nam!” Yan cried from her position on the wide ledge.

    “Yan Yan, go!” Chung Nam commanded. “I’ll be fine.”

    “No!” Yan cried in distress, seeing Chung Nam’s injured, bloodied body.

    “Go now!” Chung Nam ordered more forcefully. “I’ll come find you.”

    Before Chung Nam could even finish his statement, more Yuen family male servants appeared from the long corridor. All charged toward him, their spears raised in attack position. Calmly, Chung Nam unsheathed his Shadowless Swords and blocked the blows. Even wounded and trapped underneath the net, Chung Nam managed to fend off his opponents easily. His qi swords vibrated, sliced, and impaled with brutal precision.

    Meanwhile, Yuen Siu Mo raced toward the high walls of the courtyard, intending to recapture Yan. Unexpectedly, the sound of deep laughter echoed from afar. Within the blink of an eye, the sound neared and a flash of gray dashed toward Yan. The gray form grabbed Yan’s shoulder and tossed her to the ground on the other side of the high walls, out of harm’s way.

    With amazing speed, the gray blob flashed forward again, meeting Yuen Siu Mo in the air. Without bothering to exchange palms with Yuen Siu Mo, the gray amorphous form merely tapped Yuen Siu Mo on the shoulder, his seemingly gentle touch causing his young opponent to reel backward so rapidly that he rammed hard into the opposite wall of the courtyard. Yuen Siu Mo tried to struggle to his feet, a trail of blood trickling down the corner of his mouth. However, his legs weakened and he collapsed back onto the ground.

    From the courtyard wall ledge, the gray blob chortled mischievously and plunged down toward the men attacking the trapped Chung Nam. Before anyone could sense his presence, the gray blob jumped into the melee and exuberantly started to toss the servants haphazardly into the air, chuckling mirthfully like a child.

    The large gray sack strapped to the blob’s back bounced wildly as he crowed gleefully. “This is so much fun! I should’ve come earlier! Let’s play some more!”

    From outside Yuen Manor, Yan stumbled unsteadily to her feet after landing onto the soft grass surrounding the perimeter of the manor. She glanced up at the high walls and jumped up and down, trying unsuccessfully to peer over the wall.

    “Sit Chung Nam! Sit Chung Nam!” Yan called anxiously.

    On the other side of the wall, the gray blob stopped darting around to listen to Yan’s distressed calls from outside. By this time, Chung Nam had cut through the metal netting with his qi swords. He, too, turned toward the sound of Yan’s voice.

    The disheveled old man, dressed in a voluminous, ill-fitting gray robe with wild gray hair, sidled up to Chung Nam and whispered quite loudly. “Hey, Brother,” he jabbed his thumb toward the wall, “you should probably leave. Every gentleman knows that he should not keep a lady waiting.”

    Chung Nam narrowed his eyes at the old man curiously. “Elder, you are...?”

    The old man dropped his jaw indignantly. “Did you just call me ‘Elder’?!” He smoothed back his graying, wild mane and glared at Chung Nam. “I may be just a tad older than you,” the offended elderly man pinched his thumb and index finger together and squinted at Chung Nam, “but there is no need to insult me, Brother!”

    “Uh...,” Chung Nam stared strangely at the old man, who appeared old enough to be his father, or even grandfather.

    “All right, all right, I forgive you.” The old man interrupted magnanimously. “I understand that you are injured right now and probably too dazed to think coherently.”

    On the other side of the wall, Yan yelled again, “Sit Chung Nam, are you all right?”

    “All right, run along now! Run along now!” The old man clapped his hands together sharply twice as if to rush Chung Nam along. He pointed toward Yan’s direction. “Go protect her before she gets captured again.”

    After shooting another peculiar glance at the old man, Chung Nam nodded slightly, “Thank you for your help, Eld...er...Brother.” Then he turned and somersaulted over the courtyard wall.

    The minute Sit Chung Nam departed, Yuen Siu Mo and his servants struggled to their feet and made a move to go after Chung Nam and Yan. However, the old man waved the rusty swords dangling from a chain around his neck warningly.

    “Uh uh!” He wagged his finger at them. “Where are you going? We’re not done playing yet!”

    OTHER SIDE OF THE WALL

    The moment Sit Chung Nam landed onto the ground, Yan rushed toward him, her large eyes teary. Before he could say a single word, she buried her face against his chest and embraced him tightly.

    “You’re alive!” Yan shuddered uncontrollably. “I thought you were dead when you didn’t answer me.”

    Chung Nam froze from stupefaction. This was the first time ever that Yan had hugged him of her own volition. While his mind basked in the joy of this realization, he couldn’t seem to bring himself to move.

    When Chung Nam remained unresponsive, Yan backed away one step and peered up at his face, her expression worried. “What’s wrong? Are you in pain?”

    She brought one of his bloodied hands up and inspected it with concern. Hurriedly, she pulled a silky pink handkerchief out from her gown pocket and dabbed at the wounds gently, blowing at his hand as if trying to ease his suffering.

    “Does it feel better now?” Yan asked, her eyes doleful and anxious.

    “Huh?” Chung Nam blinked blankly, his mind still relishing Yan’s sweet actions.

    “It still hurts?” Yan frowned, misinterpreting his dazed look for pain.

    She leaned down, and to Chung Nam’s shocked and happy enjoyment, tenderly kissed his wounded palm.

    The minute her warm, soft lips touched his skin, Chung Nam snapped out of his reverie. While blood stained his white robe in multiple locations, in reality, his injuries appeared worse than they really were. He had sustained worse trauma, even life-threatening ones, during combat with enemies in the past. However, he wisely refrained from enlightening Yan with this piece of information.

    As Yan lifted her lips from his palm, she stared worriedly at him. “Does your hand feel better now?”

    Nodding rapidly, Chung Nam gave her a somber look. “This one hurts, too.” He stuck his other hand in front of her, looking at her expectantly.

    Obliging the poor, wounded Chung Nam, Yan gave his other hand a quick peck, too.

    “Better?” Yan asked, apparently too concerned to realize that Chung Nam appeared perfectly robust despite the sad state of his bloodstained robe.

    Chung Nam flashed her a crooked grin. “Much better, sweetheart.”

    Behind them on the other side of the high walls of Yuen Manor, the sound of weapons clashing, interspersed with the old man’s delighted chuckles, could be heard clearly.

    “Should we help him?” Yan frowned at the wall, just as the old man laughed loudly again.

    Chung Nam snorted. “No, he seems to be having great fun without us.”

    Yan nodded, “All right.” She glanced up at the sky. The storm clouds had started to thicken ominously again, threatening a heavy downpour soon. “It looks like it may rain soon. We should find a shelter for you to rest.”

    When Yan started to walk away, Chung Nam called out to her, making sure his tone sounded pitiful enough. “Yan Yan, will you let me lean on you a bit?”

    Yan turned around in time to see him limping toward her. Her sympathetic heart softened immediately. “Of course, I will help you!” She rushed up to him and wrapped her arms around his waist.

    Grinning blissfully above her head, Chung Nam wrapped his right arm tightly around her shoulders and shamelessly “limped” slowly away with Yan tucked securely in his arms...

  8. #328
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    Thanks for the chapter Melanie

  9. #329
    Senior Member Melanie's Avatar
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    Talking

    Thanks for reading, Ryosuke! I appreciate the note.


    Are there any underaged readers lurking about? If yes, maybe you should sit this chapter out.


    CHAPTER 22 --- FIERY SPARKS AMIDST CHILLING COLD

    Characters appearing in this chapter:
    Wallace Chung Hon Leung 鍾漢良---Sit Chung Nam 薛钟南
    Sun Fei Fei 孙菲菲---Fa Heung Yan a.k.a. Black Rose 花香燕
    Old Beggar 老乞丐

    EVENING
    OUTSKIRTS OF NORTH STAR TOWN

    Nightfall approached rapidly. The heavens blackened suddenly, but instead of the predicted rainstorm, a blizzard attacked the town of North Star and its outskirts. Snow poured from the night sky in thick sheets of white, swiftly blanketing the mountain paths in snow and coating the trees with pure white. Pale moonlight bathed the endless white, its weak beams giving the landscape a blurry, dreamlike quality. The dainty flakes twirled wildly against the dark backdrop like tiny sparkling fairies performing an ethereal dance.

    Into this winter wonderland, two people entered, huddled together for warmth. The young maiden gasped at the pristine beauty in front of her eyes and broke free from her companion’s arms. She joyously rushed toward the flurry of white and lifted her face to the heavens, mindless of the freezing chill. Closing her eyes, she savored the coolness of the delicate flakes as they kissed her skin, her rose-pink lips slightly parted with a hint of a smile as she sighed delightedly. Unable to contain her elation any longer, she started to twirl round and round, her arms stretched outward to welcome the snow. The icy wind snaked its way through the forest, whistling fiercely, and yet, her tinkling laughter rang clearly though the night.

    The man standing off to the side watched the maiden spin with childish glee. Blood stained his tattered white robe, and yet, despite the state of his attire, he retained a commanding aura, his carriage tall and arrogant. The corners of his lips tugged upward in a barely imperceptible indulgent smile, softening his austere appearance.

    The maiden suddenly stopped spinning and turned her attention to the man, her eyes twinkling mischievously. The maiden’s pale green gown billowed in the wind, the thin material clinging to her curves. She executed a graceful pirouette in front of him and lightly flung her arms forward, releasing the long sleeves of her robe. The fabric fluttered teasingly in front of his face before retracting, leaving him with the delicate scent of fresh snow and flowers. Bathed in the silvery moonlight with a flurry of pearly snowflakes twirling around her, she resembled a snow fairy, beckoning and enticing mortal men to retreat with her forever into her winter realm.

    She danced toward him, her slippered feet tapping to the rhythm of the wind. As she neared him, her expression transformed from innocent delight to seductive allure, as she slowly circled around him twice. On the second twirl, she stopped in front of him, providing him with a view of her profile, her back arched elegantly. With her slender hands raised in a dainty pose framing her face, she very slowly and deliberately turned toward him and curved her lips.

    Chung Nam stood transfixed, gazing at the maiden in front of him. If she was a fairy, he would willingly follow her to heaven. If she was a demoness, he would accompany her to the underworld without a backward glance.

    Seeing his dazed look, Yan’s curved lips slowly turned into a puzzled frown. She straightened and tugged at his sleeve.

    “Sit Chung Nam,” she called to him softly. “What’s wrong? Are my dancing skills so bad that you’re shocked speechless?” She joked.

    “Huh?” Chung Nam mentally shook himself. He reached forward and tenderly caressed her soft cheek, carefully brushing away the half melted snowflakes clinging to her skin. “No, I was just thinking of the first time I saw you. That evening, you were also dancing in the moonlight, only it wasn’t snowing then. The balmy night breeze swirled around you, stirring your pale yellow gown. The heat rose from the earth and covered the ground in a thin layer of mist, giving the illusion that you were dancing on clouds. I can still hear the gentle lapping of the waves in the nearby lake and the tinkling bells on your ankle bracelet.”

    Recalling that night also, Yan blushed and accused him. “You were a pervert that night.”

    Chung Nam grinned rakishly at her words. “I’m still a pervert.”

    Yan gasped his brazen retort. She flushed even more hotly and whirled around quickly to hide her crimson face. Ignoring him, she ran off.

    “Yan Yan!” He called after her, laughter apparent in his voice. “Hey, beautiful, wait for me!” He shouted again when she did not stop. “It’s dark and scary in the wilderness. Aren’t you afraid of running into nefarious perverts?”

    She paused and glared at him before asking sardonically, “Aren’t you the biggest and most dangerous pervert of all?”

    Without waiting for his response, Yan tore down the slippery mountain path, her cheeks still burning as she heard his deep chuckle behind her. Her heart thumped, but strangely not from fear, for she knew this notorious bandit would never harm her. If someone had told her months ago that she would one day entrust her life to the infamous and callous bandit, Sit Chung Nam, she would have laughed at the ludicrous suggestion. If someone had told her that she would one day blush prettily like a maiden in love at his teasing and flirtatious remarks, she would have slapped that person silly for daring to insult her taste in men. When she had first met him by the lake in the Forest of Shifting Echoes, she had attempted to blow him up with her powders. Now she willingly danced for him, something which she had never done for anyone else.

    Yan loved dancing. She enjoyed the sensuous movements and relished the art of communicating through pure body language. However, she had never danced for an audience. She remembered that her mother had once told her that dance was an extremely potent universal language that could express sadness, joy, anger, and passion, and that she should use this language carefully. Dancing for a man, especially, represented the ultimate intimate act of proclaiming her feelings for him. Hence, being a cautious person, she had not even danced for Big Brother Kuk Wai, and yet, today she spontaneously and quite naturally danced for Sit Chung Nam.

    Was she falling in love with Sit Chung Nam? Yan frowned at that realization. However, before she could dwell on the topic further, her foot slipped on the wet snow and she catapulted forward down the hilly terrain, falling into the dark abyss below.

    She started to open her mouth to scream for help, but a flash of white swooped forward and grabbed her. With Yan in his arms, Chung Nam raced over the snowy treetops, safely traversing the bottomless gorge below and somersaulting three times in the air before landing soundlessly onto land.

    “Are you all right, sweetheart?” Chung Nam leaned down slightly, framing Yan’s face with his hands as he stared at her with concern.

    “Ye...yes,” Yan breathed shakily, peering over the edge of the mountain cliff.

    She sidled closer to Chung Nam, seeking safety and comfort. Then her gaze shifted to his injured leg as she suddenly remembered his earlier limp.

    “Isn’t your leg wounded? How did you manage to catch me so quickly?” Yan frowned as a tiny thread of suspicion started sneaking into her mind.

    “Oh...uh,” Chung Nam cleared his throat, “the thought of you in danger blocked out my pain and helped spurned me forward.” He winced dramatically and moaned. “Ouch! Now that you’re no longer in peril, I think the pain is returning. My left leg is starting to hurt again.”

    Yan narrowed her eyes at his “injured” leg speculatively. “Really? I thought you were favoring your right leg earlier.”

    Caught in his lie, Chung Nam hesitated for a very brief moment, but recovered quickly. “Yes, um, they both hurt.” He wrapped his arms around Yan and allowed his body to go slightly limp with just enough weakness to hint that he still needed her support.

    She stared at him, while he smiled innocently back at her, his eyes clear and without guilt. Finally, Yan nodded and smiled sweetly at Chung Nam, her eyes filled with sympathy. “Would you like me to give you a kiss to make the pain more bearable?”

    Chung Nam’s entire face lit up instantly. “Yes, yes! That is exactly what I need.”

    He leaned down and offered his cheek to her, waiting expectantly with his eyes closed, his lips curved happily. However, instead of giving him a kiss on the cheek, Yan lightly smacked him on the cheek with her palm, pushing his head away.

    “Ugh! You are shameless, Sit Chung Nam! Completely shameless!” Yan pounded on his chest, irked.

    Before he could defend himself, she stalked off.

    “Wait, Yan Yan!” Chung Nam hurried after her, but then remembered that he should be limping. Quickly switching to his injured walk, he limped pitifully after her. “Wait, sweetheart! I really am wounded!”

    Yan started to turn around to glare at him when she noticed something from the corner of her eye. Squinting into the darkness, she could make out the vague outline of a small cabin hidden among the thick grove of trees.

    Forgetting her anger, she called excitedly to Chung Nam. “There’s a cabin up ahead! Maybe the occupants will be kind enough to provide us with shelter during this snowstorm!”

    She ran exuberantly toward the promise of warmth. However, Chung Nam immediately held onto her arm and stopped her.

    “Yan Yan, wait,” Chung Nam warned, as he eyed the cabin suspiciously. “We don’t know if the occupants are friend or foe.”

    “But it’s so cold,” Yan bit her lip, looking up at him pleadingly. “We can’t survive for long out in this blizzard.”

    As if on cue, the wind roared and the temperature seemed to suddenly plummet drastically. The previously chilled air now turned so icy and raw that it felt like it could slice though flesh.

    Chung Nam glanced down at Yan. Her rosy coloring from moments earlier now started to fade from the extreme chill, and her hands shook slightly. While he would have preferred to brave the elements rather than risk possible ambush, he must think of Yan’s comfort.

    He nodded reluctantly and wrapped one arm protectively around her shoulders. “Let me approach first.”

    The small cabin stood alone among the towering trees, its worn wooden frame completely coated with white. The bare, snow-speckled trees surrounded the cabin like solemn guards, their old and gnarled branches raised, as if trying to shield the dwelling from the elements. As Chung Nam and Yan ventured closer, they could hear the cabin’s unlocked door creaking as it swung back and forth in the wind. A few cobwebs dangled from the top of the door frame.

    Chung Nam pushed the door open. Moonlight flooded into the cabin, revealing a one room interior. Wisps of broken spider webs clinging to the rafters undulated gently as a gust of wind swept through the opened door. A modest-sized bed barely large enough for two adults occupied one corner of the room. A small handmade wooden cradle sat next to the bed. At the other corner of the chamber, a worn bamboo nightstand held a metal wash basin and a rusty kettle. A threadbare room partition panel made with a wooden frame and parchment paper surrounded a large wooden barrel to provide privacy for bathing.

    After ascertaining that the cabin had been abandoned for some time from the amount of dust and cobwebs, Chung Nam took Yan’s hand and pulled her inside.

    “It looks like this place has been empty for a long time.” Chung Nam ran his fingers along the windowsill and flicked away the thick layer of dust.

    “This cabin may be old and dusty, but at least, it is warmer in here than out there.” Despite her statement, Yan shivered and her teeth clattered slightly, as an icy chill snaked inside.

    Concerned, Chung Nam strode over to door and closed it firmly, blocking out the cold but throwing the interior of the cabin into complete darkness. He then cracked open the only window in the cabin slightly to allow some moonlight to filter in.

    Next, he stripped off his robe and placed it around Yan’s shoulders. “My robe may be bloodstained, but it’s clean and will keep you warm.”

    Chung Nam’s warm breath fanned across the top of her head, lightly disturbing the soft strands of her bangs. His arms embraced her tightly as he held her close to his bare chest. His heat seemed to sear through the thin fabric of her gown, and she could feel the hard contours of his muscles pressed against her. His robe covering her shoulders carried a faint pine scent. Yan flushed and shivered involuntarily, this time not from cold.

    “Still cold?” Chung Nam murmured above her head.

    “Mmm,” Yan mumbled with embarrassment.

    She lowered her head shyly and buried her face in the curve of Chung Nam’s neck. She had never been this close with a man before. Her Big Brother Kuk Wai had always treated her with gentlemanly respect. The most intimate thing he had done was kiss her chastely on the forehead. However, within a short period of meeting Sit Chung Nam, she had already seen him completely naked once and half-naked twice and had been kissed senseless by him on several occasions.

    Now he clutched her tightly against his body, alone in a dark cabin in the wilderness, miles away from civilization. Any normal woman would strenuously object to such liberties, but for some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to move away from his warm embrace.

    At that moment, a gust of wind sneaked through the small window opening, causing Yan to shiver again. Chung Nam shifted so that his back blocked the chill from reaching Yan. The tinkling of bells accompanied his movement, drawing Yan’s attention. She lowered her eyes and recognized the source of the tinkling.

    A sliver of moonlight peeked through the window opening, the pale light reflecting off the filigree silver bells attached to the ankle bracelet dangling from the waist sash of his pants. She thought she had lost her ankle bracelet, when all this time, Sit Chung Nam had been wearing it underneath his robe. The delicate chain swayed with his slightest movement, brushing against the front of his pants, flattening the white fabric against his lower abdomen. Yan stared at Chung Nam’s flat, well-toned abdomen briefly before involuntarily drifting even further downward and fixated on a part of his anatomy that seemed to fill the front of his pants very well at this particular moment. Yan didn’t even realize she was gawking curiously until a deep chuckle jerked her out of her daydream.

    “See anything you like?” Chung Nam drawled, his eyes following the direction of Yan’s gaze.

    As if caught molesting him, Yan shook her head rapidly, her eyes wide. “No,” she denied firmly.

    He raised one eyebrow skeptically, as his lips curved suggestively. “No? Really?”

    Blushing furiously, Yan bolted out of his embrace. The robe he had placed around her shoulders fell unheeded to the floor. Before she could go far, Chung Nam yanked her back, hugging her from behind. He leaned down and breathed heavily against the side of her neck, as he pressed her rounded backside against his front side. His sigh of pleasure scorched her neck, and Yan thought she might faint from her sudden lightheadedness.

    “I have a perfect solution to keeping warm.” Chung Nam whispered against her neck.

    He kept his arms tightly looped around Yan’s waist and started to shift toward the bed with her.

    Sucking in a deep breath, Yan caught his wandering hands and dug her heels in. She whirled around and jabbed her finger at his nose.

    “You have a dirty mind!” She pursed her lips and gave him a reprimanding look.

    “I am referring to starting a campfire with the stack of wood over there.” Chung Nam gestured toward the piles of dried twigs and branches lying underneath the bed.

    Yan frowned at his unexpected retort. Her eyes darted toward the direction of the bed and confirmed the presence of firewood pushed under the bed. Sheepishly, she turned back around to find Chung Nam observing her with amusement.

    Yan pouted angrily and stiffened her back defensively. “Are you laughing at me?”

    Chung Nam crossed his arms across his chest and raised his eyebrows. “Not at all. I just didn’t realize my little fairy has such impure thoughts.” His eyes twinkled mischievously as he reached for one of her hands. “However, if my Yan Yan wishes to try other methods at keeping warm, I am happy to oblige.” He wiggled his eyebrows at her lasciviously.

    “You...!” Yan huffed.

    She rushed up, intending to pound on his chest, but then stopped suddenly. Chung Nam had shifted just then so that the moonlight washed completely over his bare torso, clearly illuminating the deep cuts on his chest and back caused by the metal hooks embedded within Yuen Siu Mo’s nets. Yan’s irritation vanished as her heart wept silently for him. He hadn’t been lying when he said he was injured, and yet, she had questioned his wounds earlier. Ashamed, she hurried over, a worried expression on her face.

    “You’re covered in cuts!” Yan placed her hands gently over one particularly deep slash across his chest. She peered up at him, apologetic tears swimming in her eyes.

    Chung Nam’s eyes gentled at her genuine concern for him. Yan not only possessed a lovely physical appearance, she had a beautiful heart. He was not a good person and certainly not the hero she deserved. He was simply a selfish man who took what he wanted, who killed ruthlessly for power and wealth. In the past, he had seen nothing wrong with his lifestyle and his actions. One simple rule prevailed in wulin; the strong survived and thrived and the weak retreated or died. If he didn’t kill first, then he would be killed by someone else. Perhaps someone like him didn’t deserve a sweet angel like Yan, but he didn’t care. Fate somehow allowed him to meet Yan, and he intended to cherish this chance. He wanted to love her, to protect her for as long as she would have him. Should she decide one day that she no longer wanted him, then he didn’t know what he would do.

    He smiled and covered her hands with his. “I’m fine, Yan Yan. These wounds are just superficial.”

    “Nonetheless, we should clean them, or they will get infected.” Yan Yan lectured solemnly.

    She dusted off the bed and fluffed the thin blanket and pillow a few times. Satisfied that the bed now appeared relatively clean, Yan ran over and pulled Chung Nam over. With a no-nonsense expression, she pushed a willing Chung Nam down onto the bed.

    Grinning naughtily as he lowered himself down onto the bed, he wrapped his hands around her waist and tried to pull her down on top of him. “My wounds are fine. They will heal eventually, like all my other injuries in the past. Why don’t we try to keep each other warm, honey?”

    Yan frowned at him, which made Chung Nam’s grin deepen. Exerting a slight amount of force at the back of her waist, he dragged Yan right on top of him. She yelped in surprise as she sprawled over his bare chest. He laughed while Yan gnashed her teeth indignantly.

    “Oh!” Yan gasped.

    Irate, she scrambled back up to a sitting position, but not before Chung Nam managed to steal a quick kiss from her. She sputtered and slapped her palm over lips, glaring at the culprit.

    “This is no joking matter!” Yan poked him in the chest, peeved at his unconcerned attitude. She examined his chest wounds as best as she could in the dim lighting. “Hmm, the wounds are not too deep, injuring only soft tissue. There does not appear to be any muscle damage.”

    “I told you I am fine.” Chung Nam reached up and started to play with her long tresses. “I just need some kisses from you to feel better, Doctor.” He winked at her flirtatiously.

    Deliberately ignoring him, Yan slid off the bed and grabbed the wash basin on the nightstand. She blew off the dust and stepped outside the cabin briefly. When she returned, she held a basin full of powdery white snow.

    She plopped the basin unceremoniously onto the bed next to Chung Nam. “This is fresh-fallen snow, so it is clean. You can use it to wash your wounds.” With those words, she threw a pink embroidered handkerchief at his chest and stalked off toward the wooden stool on the opposite side of the room. Chung Nam caught the pink piece of fabric as it hit his chest.

    “Wait, you’re not going to help me clean my cuts?” He asked incredulously, a bit disappointed.

    “No,” Yan responded succinctly, as she sat on the stool, her carriage regal and haughty.

    “Yan Yan...,” Chung Nam wheedled.

    When she remained unmoved, he sighed glumly. Struggling to sit up, he dipped the handkerchief into the snow and then used the snow-dampened swath of fabric to wipe his cuts.

    From across the room, Yan kept her face averted and tried to ignore him. She could hear Chung Nam’s quiet hiss as the cold, melted snow stung his wounds. She clasped her hands tightly together on her lap and reminded herself what an incorrigible flirt he was. If she paid him any attention, she would only encourage him.

    On the bed, Chung Nam kept sending hopeful looks toward Yan, hoping she would spare him a glance. Preoccupied with watching Yan, he accidentally jabbed his finger into one of the deeper cuts. He groaned a bit from the unexpected pain.

    Hearing his moan, Yan forgot about her resolve to ignore Chung Nam and rushed over. “Are you all right?”

    “I’m a little sore,” Chung Nam looked up at her woefully.

    Yan sighed with exasperation at his expression. For someone who regularly ran around the pugilist world inciting fights, he really didn’t know how to take care of his own injuries.

    “Let me help you,” Yan offered grudgingly.

    She snatched the handkerchief out of his hand and sat down next to him on the bed. She leaned closer and carefully dabbed the dampened cloth at one particularly deep gash. Chung Nam clenched his teeth and grunted softly.

    Yan paused and looked up with concern. “Does it sting a lot?”

    Chung Nam shook his head and smiled. “No, I’m fine.”

    Yan could tell he was lying. She leaned in even more closely and gently blew on the open wound while she dabbed at it with the handkerchief. Her warm breath caressed his bare chest. The pale moonlight peeking in from the crack in the window barely reached the bed. However, with her much closer proximity, he could see the pearly smoothness of her neck, even in the sparse lighting. Involuntarily, Chung Nam’s eyes drifted downward and landed onto her chest. Despite being covered fully by her gown, he could clearly make out the curvy outline of her breasts. The thin fabric of her gown covering her chest fluttered lightly with each breath she took. Suddenly, he could not think of anything else but her breasts.

    Unaware of Chung Nam’s wayward thoughts, Yan explained, her voice soft and sympathetic. “Blowing on the wound will keep it from stinging too much while I clean.”

    However, instead of relieving his pain, her actions seemed to cause him more torment as a deep groan escaped his lips.

    “What’s wrong?” Yan pulled back in alarm. “Did I hurt you?”

    “Ahh...nothing,” Chung Nam gritted his teeth. “I’m just a little sore.”

    “You’re lying!” Yan countered, distressed that he appeared to be in so much discomfort. “Where is it sore? Maybe I can help.”

    “Umm, I’m not sure you want to help, sweetheart.” Chung Nam hissed through his teeth.

    “Of course, I want to help!” Yan cried incredulously. “You’re injured because you shielded me from the metal nets.” She laid her hand onto his chest. “Tell me where the pain is,” she coaxed.

    “Well...it’s lower,” Chung Nam huffed and puffed slightly.

    “Lower?” Yan trailed her hand down his chest, feeling for any hidden wounds she had not detected earlier. In the poor lighting, she could not see well, so she could only go by touch alone. “Is the pain here?” She asked as she rubbed his upper abdomen.

    “No.” Chung Nam was nearly panting by now. “A bit lower.”

    Concerned about his sudden shortness of breath, Yan shifted closer and used both hands to urgently search for this horrible wound that was giving him so much discomfort. When she reached his lower abdomen, she looked at him expectantly, but he still shook his head.

    “No, even lower,” Chung Nam choked.

    Innocently and not thinking, Yan fumbled even lower. Suddenly, she froze. Her palm cupped a large, rigid bulge just below his lower abdomen. The bulge stiffened even further as her fingers flexed accidentally around it.

    “Ahh,” Chung Nam moaned in the dark.

    Yan’s eyes widened. Though she had never been intimate with a man, she immediately recognized this part of the male anatomy from the medical textbooks she had perused in the past. Shocked, she whacked him in the chest hard. Before Chung Nam could react, she leapt up and dumped the basin of freezing snow onto his lap.

    “Ahh!” Chung Nam swore at the wet puddle in his lap.

    “Sit Chung Nam!” Yan pointed an accusing finger at him, incensed beyond words.

    At that moment, a howling laugh drifted in from the slightly opened window. Chung Nam and Yan both jerked toward the sound, just as the window flung wide open and a head full of messy gray hair popped into view.

    “Ha ha ha!” The old man with the pair of rusty swords dangling from a chain around his neck nearly doubled over laughing.

    He agilely leapt over the window and pointed to Chung Nam’s damp pants with mirth. “Ha ha ha! I’ve never laughed so much in my entire life!”

    Yan’s face burned hotly now knowing that her embarrassment had a witness. She whirled around and ran toward the door. Ignoring the old man, Chung Nam immediately chased after her, grabbing her arm.

    “Yan Yan, where are you going?” Chung Nam asked. “It’s cold outside.”

    Furious, Yan turned and pounded on his chest again. “You...you...tricked me!” She was so angry she could not even bring herself to speak coherently.

    “I didn’t intentionally try to trick you,” Chung Nam denied helplessly. “You just looked so alluring and kept insisting on wanting to help relieve my discomfort. Don’t be angry with me, Yan Yan. I couldn’t help myself.”

    “Ugh!” Yan pushed at Chung Nam, but couldn’t get him to move a step.

    He tried to explain further, but she covered her ears. Since he wouldn’t budge, she ran over to the tall room divider and pulled it out so that it partitioned the sleeping area from the area near the window, thus blocking out Chung Nam and the old man. Huffing, she plopped down onto the bed and fumed, while Chung Nam pleaded with her on the other side of the screen.

    In a momentary stupor at being shut out, Chung Nam blinked but recovered quickly. He peered around the side of the screen, calling out to her.

    “Yan Yan, don’t be mad,” Chung Nam started, but couldn’t finish his thought as the damp handkerchief used earlier to attend to his wounds came whizzing by and smacked him in the face.

    “Stay on your side of the screen!” Yan yelled back with bad temper.

    Wiping the droplets of moisture off his face, Chung Nam sighed. Standing next to Chung Nam, the old man continued chortling nonstop. Irritated, Chung Nam turned toward the old man and glowered.

    “Will you stop laughing?” Chung Nam mumbled.

    While grateful that the old man had helped him earlier at Yuen Manor, he would not tolerate the elderly man’s insulting amusement at his expense.

    The old man wheezed as he clutched his stomach with amusement. Finally, he managed to compose himself enough to straighten. He sidled up to Chung Nam and playfully jabbed the younger man in the ribs with his elbow.

    “Hey, Brother,” the old man leaned in confidentially. “For a handsome man, you aren’t doing a very good job of wooing your young maiden. Maybe next time, you should take off your pants, too. She might be more receptive that way.”

    Chung Nam’s scowl deepened at the old man’s lousy advice. He leaned down and glared at the shorter, elderly man, asking through gritted teeth. “Who are you again?”

  10. #330
    Senior Member Melanie's Avatar
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    CHAPTER 23 --- TWO SWORDS, ONE BOOK

    Characters appearing in this chapter:
    Wallace Chung Hon Leung 鍾漢良---Sit Chung Nam 薛钟南
    Sun Fei Fei 孙菲菲---Fa Heung Yan a.k.a. Black Rose 花香燕
    Old Beggar Lau Gwai---老乞丐 劉貴

    EVENING
    OUTSKIRTS OF NORTH STAR TOWN
    CABIN

    Chung Nam leaned down and glared at the elderly man, asking through gritted teeth. “Who are you again?”

    The old man straightened proudly and puffed out his chest like a cock. “This is your lucky day! I am your matchmaker, Brother!”

    Chung Nam arched his brow at the other man and stared disbelievingly for a long moment. Finally, he said sarcastically, “Uh huh.”

    Old Beggar frowned at Chung Nam’s derision. “Now, now, Brother. Don’t discount my courting skills so quickly. I am an expert at wooing beautiful maidens.” He smoothed his wild mane with his hand and lifted his chin proudly. “In my younger days, I was quite the handsome playboy. If you do as I say, your little beauty will succumb to your charms in a snap.”

    Chung Nam shot the elderly man a deadpanned look. He crossed his arms across his chest and loomed over the shorter man. “Uh huh.”

    “What? You don’t believe me, Brother?” The old man scowled indignantly. “Why don’t you try some of my tips to see if they work on the beauty behind the screen?”

    “I can hear you two talking about me, you know!” Yan yelled huffily from the other side of the screen.

    “Haha,” the old man laughed anxiously at Yan’s miffed tone and spoke toward the direction of the screen. “We’re only saying good things about you, little girl. Haha. Only good things.”

    The old man raised his eyebrows at Chung Nam and leaned toward the younger man, as he spoke with an exaggerated whisper. “She is a feisty one, but don’t worry, Brother! If you follow my advice, everything will be just fine.” He lowered his voice and waved Chung Nam over with his hand. “Eh, come over here. I will share my invaluable methods on wooing women with you.”

    The old man rested one hand on his hip and kept his head slightly lowered and tilted in a confidential pose, fully expecting Chung Nam to gratefully scurry over to hear his words of wisdom. However, Chung Nam didn’t move a step. He merely stared at the elderly man with an impassive, unimpressed expression on his face. After waiting for a few seconds, Old Beggar glanced up and noticed that Chung Nam had not budged.

    Frowning at Chung Nam, the old man tiptoed over to the younger man. He placed his hand on Chung Nam’s shoulder, as if he and the stony-faced bandit were old friends.

    “So here is what I think you should...,” the old man started to whisper.

    Before he could fully impart his advice, Chung Nam flicked off the old man’s hand and moved away. “I can woo my own woman without help,” Chung Nam declared coldly, beginning to feel insulted.

    “I heard that!” Yan immediately bellowed churlishly from the other side of the screen. “I’m not your woman!”

    At Yan’s words, Old Beggar choked and tried to keep from laughing. He threw Chung Nam a doubtful glance. “Are you sure you have this situation under control, Brother? From what I am hearing, I think you gravely need assistance.”

    Chung Nam flushed sheepishly. Yan indeed had a lively temper as fiery as an explosive batch of firecrackers, but he had confidence in his own charm. However, he guessed it wouldn’t hurt to listen to some fresh ideas. He glanced reluctantly toward the elderly man, and when the old fellow waved him over again, this time, he sauntered over, keeping his stride nonchalant.

    Pleased that Chung Nam appeared to be showing some interest, Old Beggar whispered, “Brother, so here is what I think you should do...”

    Unconsciously, Chung Nam leaned in slightly closer, waiting to be enlightened.

    “Being bare-chested is not enough to hold a woman’s attention these days, no matter how good your chest looks. I think you should strip completely naked and throw yourself at her.” The old man nodded firmly at his own amazingly sound advice. “That way, she will have no doubt regarding your intentions.”

    “Huh?!” Chung Nam uttered, flabbergasted at the old man’s outrageous tip.

    While Chung Nam remained rooted to the floor in disbelief at what he had just heard, the old man, moving as quickly as the wind, swept his palm forward and pushed an unsuspecting Chung Nam toward the screen divider. Caught off guard, Chung Nam stumbled forward and knocked over the screen, diving right into a shocked Yan. They landed conveniently onto the bed, their arms and legs entangled intimately.

    “Ha! Ha! Ha!” Old Beggar chortled, the rusty swords swinging wildly from around his neck. “Now that is better! Tsk Tsk! Young people these days take too long to admit their feelings. At the rate you two are going, I may have to hang onto these two swords forever.”

    Yan stared up at the half-naked Chung Nam, who weighed her down onto the bed. Flushing furiously, she avoided eye contact with him and shifted her embarrassed gaze to his bare chest.

    “Get off me! Get off me!” Yan pounded on his chest, her cheeks burning up.

    “Ouch! Ouch!” Afraid he was crushing her, Chung Nam wrapped his arms around Yan and rolled over so that she was now sprawled on top of him.

    Now in the more dominant position, Yan struggled to a sitting position, and straddling his hips, she renewed her attack on him. “You deliberately crashed into me!” She accused him.

    “Ouch! Ouch! Have some mercy, Yan Yan!” Chung Nam helplessly hunched his shoulders to protect himself from her pummeling fists and said in an aggrieved tone, “It wasn’t me. The old man pushed me! I’m innocent!”

    “Humph!” Yan glared at Chung Nam. “Is Sit Chung Nam that easily pushed? You wanted an excuse to fall into bed with me!”

    Chung Nam paused slightly at her words. Yan had a point, but he definitely wasn’t going to admit that he may have conveniently allowed himself to be nudged toward her.

    “Uh...ahem,” the old man cleared his throat, trying to suppress his amusement. “Do you two want some time alone?”

    “No!” Yan yelled out with embarrassment.

    “Yes!” Chung Nam called out at the same time.

    Before Chung Nam could object, Yan scrambled off him and darted away.

    “Yan Yan!” Chung Nam quickly followed to find her hiding red-faced behind the old man.

    He easily strode up to her and tried to hold her hand, but Yan shook his hand off.

    “Will you please put your robe on?!” Yan whispered with embarrassment, keeping her eyes averted.

    Finding her bashfulness incredibly adorable, Chung Nam deliberately played dumb. “Why? It’s warm in here.”

    “Because...,” Yan paused and tried to come up with an appropriate answer without sounding like a fool.

    She peered up at Chung Nam and noticed his laughing eyes. He was enjoying her discomfort! Furious, she suddenly stamped her foot and sent him a ferocious glare.

    “Because I said so!” Yan blurted out angrily.

    She stomped over to his fallen robe on the floor and threw it at him, trying desperately to pretend that her face wasn’t flaming red.

    Chung Nam chuckled as he easily caught his robe. “Fine,” he winked at her while he slowly dressed. “Anything for my Yan Yan.”

    Watching the exchange, the old man chortled at Yan’s shyness. “I am glad you two are getting along.” He untangled the pair of swords from around his neck and tried to hand the blades over to Yan. “Well, here you go, little girl.”

    When Yan simply stared blankly at him without moving forward to receive the swords, Old Beggar raised his eyebrows quizzically at her. “Go on,” he urged. “Take the swords, little girl. Consider these my wedding gift to both of you.”

    Yan smiled awkwardly at the old man and gently pushed the swords back toward him. “Um, Elder,” she began politely, “I remember you from the market square earlier. Um, we should be thanking you for helping us at Yuen Manor, not taking your precious swords.”

    “Nonsense!” The old man dismissed her words. “Don’t you remember what I told you at the marketplace? Your baby is the destined master of these swords.”

    Yan’s face turned an even brighter shade of red at the mention of a baby. “Elder! I already told you at the marketplace that there is no baby!” She hissed as she darted her eyes surreptitiously at Chung Nam, who was hovering nearby.

    She tried to push the swords back toward the old man again, but Chung Nam, who had been eying the swords suspiciously, reached out and stopped Yan from rejecting the gift.

    “Wait, Yan Yan,” Chung Nam stepped closer and accepted the pair of weapons from the old man on Yan’s behalf.

    He unwrapped the chain from the sword hilts and separated the weapons. Holding one weapon in each hand, he adeptly twirled the swords three times before bringing the swords together, aligning them from blade tip to hilt in perfect unison. The surrounding air vibrated with a subtle energy force that was understated but nonetheless distinctly unique. With eyes narrowed, Chung Nam examined the old, rusty weapons for a long moment. He carefully ran his fingers along the bellies of the blades, his expression speculative. Finally, a flicker of recognition flashed across his eyes. He turned to Yan and offered the weapons to her.

    “Yan Yan, thank Elder for the priceless gift.” Chung Nam smiled slightly at her, his eyes urging her to accept the weapons.

    Yan gawked at Chung Nam as if he had gone mad. Her gaze slid toward the ugly, rusty swords and then returned to Chung Nam’s face. Before she could speak, the old man cackled and stroked his beard with satisfaction.

    The old man nodded with approval. “Ah, Sect Leader Sit Chung Nam certainly does not disappoint me! Not only do you recognize the swords for the treasures they are, but you also seem to handle the weapons with skill and ease, despite not being the destined master of the swords. Do you know how many highly skilled pugilists have buckled under the immense weight of these blades?”

    He then turned to Yan and grinned. “You should listen to your young man, little girl, and accept the present.”

    Shooting a puzzled look first at Chung Nam and then at the old man, Yan frowned but nonetheless hesitantly reached forward for the swords.

    As her hands closed over the hilts, Chung Nam warned, “Be careful, Yan Yan. Be prepared for their immense weight.”

    He gently released the swords. The moment Chung Nam removed his hands, Yan nearly collapsed to her knees, her grip on the swords loosening. Immediately, Chung Nam wrapped an arm around her and propped her back up, while his other free hand grasped the sword hilts before they clattered to the floor.

    Grimly, Yan recalled running into the old man earlier at the marketplace and being literally knocked flat onto her back by these very weapons. She marveled at how a pair of slender blades could weigh so heavily.

    “The swords are heftier than they look! Their weight alone makes them difficult to maneuver.” Yan mused.

    Chung Nam grinned at Yan’s words. “They are only heavy and cumbersome to you because you are not their destined master, sweetheart.” He glanced at the elderly man and raised one eyebrow. “If I am not mistaken, Elder, these are the legendary Swords of Sun and Moon.”

    Old Beggar merely smiled sagely. “Indeed, they are.”

    Chung Nam shifted just slightly so that the sparse moonlight from the opened window fell directly onto the twin blades. Despite their rusty, worn appearance, the blades glimmered radiantly in the pale light.

    As he admired the weapons, Chung Nam murmured to Yan, “According to wulin legend, the Swords of Sun and Moon are heavenly weapons originating from the opposite ends of the earth, forged by the sheer force of nature. The Sword of Sun was forged from within the depths of a violent, active volcano from the southern regions, taking the form of a sword after centuries of absorbing yang heat energy. The Sword of Moon, on the other hand, hailed from the freezing ice fields of the northern most parts of the earth. The moon blade originated from a rare bluish rock formation, called the Moonstone, found only in the coldest ice fields, absorbing the yin energy of the moon’s rays.”

    Hearing Chung Nam’s explanation, Yan moved closer to the swords and studied them with curiosity. In the moonlight, one of the swords especially seemed to light up with an almost imperceptible steely blue shimmer. The other one, if she looked closely enough, emanated a crimson brilliance underneath the layer of rust.

    Chung Nam continued his story. “Legend claims that the swords are alive, with a life force that complements their wielder’s skills, magnifying his power exponentially. Individually, the swords are formidable in their own right. However, in unison, they become peerless. They complete each other, attacking in perfect harmony, each sword magnifying the other’s strengths, killing with deadly precision.”

    Old Beggar chuckled, “Sect Leader Sit is very well-informed. For years, I have traveled the world, searching for the rightful master of these weapons. During my wanderings, countless renowned and skilled pugilists have ambushed me, lusting for the swords I carry.” He peered at Chung Nam speculatively. “Sect Leader Sit, how come you have never tried to steal the swords from me? Aren’t you interested in possessing wulin’s most prized and lethal weapons?”

    Chung Nam smirked. “I don’t need a pair of swords to help me survive in wulin.”

    At Chung Nam’s answer, Old Beggar threw his head back and laughed heartily. “Spoken like a true arrogant and fearless pugilist! I like you, Brother!” The old man nodded at the younger man with approval. “With such cockiness and confidence, I know that I can entrust these swords to you.”

    “Virtually every pugilist, including the leaders of the orthodox schools, have lusted after these weapons. Of all people, why do you entrust such priceless treasures to a bandit?” Chung Nam raised one eyebrow.

    “Oh, I didn’t pick you, Sect Leader Sit.” Old Beggar shook his head cheerfully. “The swords have picked you as their protector until you can pass them on to your first-born son.”

    At Old Beggar’s cryptic response, Chung Nam crossed his arms across his chest and stared intently at the elderly man in front of him. “Who are you?”

    Old Beggar merely smiled slightly and calmly returned Chung Nam’s gaze. “I am just an old man who likes to collect weapons.”

    Chung Nam reassessed the elderly man with renewed interest. Despite the elderly man’s scraggly, homeless appearance and his playful behavior, his eyes now reflected a seriousness and wisdom that seemed incongruent with his earlier joking manner.

    “Heavenly Weapons Manor has been safekeeping the Twin Swords of Sun and Moon for over a century, ever since the founder of the manor, the former Chancellor Lau, acquired the raw blades from their original locations of conception. He brought them back to Heavenly Weapons Manor and created two mythical swords from these raw materials.” Chung Nam narrowed his eyes at Old Beggar. “Since Elder has been protecting these swords, then Elder must be a direct descendant of former Chancellor Lau. Could Elder be the revered, yet idiosyncratic, retired master of the Heavenly Weapons Manor, Lau Gwai?”

    “Brother,” Old Beggar reminded Chung Nam with a pained expression. “Call me Brother.” He stuck his face in front of Yan and whined, “Little girl, your young man keeps calling me ‘Elder’! I’m not that old, am I?” He preened and posed for Yan. “If Sect Leader Sit and I were in a beauty competition for the title of ‘Most Handsome Pugilist in Wulin,‘ whom would you choose?”

    Yan looked at Old Beggar’s hopeful, earnest eyes and wrinkled face and smiled dotingly, “Of course, I would choose Elder!”

    “Hey!” Chung Nam immediately straightened and frowned, a bit offended at being placed in a hypothetical, sissy beauty contest and even more so at losing to the old man in Yan’s eyes.

    Completely ignoring Chung Nam, Old Beggar squeezed his way in between Yan and Chung Nam, elbowing the younger man out of the way. “Hehehe,” he giggled like a pleased little boy. “Really? You think I am more handsome than your young man?”

    Forced off to the side, Chung Nam glowered fiercely at Old Beggar, who was now grinning fondly at Yan. Chung Nam tried to catch Yan’s eye, but she paid him no attention as she patted the old man’s hand.

    “Of course!” Yan reassured Old Beggar, her impish eyes darting toward the insulted Chung Nam briefly before returning to the old man. Seeing Chung Nam’s thunderous, affronted look, Yan suddenly discovered that she quite enjoyed teasing him. She turned to the old man and flashed him a dazzling smile. “You have a type of mature charm that a younger man lacks. Maybe I should address you as ‘Big Brother,’ also.”

    Chung Nam’s expression grew darker by the second. However, both Yan and the old man ignored him.

    Old Beggar brightened at Yan’s suggestion. “That’s right! Call me ‘Big Brother.’ ‘Elder’ is such a derogatory term!”

    He huffed that last statement, clearly annoyed at being addressed as such by Chung Nam multiple times. As if to emphasize his irritation, he turned and peevishly wrinkled his nose at the younger man standing off to the side.

    Then dismissing Chung Nam, Old Beggar smiled at Yan. “Little girl, I like you a lot! I’m single and fun,” he winked at Yan with a mischievous twinkle. “Do you want to run away with me and leave your scowling, unamusing young man behind?”

    Chung Nam stiffened his back at the old man’s suggestion. “Hey, now wait a minute!”

    Chung Nam could hear a distant roaring in his head, like the sound of water in a tea kettle nearing its boiling point. Some part of Chung Nam’s subconsciousness told him to stop and calmly inhale. He had always prided himself for his calm, almost cold, and detached approach to trying situations. After all, he had not survived for so long in wulin by being rash. However, for some inexplicable reason, he could only exhale angry steam this time. He couldn’t just stand by and grin while some other man was flirting with his Yan Yan, even if that other man was someone old enough to be Yan’s grandfather.

    Rudely, Chung Nam pushed himself in between Yan and Old Beggar and jerked Yan possessively toward him. “Elder, don’t think I won’t beat you up just because you are old!”

    His hackles raised at being again referred to as an elder, Old Beggar straightened to his full, unimpressive height, bringing the top of his head to just under Chung Nam’s chin. “Brother! Call me Brother! And I’m not old!”

    Before Chung Nam could respond with a scathing remark, Yan quickly stepped in. “All right, you two young, equally handsome men!” Yan interrupted, with a touch of exasperation in her tone. “It doesn’t look like the snowstorm outside is going to stop any time soon. We will probably have to stay here for the night. Come help me clean and tidy up the place.”

    “What?” Old Beggar jerked around and stared at Yan as if she had just sprouted two heads. “You want me to do housework and clean? Never!” He frowned deeply at her and jabbed his index finger at his own chest. “Who do you think I am, little girl? I am a beggar. You don’t ask a beggar to clean!”

    Yan opened her mouth, about to respond, but the old man grabbed Chung Nam by the arm and dashed out the cabin door with the younger man, leaving only his words drifting behind.

    “I’m leaving, little girl, but I need to borrow Sect Leader Sit for a few minutes!” Old Beggar’s voice echoed.

    “Elder, wait!” Yan ran toward the door and anxiously peered out into swirling snow, but the elderly man and Chung Nam had already vanished from sight.

    “Don’t worry. I’ll return him once I say a few words to him.” The old man’s voice resonated back to Yan from the endless darkness.

    FOREST CLEARING BEHIND WOODEN CABIN

    Outside, the snow fall had lightened to a small flurry, and soon afterward, the snow stopped completely. The small sliver of moon barely provided any illumination. In this nearly moonless night, the stars reigned, lighting up the dark heavens with millions of twinkling, colored jewels.

    Chung Nam watched the lone figure standing a few paces away from him. They had been standing outside for a while now, and the elderly man had yet to say anything. With the stark landscape of pure white as his backdrop, the old man appeared solemn, a completely different person from the jolly fellow moments earlier in the wooden cabin. A gust of wind swept forward, stirring his loose, gray robe. Unbothered by the icy cold, he glanced up at the heavens and surveyed the stars. At this very moment, he resembled a sage, wise, otherworldly, contemplative.

    Chung Nam waited patiently beside the old man. Despite his irritation with the elderly man’s teasing earlier, he respected this elder’s martial arts skills. Old Beggar Lau Gwai moved, defended, and attacked with an ease and self-confidence that could only be attained through years of cultivation, self discipline, and training. Chung Nam rarely admired anyone, but he certainly admired this seemingly childish elderly man and hoped that he would be able to reach Old Beggar’s level of skill as he matured.

    “The stars are especially stunning and radiant tonight. Don’t you think so, Sect Leader Sit?” Old Beggar suddenly asked.

    He did not bother to glance at Chung Nam but continued to stare intently at the stars.

    Chung Nam raised one brow, surprised by the old man’s question. “Elder brought me out here to stargaze?” His tone dripped with a slight hint of sarcasm.

    “Call me Brother,” the old man muttered, but this time without any vehemence. Dismissing Chung Nam’s sardonic tone, Old Beggar tilted his head slightly, his gaze concentrated on some distant point in the heavens. “Tell me, Sect Leader Sit, of all the dazzling and colorful stars in the sky, which color star do you find most captivating?”

    Though he found the old man’s topic of conversation peculiar, Chung Nam decided to humor him. "Red," he responded without needing to consider his answer.

    The moment the answer left his mouth, Chung Nam froze, shocked. He didn’t understand why he had responded so quickly, so affirmatively, as if the answer had been buried deep inside his heart for so long that it was an integral part of him. He had never consciously liked the color red, nor had he ever been an avid stargazer. However, somewhere deep in his heart, he knew immediately that he favored one particular red star, the brightest glimmer of crimson in the night, the one star that could bring warmth and laughter to his soul.

    Old Beggar smiled slightly and murmured, “Of course, you would favor the red star. It seems that your preferences haven’t changed, whether in the heavens or on earth.”

    Chung Nam narrowed his eyes, not quite sure he understood the elderly man’s comment. “Excuse me?”

    Ignoring Chung Nam’s confusion, Old Beggar sighed. “My grand teacher, a great master of divination, once told me that the star-filled night would have been even more spectacular if she were present, for legends claimed that she could light up the night with her crimson brilliance, putting the other lesser stars to shame. It was a pity that she had offended the heavens and hence was banished to the mortal realm as punishment. To return to heaven, she had to fulfill one very important task. Once she accomplished her assignment, she will be sent back immediately.”

    Chung Nam frowned with bewilderment at the old man’s strange words. This peculiar elderly man dragged him out into the cold to stargaze. Now, he was telling him some sort of vague story, a story which sounded suspiciously familiar. He had no clue what Old Beggar was talking about, yet he knew that this old man, despite his childishness, would not randomly tell stories unless he intended to hint at something. Oddly, dread started to slowly weigh down his body. The wind suddenly picked up, howling like the cries of demons, and wrapped its icy tentacles around Chung Nam. However, he could neither hear the wind nor feel its chill. All he could hear were the old man’s last words reverberating ominously in his mind.

    Once she accomplished her assignment, she will be sent back immediately.

    Old Beggar turned and looked at Chung Nam with an almost undetectable hint of pity in his apologetic eyes. He seemed to want to say something, but then he suppressed the urge and only shook his head sadly. “I am merely the lowly messenger sent here to deliver the swords.”

    At the elderly man’s words, Chung Nam frowned. He started to ask for clarification, but the old man seemed to shake himself mentally, as he suddenly straightened and grinned, the mischievous sparkle returning to his eyes.

    “Sect Leader Sit,” he winked at Chung Nam and gestured at the twinkling lights in the sky, “I believe love is written in the stars for you!”

    The old man glanced at Chung Nam expectantly after blurting out that love prediction, but the younger man remained unimpressed, his sharp eyes scrutinizing him.

    Ignoring Old Beggar’s prediction about his love fate, Chung Nam grabbed the old man’s arm urgently. “Who is the ‘she’ you are speaking of in your story, Elder?”

    Disregarding Chung Nam’s iron grip on his arm, Old Beggar calmly stared straight into the younger man’s dark eyes. “Guard the swords well, and they, in turn, will protect you and your family.” Using his free hand, he reached inside his robe pocket and pulled out a thin manual. “The swords are my first gift to you and your little beauty. This manual is my second gift.”

    When Chung Nam did not appear to have any response to the second present, Old Beggar sighed and gently brushed off the younger man’s grip. “Take the manual, Sect Leader Sit. It will be your legacy to your son and to the future wulin generations.” He pushed the manual into Chung Nam’s hand.

    “Who is the ‘she’ in your story?” Chung Nam persisted, his fist unconsciously tightening around the manual, wrinkling its pages.

    Old Beggar only shook his head in response. Before Chung Nam could ask his question a third time, the elderly man dashed off without warning, his figure rapidly blending into the night.

    “Wait!” Chung Nam called out in surprise.

    He somersaulted into the air, darting toward the direction which Old Beggar had vanished. Unfortunately, even with Chung Nam’s superior lightness kung fu skills, he still could not catch up. The old man had already disappeared.

    Furious, Chung Nam yelled into the night. “Elder!”

    “Often, we waste all our time fighting a losing battle with fate, attempting to pursue an eternal happily ever after, that we forget to cherish the wonderful moments we have already been granted in the present.” Old Beggar’s voice, hazy and soft, drifted from the distance.

    “Elder!” Chung Nam shouted into empty space.

    “We will meet again, Sect Leader Sit.” Old Beggar’s voice faded further into the night. “For now, good-bye.”

    “Elder! Come out!” Chung Nam glanced around in the dark. “I have questions for you!”

    This time, only the wind howled in response. The snow slowly started to descend again, the tiny flurries of white puff landing softly onto Chung Nam’s shoulders and sleeves. Soon, his gown dampened, the icy wetness seeping through the fabric. He ignored the chill, as he listened to his own heart pound in his ears.

    Once she accomplished her assignment, she will be sent back immediately.

    That statement circled in his mind, like a snake slithering around and around, hissing, threatening, taunting. He suddenly felt an incomprehensible urge to scream, to rage at the heavens for the injustice of it all. He didn’t know where these emotions originated from. After all, this nameless “she” had nothing to do with him. “She” was simply a character in some nonsense story the old man was babbling about. However, once his anger started to rise, it boiled uncontrollably, as if his most precious possession was being ripped away from him.

    At that moment, soft footsteps traveled across the snow-covered path.

    “Sit Chung Nam?” Yan called out hesitantly, pausing behind him.

    Snapping back from his thoughts, Chung Nam whirled around to see Yan huddled underneath a thin blanket she must have found inside the cabin. The blanket covered her head and draped over her shoulders and back, reaching all the way to her ankles. Only her face remained uncovered, her large, curious eyes peering at him.

    Chung Nam stared back at her and drowned in those beautiful eyes that held the reflection of the stars above. His heart suddenly ached for some inexplicable reason, and he lunged forward and grabbed her, pulling her securely into his arms. His actions caused her to yelp in surprise.

    “Yan Yan, promise me you won’t leave me.” Chung Nam mumbled gruffly as he leaned down and buried his face into the side of her neck.

    He could smell the faint mustiness of the old blanket mixed in with Yan’s fresh, light floral scent. Very gradually, his heartbeat evened out, and he relaxed slightly.

    Yan’s eyes clouded with confusion, as she tilted her head to look up at him. “What’s wrong?”

    He yanked her closer and placed her hands over his heart. “Just promise me,” he insisted.

    “I...,” Yan hesitated, unsure what to say. “All right,” she finally answered, as she continued looking at him with a stunned expression on her face.

    Hearing her promise, Chung Nam smiled and relaxed even further.

    “Where is Elder?” Yan glanced around in confusion. “I heard you yelling, so I came out to see what was happening.”

    “He left,” Chung Nam answered vaguely.

    Yan opened her mouth to ask why, but ended up sneezing instead.

    Chung Nam wrapped the blanket more securely around Yan. “Let’s go back inside. You’re freezing.”

    Chung Nam released Yan from his embrace and began to walk with her back to the cabin. As the couple took a step forward, the forgotten manual, previously wedged in between their bodies during the hug, dropped to the ground with a loud plopping noise.

    Yan glanced down at the snow-covered ground. Against a background of pure white, the ink-black Chinese characters written in an elegant script on the cover of the manual gleamed clearly under a million twinkling stars.

    Book of Sun Moon Swordplay

  11. #331
    Senior Member Melanie's Avatar
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    Talking

    CHAPTER 24 --- BATH

    Characters appearing in this chapter:
    Wallace Chung Hon Leung 鍾漢良---Sit Chung Nam 薛钟南
    Sun Fei Fei 孙菲菲---Fa Heung Yan a.k.a. Black Rose 花香燕
    Yuen Siu Mo 袁劭武

    EVENING
    OUTSKIRTS OF NORTH STAR TOWN
    OUTSIDE CABIN

    Book of Sun Moon Swordplay

    Yan leaned down and picked up the manual. “Book of Sun Moon Swordplay?” She asked Chung Nam curiously. “Is this yours?”

    “No,” Chung Nam shook his head. “The old man gave it to me just before he left. I assume it’s the accompanying martial arts manual to the Swords of Sun and Moon.”

    “A sword manual?” Yan exclaimed excitedly. She started eagerly flipping through the pages, but ended up frowning in confusion, instead. “It’s blank!”

    Yan showed the manual to Chung Nam, who scanned through the book quickly.

    “Is this some joke?” Chung Nam muttered.

    For a long moment, he stared dumbly at the blank martial arts manual. Then, the old man’s words echoed in his mind.

    Take the manual, Sect Leader Sit. It will be your legacy to your son and to the future wulin generations.

    He suddenly started chuckling as understanding dawned on him.

    “What is so amusing?” Yan asked, bewildered.

    Chung Nam snorted and shook his head with exasperation. “The old man gave me a blank manual because he expects me to invent a dual sword technique to be used with the Swords of Sun and Moon.”

    Yan looked up at Chung Nam with a playful twinkle in her eyes. “You are quite egotistical, aren’t you, Sect Leader Sit? How do you know Elder didn’t want me to invent a sword technique?”

    Chung Nam stopped scowling long enough to raise his eyebrow with delight at Yan’s challenging glance. “And how many sword techniques has my Yan Yan invented?” He asked, trying not to laugh at her adorable, piqued look.

    Feeling extremely affronted by his amusement, Yan stiffened her back and jutted out her chin proudly. “I may not be an expert pugilist like you, Sect Leader Sit, but I have conceived a few humble techniques before.”

    “Really?” Chung Nam grinned, finding goading her a fun hobby. “What techniques have you invented, sweetheart?”

    Yan sniffed proudly and announced, “Well, one of my more accomplished techniques is the Thousand Hand Black Rose Palm. It utilizes an optical illusion to give off the appearance of multiple arms and hands from the practitioner, which then allows him or her to confuse the opponent.” Yan beamed with satisfaction. “It’s a very effective technique!”

    Chung Nam smiled indulgently. “I am sure it is, sweetheart.”

    “Since my elder sister destroyed my internal energy, I can no longer execute the Thousand Hand Black Rose Palm to its full potential.” She gave Chung Nam a considering look. “Would you like to learn it? I normally don’t accept students, but I think, with your internal energy, you would be able to bring my technique to new heights.”

    Chung Nam stared blankly at Yan’s sudden offer. “Uh...”

    Yan raised her hand, preventing him from answering too quickly. “Before you reject my offer, you should see my technique.”

    Excitedly, Yan flung off the blanket she was using as a shawl and stuffed it into Chung Nam’s hands. “Watch this!”

    Backing away from him, she twirled twice gracefully, her long skirt fluttering flirtatiously around her ankles. She glided elegantly across the snow-covered land, her arms moving lightly in smooth, elegant strokes, her long, flowing sleeves caressing her skin. As she stopped, she crisscrossed her hands at the wrist and daintily flipped her hands once, her gesture so beautifully executed that her actions seemed like dancing moves. Without warning, she separated her wrists and raised her arms, the sleeves of her gown billowing softly in the wind. Chung Nam blinked, and suddenly, he noticed what appeared to be a thousand arms moving rapidly in synchrony. Then, in the next instant, the illusory arms collapsed as Yan brought her two real arms down and crossed her wrists again, ending her demonstration.

    “Well?” Yan asked expectantly, her eyes sparkling. “What do you think? With the backing of your internal energy, my technique could become spectacular!”

    Dazed, Chung Nam gawked at Yan. Watching her execute her martial arts technique reminded him of an exquisite dance a woman would perform for her lover, full of grace and femininity, yet with a hint of seduction. Imagining himself prancing around practicing such a technique, he could only shudder with dread and mortification. He, known for his swift, lethal, and powerful strikes, would become the laughingstock of wulin if he ever used such refined, feminine stances against his enemies. Maybe his enemies would laugh to death before he could deliver the death blow.

    “Well?” Yan ran up to him and tugged at his sleeve. “Do you want to learn my technique?”

    “Uh,” Chung Nam cleared his throat delicately and darted his eyes around anxiously, refusing to look at Yan. Finally, he shifted his eyes toward Yan and smiled at her winningly. “I think I’ll pass on learning your technique, sweetheart.”

    “Why?!” Yan glared at him, insulted. “What’s wrong with my technique?”

    “Nothing is wrong with your technique, sweetheart,” Chung Nam began, speaking in a soothing tone, hoping to placate her. “It’s just...umm...it’s...,” Chung Nam couldn’t bring himself to continue.

    “It’s what?” Yan persisted, her eyes narrowed dangerously at Chung Nam.

    “It’s...it’s a sissy, girly technique.” Chung Nam blurted out quickly and then swallowed uncomfortably.

    When had Sit Chung Nam ever worried about trying to be tactful with his words? Never. However, looking at Yan’s furious expression, he now wished he had pretended to be interested in learning her technique and then prayed she would forget about it later.

    “What?!” Yan furrowed her brows, her eyes thunderous and narrowed to tiny pinpoints.

    She jerked her blanket out of his arms and whacked his chest twice with it before whirling around and stomping away from him.

    “Wait, Yan Yan!” Chung Nam grabbed her arm before she could go far.

    He pulled an unwilling Yan into his arms. No match for him in strength, Yan glared mutinously up at him, refusing to struggle.

    “I have a better idea, sweetheart.” Chung Nam smiled cajolingly. “Why don’t I transfer some of my qi to you, so that you can execute your own technique with the appropriate internal energy backing?”

    Yan’s mind went black, unsure if she had heard correctly. “Huh?” Her anger forgotten, she stared at him with wide eyes. “You are willing to transfer some of your internal energy to me?”

    Chung Nam smiled, “Yes. Why are you shocked?”

    “A pugilist’s qi garnered from years of training and cultivation can be considered his most precious possession. Why are you willing to share some of your qi with me?” Yan asked softly, touched by his offer.

    Chung Nam’s grin widened. “My internal energy is your internal energy.”

    He leaned downed and touched his forehead to hers. The corners of his lips curved as he smiled teasingly.

    Yan stared straight into Chung Nam’s eyes. Despite his jesting tone, a glimmer of seriousness reflected somewhere in the depths of his dark eyes, silently asking her if she was willing to accept what was his. An indescribable wave of emotion washed over. Her heart ached with sweetness and happiness. After parting ways with Big Brother Kuk Wai, she never thought she would find someone she could trust again. Yet, here Sit Chung Nam stood in front her, her unexpected safe haven. He infuriated her with his arrogant, domineering ways. He made her blush with shyness. He stirred her heart, making it throb with sweetness. But most importantly, he made her feel like she had finally found a home again.

    Suddenly, without warning, she threw her arms around Chung Nam’s neck and buried her face against his chest. “Thank you,” she whispered.

    Shocked, Chung Nam froze, but he quickly recovered. Hesitantly, he raised his arms and wrapped them lightly around Yan, afraid of scaring her. When she responded by burrowing herself more firmly against him, he tightened his embrace.

    By now, the wind had calmed down to a light whisper, its gentle hum soothing. All around, snow lightly sprinkled down on them, the tiny, white specks twirling lightly in the breeze, kissing their skin. Overhead, the millions of stars winked, bright flashes of light smiling down on the couple embracing below.

    They remained embraced for a long moment. Then, Yan involuntarily shivered, her thin gown offering very little warmth.

    “Yan Yan, are you cold?” Chung Nam’s warm breath fanned over the top of her head, causing her to shiver even more. “Do you want to return to the cabin?”

    Yan nodded shyly and swiftly released him. With the blanket wrapped tightly around herself, she ran back toward the cabin without giving him time to react.

    Left behind, Chung Nam watched her petite figure slowly disappear behind the curtain of snow. A slight smile graced his lips as his eyes trailed after her. Perhaps he was mellowing with age, but he suddenly did not wish to return to the worldly affairs of wulin. He didn’t want to lead the Floating Cloud Sect on another raid. He just wished he could stay right here, at this secluded cabin in the woods, with Yan Yan.

    A bandit could spend his entire life searching for that elusive, ultimate treasure and never find it. But he didn’t need to continue looking, for he had finally found his priceless treasure. He had never been a fanciful man, but with each additional day he spent with Yan, the more he knew that she was all the wealth he needed and wanted. Romantic ballads sang of love that could make fools out of great men. If that were true, then he would gladly be a fool for the rest of his life.

    With that thought in mind, Chung Nam chased after Yan.

    CABIN

    Chung Nam entered the cabin to find Yan trying to lug the huge wooden bath tub toward one corner of the room. She had already started a fire to boil the fresh fallen snow she had collected in the large kettle. Underneath the kettle stand, small twigs snapped in the crackling fire.

    “What are you doing, sweetheart?” Chung Nam smiled as he helped her drag the tub.

    “I want to take a bath.” Yan answered as she stared wistfully at the tub, imagining the soothing, steamy soak she was about to have.

    She fed a few more twigs into the fire, before she happily walked over to the bed to neatly lay out a fresh gown from her travel sack. As the kettle whistled, Yan rushed over to pour the hot water into the tub.

    Immediately, Chung Nam’s eyes brightened. “A bath! That’s a great idea!”

    As Yan turned around to set the kettle down, she noted Chung Nam making a move to strip off his robe.

    “What are you doing?” Yan narrowed her eyes at him suspiciously.

    “Taking a bath,” Chung Nam’s hands hesitated at the lapels of his robe, as he threw her an innocent look.

    “I’m taking a bath, not you,” Yan crossed her arms across her chest.

    Smiling charmingly, Chung Nam strolled nonchalantly up to Yan, backing her up against the wall. “Yan Yan, you aren’t going to share the bath?” He deliberately leaned forward, as he placed his palms on the wall on either side of head, trapping her. “There is enough room in that big tub for two, with room to spare.”

    “No sharing!” Yan glared at him menacingly.

    She tried to push him away. However, instead of giving way, Chung Nam refused to budge, continuing to grin rakishly at her.

    “Please? It’s so cold outside that a soak in a steamy bath would help my wounds.” Chung Nam played on her earlier sympathy for his injuries.

    “Your wounds are fine.” Yan swatted him aside.

    “Are you sure?” Chung Nam gave Yan a pitiful look. “I’ve been feeling a vague, intermittent ache in my heart for the past few days, and the sensation is getting worse. Maybe you could examine my heart while we are relaxing in the tub together?”

    “You want to bathe? Wait your turn.” Yan stomped on his foot to get him to move aside.

    “Ouch!” Chung Nam hopped around.

    Yan ignored his sad expression and tried to shoo him outside. “Go wait outside while I bathe.”

    “What?” Chung Nam appeared crestfallen. “You would make me wait outside in the freezing cold? If you won’t share the hot water with me, won’t you at least let me wait inside?”

    “Inside?” Yan narrowed her eyes, gesturing pointedly to the one-room cabin with no privacy.

    “I promise I won’t peek.” Chung Nam grinned, a rare boyish twinkle in his eyes.

    “Hmph!” Yan mumbled at his less-than-sincere vow.

    “Aww, Yan Yan, I will turn into an ice statue if you kick me out,” Chung Nam whined.

    At that moment, the wind roared and the snow seemed to suddenly pour from the sky in thick sheets of white. Even the heavens appeared to be in Chung Nam’s favor.

    Sighing, Yan relented a bit. “All right, you can stay inside, but if you dare to peek, I will throw every bit of powder I have in my travel sack at you!” She threatened, jabbing her finger straight at his nose.

    Chung Nam merely smiled guilelessly in response.

    After sending him another warning glare, Yan moved the screen divider, using it to partition off the bathing area from the rest of the room. She gathered her change of clothing and a large towel. Before disappearing behind the screen, Yan turned her head and glowered at Chung Nam again.

    He had moved to the bed and was now reclining on it. When he noticed her staring at him, he grinned at her.

    “No peeking,” he swore solemnly, placing his right palm against his heart in a gesture of promise.

    Then he rolled over, and with his back facing her, closed his eyes. Soon, she could hear his even breathing as he dozed.

    Yan observed Chung Nam for a moment longer, and convinced that he had fallen asleep, sighed with relief and retreated behind the screen. Humming lightly to herself, she disrobed, neatly folding the worn gown before flinging it over the top of the screen.

    On the other side of the screen, Chung Nam immediately opened his eyes and sat up in bed the moment Yan started disrobing. The firelight from the licking flames warming the water in the kettle near the bathtub outlined Yan’s feminine figure. Chung Nam watched her silhouette on the screen intently, his blood roaring and surging to his head as she turned, showing her profile, displaying clearly the outline of her breasts, flat abdomen, and slender legs. She released the hairpin holding up her hair. As her long tresses cascaded over her shoulders, Chung Nam nearly salivated. His heart ached slightly as she turned toward the tub. Soon, he could hear the gentle splashing of water as she happily played in her bath. As Chung Nam clutched at his slightly painful heart, he thought ruefully to himself that perhaps peeking at his little fairy bathe was detrimental to his health.

    Sighing, he leaned back down onto the bed. Lightly slapping himself on the cheek, he admonished himself, “You promised Yan Yan you won’t peek. Keep your word.”

    However, his eyes involuntarily drifted back toward the screen again, as if they had a mind of their own. Although he couldn’t see her clearly, he could see the steam from the bath water rising from the top of the old screen. The gentle lapping sound of water made his active imagination conjure up censored thoughts. The front of his pants started to get uncomfortably full. Swearing, he rolled over so that he was no longer looking at the bathing area. Willing himself to calm down, he closed his eyes and meditated.

    On the other side of screen, Yan, blissfully unaware of her very interested audience on the bed, sank down into the steamy water until only her head and shoulders remained above the water level. Sprinkling the fragrant floral bath powder she always carried in her travel sack, she began splashing the hot water onto her arms and chest. Closing her eyes, she savored the delicious feeling of a relaxing bath.

    She must have dozed off, for when she opened her eyes again, the bathwater had cooled. The previously licking flames warming the kettle had diminished to a few yellow-orange embers. She glanced around, slightly confused.

    Suddenly, from the corner of her eye, she noticed a shadow streak across the other end of the room. Without the firelight, darkness filled the cabin. She squinted her eyes, trying to see in the dark. Just when she thought she was hallucinating, the shadow moved again, this time revealing itself to be the hazy form of a woman with long black hair dressed in a flowing white gown. The image glided toward her and then suddenly vanished.

    Ghost!

    That single, horrifying thought filled her mind immediately. In her entire life, she would not bother batting an eyelash at a spider or a mouse, but she would literally turn into a useless, frightened lump at the possibility of meeting a specter.

    Yan screeched as she clamored out of the bath tub. “Big Brother Chung Nam! Help!”

    Chung Nam, who had also fallen asleep due to fatigue, jerked awake at Yan’s scream. Leaping off the bed, he ran toward the screen separating him from Yan.

    “Yan Yan, what’s wrong?” He called out urgently.

    Before he could even knock down the screen, Yan urgently kicked down the screen from her side and leapt into his arms, fully naked and wet.

    “What? What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” A befuddled Chung Nam embraced a wet and slippery Yan, supporting her weight on his hips as she wrapped her legs tightly around his waist, attempting to glue herself to him permanently.

    “Gh..ghost,” Yan managed to mumble as her teeth chattered uncontrollably.

    “Ghost?” Chung Nam swung around, with Yan still attached to him, and peered around with interest. “Where?”

    “There!” Yan squeezed her eyes shut and pointed at the corner which the specter had previously appeared.

    However, as Chung Nam advanced forward, all he could see was a torn, white window curtain undulating lightly against the breeze blowing in from the slightly opened window.

    “There’s nothing, sweetheart. It’s just a window curtain.” Chung Nam patted her back.

    “Nothing?” Yan whispered.

    She hesitantly opened her eyes and peeked over Chung Nam’s shoulder. She scanned the area fearfully, but like Chung Nam, she could only see a tattered, dirty swath of white fabric swaying slowly in the darkness.

    “I saw her!” Yan frowned. “She was wearing a white gown, and her long black hair floated behind her!”

    “Has my Yan Yan been reading too many scary ghost stories?” Chung Nam laughed.

    Yan paused and blushed at his question. Indeed, while Chung Nam and Old Beggar were conversing outside earlier, she had curiously dug through the chest of old clothes near the bedside and had unearthed a journal left behind by the previous female inhabitant of this cabin.

    Yan had nosily perused the entire journal, discovering that many decades ago, a young woman and her husband had lived in this cabin. Her husband had built this cabin for her as a wedding gift. For years, they lived happily. Not long after marriage, they welcomed their infant boy into the world. Unfortunately, one bitterly cold winter, their son fell ill. Her husband carried their child into the blizzard to seek a physician. She waited by the window, praying for their safe return, but they never came back. She searched all the nearby towns, but always returned unsuccessful and disappointed. As one winter after another passed, she could only sit by the window, staring out into the snow, hoping to again catch a glimpse of the only family she had. She eventually died alone in this cabin, still waiting.

    Yan had initially been extremely moved by the story. However, now after seeing what she thought was the ghost of the woman, she was no longer as amused.

    Shivering involuntarily, Yan defended herself. “I’m very sure I saw a female ghost! Where did she go?”

    “Maybe your extremely loud scream frightened her off.” Chung Nam suggested with amusement.

    Yan shifted slightly so that she could lean back to glare at Chung Nam. “Are you mocking me?”

    He started to answer, but suddenly seemed distracted and forgot what he wanted to say.

    “No,” he murmured.

    No longer amused by her fear of ghosts, his attention seemed to have shifted elsewhere, as his eyes drifted involuntarily downward toward her soft breasts pressed cozily against his chest. Following his gaze, Yan gasped with embarrassment. In all the excitement, she had forgotten about her nudity.

    She wiggled and squirmed in his embrace, trying to escape. Her actions only caused a certain part of his male anatomy to perk up. Whacking at his shoulders, she quickly slid off him and scrambled toward the forgotten towel, which had fallen on the floor when she had knocked over the screen.

    Wrapping herself tightly in the towel, she glowered at Chung Nam. “You pervert!”

    “Pervert?” Chung Nam pretended to look shocked and hurt. “Yan Yan, you were the one who jumped into my arms.”

    “Well...well,” Yan sputtered, “you could have closed your eyes like a gentleman would when you realized I was unclothed!”

    “How could I find this ghost you saw if I had my eyes closed?” Chung Nam reasoned.

    “You...you...!” Yan accused angrily. “Oh! You big bully! You have taken advantage of me!”

    Yan fumed and pouted, although she knew that he had done nothing wrong, and she was the one who had thrown herself at him.

    “Well, would you be happier if I took off my clothes, too? Then you could have your way with me and exact your revenge.” Chung Nam teasingly suggested.

    “Hmph!” Yan huffed, giving up arguing with such an insufferable man.

    Deciding to ignore him, she turned around and searched for her freshly laundered gown.

    “Are you looking for this?” Chung Nam’s deep voice resonated from behind her.

    She whirled around to find him standing very close behind her, with her gown hooked onto his index finger. She snatched the robe from him, his proximity making her blush.

    Clutching the robe protectively against her chest, she pointed one finger toward the door, commanding imperiously as she lifted her chin. “You have to wait outside while I dress!”

    Raising both eyebrows at her regal tone, Chung Nam bowed gallantly, “Of course, my little fairy.”

    As he obediently turned to leave, a cool draft snaked by, bringing goosebumps to Yan’s bare shoulders above the towel. She shivered and glanced around nervously. Her hyperactive imagination immediately churned, and Yan could almost convince herself that she saw a vague shadow float by, the amorphous form’s cold, stiff fingers brushing against her cheek as it drifted across the room.

    Freaked out, Yan hurriedly chased after Chung Nam. “Wait!”

    When he paused and turned around, a questioning look on his face, Yan blushed and suggested sheepishly, “It’s icy outside. Um, you could stay in here while I get dressed.”

    When she noticed the corners of his lips turning upward, she stiffened her back. “You can stay but you have to turn around.” She ordered, daring him to laugh at her irrational fear of ghosts.

    Once he turned around, Yan quickly pulled on her clean gown. Her hands shook from the chill and from the possibility of a ghost lurking about. She leaned down slightly and tried to force her stiff, uncooperative fingers to tie the waist sash of her robe. Suddenly, she felt a warm, hard body envelop her from behind as a pair of strong arms wrapped around her waist.

    “Do you need any help, Yan Yan?” Chung Nam’s deep voice drawled against her ear.

    Before she could respond, he took over the task of tying her waist sash, slowly sliding the long, satin ribbons over each other into a bow.

    “Do you need my help with anything else, sweetheart?” Chung Nam whispered suggestively against the side of her neck. “I’m good at dressing...or undressing.”

    Blushing madly, Yan slapped his hands away and rushed toward the bed. Quickly crawling into bed and hiding under the covers, Yan stuck one finger out from underneath the covers and commanded Chung Nam with a muffled voice.

    “You can sleep on the floor beside the bed.” She offered magnanimously.

    “How generous of you, sweetheart.” Chung Nam couldn’t help but chuckle wryly at how he, known for his ruthless ways and feared by orthodox and demonic schools alike in wulin, was now being ordered around by a petite, fragile-looking maiden.

    Resigned to his fate of sleeping on the cold floor, Chung Nam sighed and settled down onto the floor next to the bed. He closed his eyes and started drifting off.

    On the bed above, Yan curled tightly into a ball underneath the blanket, keeping even her head safely hidden under the covers. She wondered what happened to the female ghost. Was she watching them right now? Had she turned into a vengeful spirit after all those years of fruitless waiting for her husband and child?

    As these disturbing thoughts raced through her mind, Yan’s teeth started to chatter. After shifting around uneasily for while, she finally pulled down her blanket and peeked over its edge. Perhaps it would be safer to have Sit Chung Nam sleep next to her on the bed for protection. She will just knee him in the groin if he attempted anything inappropriate.

    “Sit Chung Nam,” she whispered, as she peered over the bed and stared at the dozing man on the floor below. “Sit Chung Nam, are you awake?”

    “Mmm,” he murmured sleepily.

    “Are you cold?” Yan asked suddenly. “I’ve thought about it. You can sleep next to me on the bed and share my blanket.” She declared altruistically.

    In the dark, he smiled secretly, guessing the motivation behind her “selfless” offer to share the bed.

    “That’s all right, sweetheart. The floor is not that cold.” He deliberately acted dumb.

    “How could it not be cold down there!” Yan exclaimed. “The bed is quite spacious and warm. You should sleep up here with me.” She persisted.

    “No, thank you, sweetheart.” Chung Nam tried to keep himself from laughing. “I am quite comfortable on the floor.”

    “Sit Chung Nam!” Yan hissed, realizing that he was being deliberately obstinate.

    “I like being referred to as ‘Big Brother Chung Nam,‘ “ he mused aloud.

    Yan sighed inwardly and gritted her teeth. “Big Brother Chung Nam, will you sleep next to me on the bed?” She asked sweetly.

    Chung Nam pondered that request for a moment. Then, he looked up at her and retorted regretfully, “No.”

    “What?” Yan exploded. “Why not?”

    Giving her a wide-eyed, solemn look, Chung Nam answered calmly, “I have to think of my virtue. My reputation would be ruined if...”

    Before he could finish his thought, a pillow came hurtling down from the bed above and smacked him in the face, smothering his chuckles, which he could no longer hold in.

    “Hmph!” Yan seethed.

    She rolled over huffily on the bed, turning her back on him. She would rather stay awake the entire night, keeping vigil against any possible apparitions, than ask him to sleep with her again!

    She wrapped her blanket tightly around herself and curled up into a ball on her side. Behind her, Chung Nam’s laughter gradually faded, and soon Yan felt a warm body hug her from behind.

    “I’m sorry, Yan Yan.” Chung Nam apologized, wrapping his arms tightly around her.

    Yan shrugged off his arms, but she spoke without any vehemence. “You have to keep your hands to yourself,” she mumbled.

    Wisely backing off, Chung Nam lay quietly beside Yan, careful to not touch her.

    “Let’s go into town and find an inn to stay at tonight,” he said all of a sudden.

    His suggestion surprised Yan. Forgetting to be peeved, she rolled over and glanced at him. “You want to leave now? It’s dark, and there’s a snowstorm outside!”

    “We can bundle you up in the blanket. I’ll carry you so that you can sleep on the way to town.” Chung Nam answered simply.

    “But...shouldn’t we just wait until morning and until the snowing stops?” Yan asked, confused.

    Chung Nam scooted closer to Yan on the bed so that just his forehead touched hers. “We could, but then you would be scared the whole night.”

    Before Yan could argue about the impracticality of venturing into town after dark in a blizzard, Chung Nam got up and ripped off a long strip of fabric from the frayed window curtain. Winding the fabric around the Swords of Sun and Moon, he strapped the weapons to his back and tied the two ends of the fabric strip in front of his chest. Next, he slung Yan’s travel sack over his shoulder.

    With everything packed, Chung Nam turned to the bewildered Yan sitting on the bed and extended one hand toward her. “Ready to go, sweetheart?”

    Yan hesitated, staring uncertainly out the partially opened window at the raging snowstorm outside. At that moment, the wind wailed and an icy draft brushed against her cheek, reminding her of a possible female phantom sharing the cabin with them. The ghost could be sitting right next to her on the bed right now, waiting to possess her body once she fell asleep. That unsettling thought spurned Yan into action. She hurled herself into Chung Nam’s waiting arms.

    He chuckled with amusement at her enthusiasm. Wrapping the blanket tightly around her, he lifted her up into his arms and ventured into the thick wall of wind and snow. The sudden sting of iciness cut into her like a sharp blade. Immediately, her face felt frozen and numb.

    Yan buried her face against the curve of Chung Nam’s neck. “You don’t have a blanket.” She shouted above the sound of the howling wind.

    “I’ll be fine,” Chung Nam assured her. “Get some rest. We’ll be in town soon.”

    Yan nodded and closed her eyes obediently. Lulled by the steady rhythm of his stride, she immediately dozed off.

    ONE HOUR LATER

    Chung Nam’s steady stride altered subtly, but this miniscule change in rhythm was enough jerk Yan awake.

    “What’s wrong?” Yan inquired drowsily.

    “We’re being followed,” Chung Nam answered calmly, as if discussing what to order for supper later.

    “What?” Yan jerked to attention, as her eyes scanned the area anxiously.

    However, she could not see anything in the thick mist of swirling snow and darkness.

    “Act normally,” Chung Nam warned her. “Approximately five to ten people are following us, and at least one of them is a highly trained pugilist with superior internal energy, judging from his movements. They’ve been trailing us for about a quarter of an hour now.”

    “Why are they following us?” Yan wondered. “Who are they?”

    Chung Nam’s smiled slightly. “We’ll find out shortly.”

    In one swift move, Chung Nam placed Yan onto her feet and untied the knot of the length of fabric keeping the Swords of Sun and Moon strapped to his back. He flicked his wrist, sending the two swords, still attached to the stretch of cloth, into the darkness to his right. The blades sliced through the thick wall of snow, and from behind that wall, screams echoed back. Two bodies dropped, their blood rapidly saturating the white earth. The swords circled back to Chung Nam, who ripped them off the length of fabric smoothly, and with a second flick of his wrist, sent the weapons twirling back into the darkness. The blades pierced two more assassins, killing them instantly.

    Meanwhile, Chung Nam snapped the long rope of fabric like a whip, and as two more opponents charged at him from the darkness, he lassoed one of the men around the waist and flung him through the air, conveniently using him to knock down the second approaching man. Without pausing, he then somersaulted forward and retrieved the Swords of Sun and Moon protruding from the bodies of the two other assailants sprawled on the ground.

    At that moment, a subtle shift in the air behind him alerted Chung Nam to the approach of the group’s leader, the man with the noteworthy internal energy. Holding one sword in each hand, he channeled his qi toward the blades, treating the Swords of Sun and Moon like extensions of his arms, just as he would if he were using his Shadowless Swords. The weapons vibrated almost imperceptibly, glowing with life.

    From the darkness, the leader emerged, his sword raised. As their weapons clashed, the resulting energy field repelled all snow and wind, cocooning Chung Nam and his opponent in a sphere of qi. In less than ten stances, Chung Nam gained temporary victory, sandwiching his enemy’s blade between both of his. With a few efficient strokes, the more superior Swords of Sun and Moon sliced the other blade into tiny pieces.

    Losing his weapon, the leader backflipped away from Chung Nam. The faint glow emanating from the Swords of Sun and Moon bathed the immediate vicinity, illuminating the leader’s face.

    Chung Nam smirked, recognizing his opponent. “So it’s you.”

    Yuen Siu Mo chuckled softly, “Sect Leader Sit, if you hand over the Swords of Sun and Moon, I will let you and Clan Leader Black Rose leave peacefully.”

    Chung Nam calmly strapped the swords to his back again. He grabbed onto Yan’s hand and snorted. “I prefer to step over your dead body while leaving.”

    Yuen Siu Mo’s expression hardened. He lifted his hand and whistled. Amidst the whirlwind of snow, ten more assassins emerged and surrounded Chung Nam and Yan. As the black-robed men rushed forward, Chung Nam stepped protectively in front of Yan. He unsheathed his Shadowless Swords, the energy blades soundlessly slashing the first few assassins who charged at him. As another opponent raced toward him, Chung Nam flashed forward and flipped over the assailant’s head, quickly palming his enemy on the top of the head. The man collapsed to the ground, but three more black-robed men replaced him, surrounding Chung Nam.

    Meanwhile, Yuen Siu Mo flipped toward Yan. From the corner of his eye, Chung Nam noticed Yuen Siu Mo’s advancement toward her. Chung Nam swung around and backflipped toward Yan’s direction, his booted feet clipping two more opponents on the chin in the process.

    Within seconds, Chung Nam arrived by Yan’s side. His palms flashed forward, just in time to intercept Yuen Siu Mo’s palms. Qi flowed toward both men’s palms, as both fought for domination. For what seemed like an eternity, both remained locked in combat.

    Then suddenly Chung Nam lurched forward, his heart contracting painfully. His palms disengaged from Yuen Siu Mo’s as he brought his hands up to clutch at his chest. In the background, Yan gasped in surprise at this unexpected turn of events. She rushed forward.

    Yuen Siu Mo narrowed his eyes in surprise. He was unsure what had just happened to Sit Chung Nam, but he wisely took advantage of his opponent’s loss in concentration, and diverted all his qi toward his palms and punched Sit Chung Nam hard on the chest, sending him reeling through the air.

    From below, Yan screamed, “Big Brother Chung Nam!”

    She tried to catch his falling body, but she couldn’t reach him in time. He landed hard onto the snow-covered ground and skidded backward for some distance before stopping.

    “Big Brother Chung Nam!” Yan dashed to his side.

    “My heart,” Chung Nam gasped.

    Yan ripped open his robe, but there were no obvious signs of injury to his heart. As the lapels of Chung Nam’s robe fell open, the poison-proof silk gloves from the Heavenly Crane School dropped out from the gown’s inside pocket. Yan stared stupidly at the gloves for a moment before realization hit.

    These gloves...

    Before she could think, Yuen Siu Mo somersaulted forward, palms extended...

  12. #332
    Senior Member Melanie's Avatar
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    CHAPTER 25 --- I WILL DANCE FOR YOU WHEN WE MEET AGAIN

    Characters appearing in this chapter:
    Wallace Chung Hon Leung 鍾漢良---Sit Chung Nam 薛钟南
    Sun Fei Fei 孙菲菲---Fa Heung Yan a.k.a. Black Rose 花香燕
    Yuen Siu Mo 袁劭武
    Chen Hao 陈好—Fa Heung Ling a.k.a. Poison Snake 花香伶
    Wallace Huo Jian Hua—Kuk Wai 曲偉

    NIGHT
    OUTSKIRTS OF NORTH STAR TOWN

    “My heart,” Chung Nam gasped.

    Yan ripped open his robe, but there were no obvious signs of injury to his heart. As the collar of Chung Nam’s robe fell open, the poison-proof silk gloves from the Heavenly Crane School dropped out from the gown’s inside pocket. Yan stared stupidly at the gloves for a moment before realization hit.

    The gloves! It can’t be a coincidence that the gloves were in Sit Chung Nam’s inside robe pocket overlying his heart, and then he suddenly had cardiac symptoms. The gloves must have been laced with poison. Whoever had given Sit Chung Nam these gloves intended to murder the Floating Cloud Sect leader silently and torturously.

    She turned back to stare at the gloves again. Upon closer inspection, she recognized Heavenly Crane School’s poison-proof gloves, ranked as wulin’s fifth deadliest weapon, which could absorb the poison emitted from an opponent’s palm and redirect that poison back toward the enemy. Yet, something about the gloves bothered her.

    This particular pair of gloves could not exactly be called fake, and yet it didn’t exhibit the original properties of Heavenly Crane School’s poison-proof gloves, either. According to the Annals of Poisonous and Deadly Weapons, the original gloves, having absorbed countless poisons through the years, should have a very subtle, almost undetectable sheen of metallic black reflecting off of the silver color of the gloves. This pair, indeed, possessed such a sheen.

    However, the gloves seemed to have been altered. The original gloves would only retain the absorbed poisons, which would remain dormant on the gloves until the wearer chose to release the poisons using his internal energy. They would not poison the wearer, and yet, these gloves did so by somehow causing cardiac symptoms through simple physical contact with the gloves.

    To alter such a highly specialized weapon as the Heavenly Crane School’s gloves was not simple and required intimate knowledge of poisons. So far, she could only think of one person in wulin who had such capabilities and knowledge - the Laughing Ghost Healer. However, why would a skilled elder go through such lengths to kill Sit Chung Nam? He could have simply challenged the bandit leader to a duel, rather than spend so much effort using the gloves to poison Sit Chung Nam.

    Before Yan could think further, Yuen Siu Mo somersaulted forward, palms extended. In the background, Sit Chung Nam clenched his teeth and forced himself into a standing position. In one swift move, he positioned himself in front of Yan, while intercepting Yuen Siu Mo’s oncoming palm. The impact jerked the poisoned Chung Nam backward a few steps, but he refused to surrender. With one palm still locked in combat with Yuen Siu Mo, he used his free hand to thrust the Swords of Sun and Moon vertically into the ground, using them like a crutch to keep himself propped up while he battled with his opponent. Unfortunately, at that moment, his chest pain intensified, and his vision started to blacken. With the last ounce of strength, Chung Nam channeled all his qi toward his palm and pushed forward, temporarily forcing Yuen Siu Mo backward a few paces.

    Yuen Siu Mo backflipped three times and landed a few feet away. He narrowed his eyes, observing the pale and staggering Sit Chung Nam. Taking note of the bandit leader’s obvious deteriorating state, Yuen Siu Mo curled his lips slyly.

    “I never thought the highly skilled and ruthless Sit Chung Nam of the Floating Cloud Sect would fall this easily.” Yuen Siu Mo smirked. “Too bad you didn’t hand over the Swords of Sun and Moon earlier when my mood was generous. Now, even if you agree to surrender the swords to me, I still want the glory of being the one to finally take out the notorious Sect Leader Sit. Haha!”

    Barely able to see as the world spun wildly in front of him, Chung Nam merely chuckled faintly as he leaned heavily on the twin swords stabbed into the ground. “Haha. You underestimate me, Young Master Yuen. Why don’t you come closer and see if I am that easily killed?” He goaded his enemy.

    To Yan, Chung Nam instructed softly, “Yan Yan, go wait for me in the woods. It will be easier to hide among the dense foliage. I’ll come find you later, all right?”

    “No!” Yan objected fiercely. “I’m not abandoning you here.”

    Chung Nam didn’t have time to argue with her, as Yuen Siu Mo chose that moment to resume his attack. Chung Nam pushed Yan back before whirling around to receive his opponent’s palms. The surge of qi from Yuen Siu Mo’s palms punched Chung Nam full force like an unstoppable tsunami wave, sending him hurtling backward through the air. Giving chase, Yuen Siu Mo flipped forward, palms extended and aimed for the injured Chung Nam.

    A few paces away, Yan darted her eyes around anxiously, trying to find something that she could use to aid Sit Chung Nam. Finally, she spotted the abandoned silver gloves lying on the ground nearby, and an idea formed in her mind. So intent was Yuen Siu Mo at killing the Floating Cloud Sect leader that he didn’t notice the “harmless” Yan in the background. As Chung Nam hit the ground with a resounding crash, Yuen Siu Mo thrust his palms forward, intending to finish off Chung Nam. However, right before his hands could contact his target, a flash of silver shot forward, causing Yuen Siu Mo to blink in confusion. He glanced up just in time to see a pair of silver-gloved hands shimmer before his eyes.

    In the nearly moonless night, only the faint glow from the blades of the Swords of Sun and Moon thrust vertically into the snowy ground nearby illuminated the area. Now, as Yuen Siu Mo squinted in the dim lighting, he could see two silver-gloved hands multiply into four, then eight, and so on, until there appeared to be a thousand hands whirling in front of him. The silver glint from the multiple hands, magnified by the glow from the Swords of Sun and Moon, hurt his eyes. The hands moved rapidly and forced him away from the fallen Sit Chung Nam, and before he could make sense of which hands were real and which were illusion, a flash of silver burst forward and socked him in the chest.

    Yuen Siu Mo backed away from his unexpected attacker, more from surprise than from the force of the hit. Without the backing of her internal energy, Yan’s palm punch did little harm to Yuen Siu Mo, qi-wise. Yet, within seconds, Yuen Siu Mo could feel a strange warmth spread slowly across his chest. Frowning, he glanced down at his chest, just before an intense, nearly debilitating pain pierced through his heart. He gasped and dropped to his knees, clutching at his heart.

    “What have you done to me?” Yuen Siu Mo asked Yan hoarsely, as he panted and doubled over in pain.

    The wind howled, blocking out the sound of her gentle chuckle. Calmly, she approached him and pressed one gloved hand firmly onto his chest, easily pushing him to the ground. The strange sensation intensified within his chest and spread rapidly to his torso, and he felt as if she were shredding his heart to slivers with the simple touch of her gloved hand. Right before he blacked out from the excruciating agony, he could only think of how beautifully frightening his opponent looked, with the pale light from the sword blades accentuating her dainty, perfect features, her eyes dark and icy, her soft lips curved slightly in satisfaction.

    “He’s down,” Yan declared as she nudged her foot against Yuen Siu Mo’s torso, making sure he was unconscious.

    From behind, Chung Nam chuckled, but ended up coughing and sputtering instead, a thin trail of blood trickling down the corner of his mouth. “Remind me to never cross you, sweetheart.”

    Yan turned toward Chung Nam, the corners of her lips lifted in a cheeky grin. “Yes, you remember that!” Then her smiled deepened, as she bragged, “Hmph! I told you to learn my Thousand Hand Black Rose Palm!”

    At her smug expression, he tried to laugh again, but instead grimaced in pain as he brought one hand up to clutch at his heart. Alarmed, Yan rushed over to him.

    “Are you all right?” She crouched down next to Chung Nam, her eyes scanning over his body with concern.

    He sent her a cocky grin, despite his pale complexion. “I’ll live.” Slowly, he lifted one hand and cupped her cheek, a hint of pride reflected in his eyes. “Saved by my beautiful little fairy. What magic dust did you sprinkle on Yuen Siu Mo?”

    Yan shook her head ruefully, “Not magic dust, but poisoned gloves.”

    Careful not to touch Chung Nam with the silver-colored, silken gloves, she gingerly inched the gloves off her hands and placed them inside a thick pouch she removed from her travel sack.

    With the gloves safely stored away, she dangled the pouch in front of Chung Nam’s face. “I defeated him with these silken gloves, which had fallen from your robe pocket. Do you realize these gloves are laced with poison and this poison transferred to you simply because you carried them in your robe pocket?”

    “Poisoned gloves?” Chung Nam narrowed his eyes, as he considered who had given him the gloves. Then, alarm filled his eyes as he shifted his gaze to Yan. He leaned forward to grasp Yan’s arm urgently. “Yan Yan, you touched the gloves just now. Did the gloves harm you? How do you feel?”

    Yan smiled reassuringly back at him. “I feel fine. For the first time since my elder sister had destroyed my internal energy, my lack of qi saved me.”

    Chung Nam’s relieved look at hearing that Yan was fine changed into a confused frown. “I don’t understand.”

    “I dare to say that there aren’t many poisons in this world I do not recognize.” Yan patted the pouch holding the gloves. “These gloves have been laced with one of the world’s rarest poisons. It kills silently, and is odorless, tasteless, and colorless. Hence, many healers have dubbed it the ‘Silent Assassin.’ But all poisons, no matter how deadly, have flaws. The Silent Assassin’s flaw is that it can only be absorbed through a victim’s skin while that victim is channeling his qi during a fight. The poison seeps through the skin barrier, latches onto this surge of qi like a parasite, and rides the waves of internal energy toward whichever internal organ it can reach first. In yours and Yuen Siu Mo’s cases, the poison reached the heart first, because the point of contact between the poisoned gloves and your body was around the chest area. I, on the other hand, fortunately remain unaffected because I have no internal energy for the poison to latch onto.”

    “Is there a cure?” Chung Nam asked, as he tried to struggle to a standing position.

    Yan paused and lowered her eyes, evading his question and his gaze. Instead, she glanced at the unconscious Yuen Siu Mo not far away. “Let’s leave first. Although Yuen Siu Mo is unconscious and poisoned, like you, he may wake up soon, for my punch lacked internal energy and his exposure to the poison is less severe than yours.”

    Chung Nam nodded, and without further words, he strapped the Swords of Sun and Moon to his back. The world spun uncontrollably and he longed to simply collapse onto the snow and close his eyes, but he willed himself to stagger forward.

    “Can you walk?” Yan stared up at him with worry.

    He glanced down at her large, concerned eyes and felt his heart blossom with an indescribable kind of joy he had never experienced before. He reached forward and cupped her cheek with his palm. To lighten the mood and hopefully lessen her worry, he winked and grinned at her.

    “Are you going to carry me if I say I can’t walk, sweetheart?” Chung Nam joked.

    He deliberately wilted against her and used the opportunity to embrace her tightly. Despite his poisoned state, he grinned rakishly and still mustered enough energy to pat her bottom suggestively.

    Yan whacked lightly at his wandering hands and then scrunched her face and pretended to ponder his question very seriously. “Well, I don’t think I can carry you, but maybe I can grab your hair and drag you along the ground for some distance.”

    Chung Nam blinked at her unexpected response and immediately straightened to stare at her incredulously. “You want to drag me along the ground by my hair?”

    “Yes,” Yan nodded with a deadpanned expression.

    “You...,” Chung Nam gaped, speechless.

    “Well, do you think you can walk with some help, or would you like me to try dragging you?” Yan inquired solemnly.

    “Remind me to never cross you.” Chung Nam lowered his head slightly and muttered under his breath with disgruntlement. Then he looked up and gave her a sheepish grin. “I think I can manage walking. There is no need for dragging, sweetheart.”

    Yan smiled sweetly and patted his cheek. “I thought so.”

    However, right at that moment, an intense pain squeezed his heart, and Chung Nam doubled over. Alarmed, Yan wrapped her arms around him and tried to support him. Unfortunately, she could not handle his weight, and they both tumbled down. Before they hit the ground, Chung Nam rolled underneath Yan to protect her from the fall.

    Yan landed on top of him with a surprised squeak. “Are you all right?”

    Groaning slightly, Chung Nam grimaced, “Ah, I’m fine.” As the wave of pain passed, he focused in on Yan’s face hovering above him. Again, he noted her severely concerned expression and tried to joke to ease her mind. “Yan Yan, if I die, will you miss me, maybe just a little bit?” He asked hopefully, his winsome, teasing smile incongruent with his pale complexion.

    “No,” Yan’s heart panicked briefly at the thought of his death. “I won’t miss you if you die, so you better not die if you want me to continue thinking about you!”

    Chung Nam’s grin widened. “Sweetheart, if I survive, I will surely demonstrate my immense gratitude by repaying you...with my body.”

    Yan’s jaw dropped, shocked at his words and unsure if she had heard correctly. Finally, she recovered her composure enough to wag her finger in front of his nose.

    “I can’t believe you’re still jesting despite being poisoned.” Yan reprimanded him.

    “What makes you think I am joking? I am very serious about repaying my debts, especially to my little fairy.” Chung Nam laughed as he struggled to his feet with Yan’s help.

    As the couple slowly stumbled away, Yan’s voice could be heard asking flippantly, “What makes you think I want your body?”

    Chung Nam’s deep chuckle echoed amidst the howling wind, as he and Yan’s figures gradually blended into the night. Soon, only the shrill whistling of the wind could be heard as the snowflakes danced wildly in the night.

    ONE HALF HOUR LATER

    Snow continued to descend from the heavens, falling onto the earth in thick flurries of puff, nearly burying the unconscious man lying on the ground under a blanket of white. In the distance, a figure in white robes emerged through the curtain of snow, moving so swiftly that the figure almost seemed to be part of the white landscape. Within seconds, the person appeared in front of the unconscious man and stared down contemplatively at him for a long moment. Finally, the person nudged his foot against the mound of white on the ground.

    The mound shifted slightly, and snow cascaded downward, revealing the man buried underneath.

    Yuen Siu Mo groaned as the snow covering his face parted and fell to the ground. He tried to move, but his numb and frozen limbs refused to cooperate. Something nudged the side of his torso again. He blinked against the falling snow and stared up in confusion.

    The person glanced down at Yuen Siu Mo with indifference. “Since you are lying half-dead in the snow, I presume you have failed to kill Sit Chung Nam.” The person’s lips curled into a subtle sneer, though his carriage remained aristocratic. “I thought you would definitely succeed, since I have quietly aided you by poisoning Sit Chung Nam ahead of time.” The man paused and shook his head. “It seems that I have overestimated you, Young Master Yuen.”

    “Poison?” Yuen Siu Mo muttered.

    At first, Yuen Siu Mo stared up blankly at the shadow looming over him. Then realization struck him, and his eyes slowly darkened dangerously.

    Thinking back to Sit Chung Nam’s sudden crippling during the fight earlier, Yuen Siu Mo now realized the cause of that turn of events. His shrewd mind reviewed the entire fight, and now with the help of hindsight, recalled the pair of silver gloves which had fallen out of Sit Chung Nam’s robe pocket, the very same pair Fa Heung Yan had used to send painful shock waves toward his heart before knocking him into unconsciousness. So the gloves were poisoned! However, instead of aiding him, the poison had hindered him and had almost cost him his life.

    Forcing his chilled body to move, Yuen Siu Mo staggered to his feet, one hand still clutching at his aching heart. “It is your poison which is slicing through my heart right now like a blade? You think your poison helped me?” Yuen Siu Mo clenched his fists, his eyes glaring at the other man in front of him. “I could have won in a fight with Sit Chung Nam if it hadn’t been for your stupid poison, which turned against me at the last minute.”

    The shadow snickered at Yuen Siu Mo. “What defeated you, Young Master Yuen, was your own stupidity and ineptitude. With the formidable Sit Chung Nam maimed by my poison, you should have easily attained victory. Yet, you end up here, unconscious in the snow.”

    Yuen Siu Mo narrowed his eyes and flattened his lips. A surge of pain coursed through his chest, but he ignored it.

    “It would have been helpful if you had warned me about the poisoned gloves,” Yuen Siu Mo spat. “If I had known the gloves were poisoned, I would have avoided them instead of falling prey to Fa Heung Yan’s surprise attack.”

    A glimmer of amusement flashed briefly across the white-robed man’s eyes. “Clan Leader Black Rose defeated you?” He chuckled mockingly at the thought. “Are you referring to the petite, delicate-looking maiden much shorter and lighter than you with no internal energy?”

    Yuen Siu Mo narrowed his eyes at the other man. “Excuse me, but I fail to see the humor.”

    The man stopped laughing immediately. “You’re correct; there is nothing funny about this setback.” His face darkened, and even in the nearly moonless night, one could still see the chilling, calculating gleam in his eyes.

    The white-robed man retrieved a small porcelain bottle from his robe pocket and threw it toward Yuen Siu Mo’s direction. “The antidote.”

    As the man turned and started to walk away, Yuen Siu Mo called out, “Wait...”

    The shadow paused briefly and turned around, raising one eyebrow expectantly.

    The wind picked up, wailed, and rushed up against the two tall men standing a few paces away from each other. The snowfall thickened, pouring down furiously now, nearly covering both men’s hair in complete white.

    Finally, Yuen Siu Mo spoke. “How has she been? I haven’t seen her for a long time.”

    Even though Yuen Siu Mo did not mention her name, the white-robed man immediately knew whom Yuen was referring to.

    The shadow remained quiet for a long time, and then he finally sighed. “She appears outwardly fine, but she really isn’t.”

    “Where is she?” Yuen Siu Mo asked.

    “I’m looking for her right now, too,” the man answered.

    Before Yuen Siu Mo could respond, the man started to walk away.

    Just before the white-robed man disappeared into the night, Yuen Siu Mo shouted after him. “If you find her, could you....” He hesitated, deciding to leave the rest of his words unspoken. Sighing quietly, he revised his words. “Could you give her my regards?”

    With his back facing Yuen Siu Mo, the man curved his lips slightly. “Of course. However, before I search for her, I’m going to finish off Sit Chung Nam first. He is too much of a threat to our plans. The sooner he dies, the better.” With those words, he flipped into air, his figure rapidly vanishing from sight, leaving only his deep chuckle echoing.

    For a long moment after the white-robed man had left, Yuen Siu Mo stared blankly into space, his mind thinking of her. The wave of agony clenching around his heart jerked him out of his reverie. He glanced down at the porcelain antidote bottle in his hand, recognizing the tiny peony hand-painted onto the belly of the bottle. His thumb gently brushed over the painted bloom, as he remembered how he used to watch her patiently paint her colorful flowers onto little bottles and vases. He recalled how he would contentedly sit for hours, mesmerized by her lovely profile as she delicately stroked the paintbrush up and down.

    Around him, the wind shrieked, its icy tentacles clawing at him, chilling him to the bone, yanking him back to the present. Sighing, Yuen Siu Mo uncorked the bottle and swallowed the antidote pill inside. Carefully placing the empty bottle inside his robe pocket, he stumbled unsteadily off.

    FIVE MILES AWAY
    OUTSKIRTS OF NORTH STAR TOWN
    FOREST

    After leaving Yuen Siu Mo, Yan and Chung Nam had wandered around in the dark, cold night for what seemed like an eternity. Lost and tired, Yan shuffled her frozen feet and glanced worriedly at the man beside her. His pale complexion seemed even more ghastly in the darkness. Despite the freezing weather, tiny beads of sweat dotted his forehead, and his brows furrowed together in a perpetual frown as he winced with every wave of chest pain.

    “I think we’re lost.” Yan shivered as she scanned the area.

    A black expanse of nothingness with fiercely whirling specks of white greeted her eyes. She squinted hard, ignoring the icy wind blasting her in the face. In the distance, she thought she could see something that perhaps resembled a stone structure.

    Yan’s heart leapt excitedly. “Big Brother Chung Nam, I think it’s a cave!”

    She glanced up at the man beside her, but her thrilled grin froze.

    Whatever color was left on Sit Chung Nam’s face had completely vanished. He blinked at her blankly for a split second before keeling over. Yan cried out and reached forward, trying to break his fall, but his heavier weight took her down with him. As they both crashed to the ground, the thick blanket of snow on the ground fortunately cushioned their fall.

    “Big Brother Chung Nam! Big Brother Chung Nam!” Yan struggled to a sitting position and called out urgently.

    She gnawed on her lip and eyed the distant cave-like structure uncertainly. Her gaze then returned to the unconscious Sit Chung Nam lying on the ground beside her.

    “Sit Chung Nam! Wake up!” Yan slapped his cheeks lightly at first and then with a bit more force when he didn’t respond. “Wake up! There is a shelter up ahead. Wake up because I don’t really want to drag you through the snow by your hair!”

    Unfortunately, despite her shouting, he remained unconscious. Yan sighed and again looked toward the cave hidden behind the curtain of wind and snow. Coming to a decision quickly, she wrapped her arms around Sit Chung Nam’s shoulders and heaved, dragging him backward toward the direction of the cave.

    Fortunately, the icy, slipperiness of the road and the downward slope of the path toward the cave aided Yan, and not too long after, she and the unconscious Sit Chung Nam finally reached the entrance.

    With the cave surrounded by a thick grove of gnarly branched trees and its opening nearly buried by the snow, Yan almost missed it in the darkness, if she hadn’t tripped over a loose tree root protruding from the ground near the entrance. She fell backward onto her bottom, and Chung Nam’s weight collapsed on top of her, pushing her completely flat onto her back.

    “Ugh!” Yan groaned as she stared up at the heavens. “You are so heavy,” she muttered to the unconscious man on top of her.

    She tried to swipe her bangs off her forehead but encountered slick ice instead. Apparently, the snowflakes sprinkled on the top of her head and over her bangs had frozen into tiny droplets of ice, shimmering in her hair like jewels. Exhausted, she wanted to close her eyes and just sleep, but she forced herself to crawl out from under Chung Nam and stand up. With a final heave, she dragged him the last few feet into the cave.

    CAVE

    Inside, the air was just as frigid as outside, but at least, it provided shelter from the wind and snow. Thankfully, a sliver of moonlight peeked through the cave opening, allowing Yan to assess her surroundings.

    Cold, damp walls enveloped her. A large, slightly elevated, flat piece of rock jutted out from one side of the cave. Someone else had obviously used this cave for shelter previously, for a thick stack of straw covered the flat rock, making a perfect makeshift bed. A small campfire beside the “bed” had recently been doused out, as the firewood was still wet.

    A brief thought flickered across Yan’s mind about whether the cave’s prior occupant would come back and if he or she would be furious about their intrusion. Pushing that thought aside, she concentrated on using her last burst of energy to pull Sit Chung Nam toward the straw-covered flat rock bed. After much straining, she finally managed to roll him onto the flat rock.

    Her gown and Chung Nam’s clothes were completely soaked through with snow, but she ignored the discomfort. Without wasting further time, Yan dug into her travel sack, removed a small pill, and placed it inside Chung Nam’s mouth.

    At that moment, Chung Nam started to mutter lightly, drawing Yan’s attention.

    “Big Brother Chung Nam!” Yan called out excitedly. “You’re awake!”

    He groaned again and blinked. “Where are we?”

    “A cave,” Yan answered.

    “How did we get here?” He asked, confused.

    “I pulled you all the way here.” Yan tried to smile, but she could not hide the concern in her eyes.

    “By my hair?” Chung Nam joked. He blinked again, trying to stay conscious. “I feel very sleepy.”

    “I just gave you a pill, which will allow you to rest for a while,” Yan hurriedly reassured him.

    “Are you drugging me so you could have your way with me?” Chung Nam chuckled drowsily with amusement.

    “Something like that,” she murmured, smiling back slightly.

    He reached up to cup her cheek with his palm and winked slowly at her. “Then make sure you take complete, thorough advantage of me, sweetheart,” he drawled, before closing his eyes and drifting off.

    Shaking her head at his flirtatiousness even when poisoned, Yan pulled out her cloth packet of acupuncture needles from her travel sack and opened his robe. Even with the help of the sleeping pill, his brows remained furrowed in pain, and small beads of sweat dotted his forehead.

    Using several golden acupuncture needles, she quickly located all the pertinent acupuncture points on the Heart Meridian. Gently, she inserted one needle into the Ji Quan acupuncture point of the Heart Meridian at the center of the axilla. She then placed another needle at the Yin Xi point slightly above the wrist crease. Finally, the last needle stimulated the Shen Men point right at the wrist crease.

    With each placement of the golden needles, Chung Nam’s tense muscles seemed to loosen, until he relaxed enough to sink into a deep, comfortable slumber. Watching his even breathing, Yan smiled slightly at the sleeping Chung Nam, sighing in relief.

    She settled herself next to him on the makeshift straw bed and lightly dabbed at the perspiration on his forehead with her handkerchief. Even in the pale, sparse moonlight, she could clearly see his features. She reached forward and brushed her fingertips across one of his cheekbones. Slowly, she leaned down closer and simply stared at the slumbering man in front of her. For a long moment, Yan just stayed in that position, with her face almost touching Chung Nam’s, her gaze steady as her smiled widened involuntarily.

    When awake, he had always maintained a frigid, arrogant expression. However, now in deep sleep, his stern look softened, and the merciless bandit who terrorized wulin looked boyishly handsome and...lovable.

    Before she realized her own intentions, she closed her eyes and pressed her lips softly against his.

    Time passed. The blizzard raged on. Outside the cave, the wind screeched. Yet, Yan was oblivious to it all.

    Finally, a gust of chilly wind rushed through the cave entrance, drenching the already wet Yan with a blast of cold. Shocked out of her reverie, Yan suddenly gasped as she realized what was doing. She backed away from Chung Nam quickly and reached up to touch her flaming cheeks with her hands.

    She had never initiated a kiss with a man before. Never would she have guessed that the first man she would voluntarily kiss would be Sit Chung Nam. After pondering the situation, she suddenly broke out into laughter.

    “I ended up taking advantage of you, after all!” Yan choked with mirth as she looked toward Chung Nam’s direction.

    Fatigue and stress over the events in the last couple of hours made her slightly silly, and Yan started giggling. When another blast of icy wind punched her in the face, Yan came to her senses and stopped laughing. After starting a campfire, Yan changed into a dry gown from her travel sack. Dry and more comfortable now, her gaze drifted back toward Chung Nam, who was still dressed in his cold, wet robe. Concerned, she removed his robe and covered him with the blanket she had taken from haunted cabin earlier. Since he didn’t have a change of clothing, Yan used the fresh fallen snow outside to wash his gown. After laying it on a large rock to dry, she ambled over to the campfire and sat down onto the cave ground next to Chung Nam’s bed. Exhausted, she drew her knees up toward her chest to huddle for warmth. Within seconds, she joined Chung Nam in deep slumber...

    **********

    They were at the Forest of Shifting Echoes. He didn’t know how he knew, since everything appeared to be a hazy blur, but strangely, he could see everything clearly in his heart, as if the memory were ingrained deeply and permanently in his bones. He turned slightly and smiled indulgently at the young maiden beside him.

    She whirled around, laughing joyously. A golden-red, vibrant glow radiated around her, accentuating her peerless beauty befitting the most brilliant star in the heavens. She danced around him, her crimson gown fluttering softly in the breeze. Abruptly, she halted in front of him and reached toward his hands, her eyes twinkling.

    “Come dance with me,” she urged and grabbed his hand.

    She pulled him behind her and ran joyfully toward the lake. Willingly, he allowed her to lead him. As he jogged alongside her, he looked down and smiled at her dainty hand engulfed within his much larger, stronger one. Instinctively, his hand tightened protectively around hers, his heart filled with a sweetness he had never felt before in his thousands of years of existence.

    Sweetheart, with this hand, I shall hold onto you, with love, and never let go.

    They stopped in front of the lake, and she grabbed both of his hands and spun wildly with him. The pale moonlight washed onto her face, as she lifted her head and glanced up at the heavens, her giggles filling the night.

    He stared at her, transfixed. The world tilted dizzily as they whirled, but his heart remained steady and sure. For thousands of years, he had brought sunlight and warmth to the world. Now finally, he had found his own ray of sunshine, his radiance.

    Gradually, she slowed down, huffing and laughing at the same time. Exhausted, she weakly leaned up against him and rested. For a long moment, she simply snuggled up against his chest.

    “Tired?” He asked her, a tinge of smile in his voice.

    “Mmm,” she murmured. “Dawn is approaching. Shouldn’t you be leaving soon?”

    “Yes,” he agreed but did not move.

    A moment of silence ensued. Her earlier playful attitude had vanished, for some reason. He sensed her slightly troubled state and waited patiently for her to tell him her worries.

    “Violet got thrown into the reincarnation well for her punishment,” she suddenly remarked, referring to her friend, another star fairy, who had caused a ruckus in Heaven by instigating a jealous fight between the East River God and the Turtle Immortal.

    “Mmm,” he mumbled and waited for her to elaborate.

    She paused for a long time, as if mulling over something of great importance. “What would you do if I got thrown into the reincarnation well as punishment?” She suddenly questioned.

    So that was what was bothering you, sweetheart. He smiled as the thought flitted through his mind.

    “I would jump in after you,” he answered truthfully without hesitation.

    She jerked her head up and stared at him in surprise. “Really? Why?”

    “To look for you so that we could be together,” he replied simply.

    “If you did that, then you would be losing your thousands of years of cultivation and your status as the Sun God,” she gasped.

    “In exchange for that, I would have you,” he replied smilingly, “and that is worth more than any status or amount of cultivation.”

    She beamed at his response, her cheeks blushing prettily. Then as another thought entered her mind, she frowned with worry.

    “But how would you find me in the mortal world?” She wrinkled her brows. “We would no longer have our memories. We would be strangers.”

    Then, before he could answer, she grinned and replied to her own question. “I know! This forest is our favorite place in the mortal realm. It is where we first met, so you should come back here to look for me.”

    He chuckled at her cheery expression. “So you’ll be right here, waiting for me?”

    “Yes,” she nodded her head enthusiastically. “I’ll be right here in this forest, by this lake.”

    “Promise?” he suddenly asked seriously.

    Her wide grin turned into a bashful smile, as she lowered her head and peeked up at him through her eyelashes. “I promise,” she vowed solemnly. “You will know it’s me, because I will dance for you when we meet again.”

    “Then let’s kiss to seal the promise,” he suggested teasingly.

    Before she could object, he leaned down and pressed his lips gently against hers. The forest faded into the background, and all he could taste and feel was her...

    And then...he woke up...

    **********

    Chung Nam jerked awake, his heart still pounding from his very vivid, very realistic dream. He darted his eyes around with confusion, trying to remember where he was.

    His gaze landed onto the young maiden sitting on the cave ground next to him, her head resting on her arms. The warm glow of firelight from the campfire nearby bathed her, illuminating that beautiful, peerless face, the same face which had just appeared in his dream.

    Chung Nam scooted closer toward her. “Yan Yan?” He whispered.

    Tenderly, he brushed a loose tendril of hair away from her cheek. Then slowly, he leaned down kissed her on the lips.

    As his lips brushed against hers, she stirred and her eyelashes fluttered. She opened her eyes and blinked at him. A smile of relief blossomed on her face as she became more awake.

    “Big Brother Chung Nam! You’re awake!” Yan cried.

    She scrambled up from the cave floor and sat down next to him on the straw bed. She reached out to help him to a siting position.

    He winked at her. “Were you worried about me, sweetheart?” He leaned his forehead against hers and grinned.

    Immediately, Yan blushed hotly. Chung Nam’s smile deepened at her embarrassed reaction. He was about to say something, but then his expression changed suddenly.

    He grabbed a single straw from his makeshift bed and flicked his wrist toward the direction of the cave entrance. The straw cut through the air like a dagger. A shadow backflipped away from the cave opening, sidestepping the impromptu weapon. As the piece of straw whizzed by, it sliced off a small lock of the intruder’s hair.

    Undaunted, the intruder somersaulted back toward the cave and landed smoothly at the opening.

    “Well, well,” the intruder purred. “How cozy you two look! Don’t you think so, dear husband?” She sneered as her gloating eyes shifted toward the tall man standing beside her.

    Yan jerked around and stared at the cave entrance. “Who is...?” She began, but her question trailed off as she recognized the two new arrivals.

    Her elder sister, Poison Snake Fa Heung Ling, smirked at her. Standing stiffly next to her, Kuk Wai stared quietly straight ahead at her and Chung Nam, his dark, intense eyes twitched once, the only sign of his deep anguish and shock.

  13. #333
    Senior Member Melanie's Avatar
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    CHAPTER 26 --- CONFRONTATION

    Characters appearing in this chapter:
    Wallace Chung Hon Leung 鍾漢良—Sit Chung Nam 薛钟南
    Sun Fei Fei 孙菲菲—Fa Heung Yan a.k.a. Black Rose 花香燕
    Wallace Huo Jian Hua 霍建華—Kuk Wai 曲偉
    Chen Hao 陈好—Fa Heung Ling a.k.a. Poison Snake 花香伶
    Lawrence Yan Chi Keung 甄志強—Ling Dong 凌東
    Leader Luk Dai Yung of Heavenly Crane School 陆大勇

    OUTSKIRTS OF NORTH STAR TOWN
    CAVE

    “Well, well,” the intruder purred. “How cozy you two look! Don’t you think so, dear husband?” She sneered as her gloating eyes shifted toward the tall man standing beside her.

    Yan jerked around and stared at the cave entrance. “Who is...?” She began, but her question trailed off as she recognized the two new arrivals.

    Her elder sister, Poison Snake Fa Heung Ling, smirked at her.

    Standing stiffly next to her, Kuk Wai stared quietly straight ahead at her and Chung Nam. His dark, intense eyes twitched once, the only sign of his deep anguish and shock.

    For a long time, a pregnant silence fell upon the small shelter.

    Yan and Kuk Wai stared at each other. Only a short distance separated the area where Yan was sitting and the cave entrance where Kuk Wai was standing, but the expanse seemed endless, uncrossable, hopeless. Both seemed to want to say something, but in the end, neither spoke, for no words could ever express the feelings exploding through them at this moment.

    As Yan and Kuk Wai locked eyes, Chung Nam watched them, his expression unfathomable. Only his eyes, dark and silent, betrayed a flicker of emotion before that window to his soul closed off, and again, he looked calm and detached.

    Though Chung Nam remained sitting on the straw bed and had to stare up at the standing Ling and Kuk Wai, he somehow managed to appear lofty, like an arrogant deity glancing dispassionately down at the mere mortals.

    Chung Nam’s lips twisted slightly, his tone icy. “On such a cold night, I did not expect that pests would still be wandering around.”

    “Sit Chung Nam, you...!” Fa Heung Ling spat.

    However, she caught herself before she started swearing like a vulgar character. Her eyes shifted toward Yan seated next to Chung Nam’s side, and her lips curved with ill intent.

    Fa Heung Ling sauntered into the cave, uninvited, her malicious smirk widening with every step. “Long time no see, Little Sister.”

    Yan’s eyes hardened as she stared back at Ling. “Yes, it has been a while. I’m sure Elder Sister hasn’t missed me one bit.”

    Ling smiled cattily at her younger sister, as her eyes drifted toward the bare-chested Sit Chung Nam, sitting very close next to Yan on the straw bed. “I’m sure you don’t need me to miss you, little Yan.” Giving Chung Nam a long, suggestive ogle, she pursed her lips and blew him an air kiss, but addressed her words to Yan. “I would think you would be too preoccupied with the deliciously dangerous wolf by your side to care about whether I miss you or not.”

    Without pause, Ling then immediately turned smugly toward Kuk Wai. “You see, Husband,” she cooed, while deliberately sidling up closer toward him, looping her arms around his neck as she nuzzled her cheek against his chest. “You were worried about my little sister for nothing.” Gesturing toward Yan and Chung Nam, Ling continued derisively, “As you can see, Yan is perfectly capable of finding another boy toy to replace you.”

    Ling sighed dramatically, her expression full of feigned sorrow. “Husband, I’m afraid your perfect little angel is not as pure as you think she is. Look how intimate she is with that bandit over there.”

    She hesitated and then deliberately leered at the bare-chested Sit Chung Nam. “Little Sister, I don’t blame you for changing your heart so quickly. If I were in your position, I would eat him up, too.” She winked licentiously at Chung Nam.

    At Ling’s insulting words, Sit Chung Nam narrowed his eyes, his expression stony. Standing beside Ling, the quiet Kuk Wai’s visage also blackened considerably.

    However, before the two men could react to Ling’s affront, Yan hissed loudly, and as swift as the wind, she coiled the blanket securely around Chung Nam’s bare torso, as if he were the damsel-in-distress and she were the overprotective hero. Then in one smooth move, she leapt up, and before anyone could guess her intention, she rushed up to Ling and slapped her older sister across the cheek.

    “Enough!” Yan gritted her teeth, her back stiff.

    “You little brat!” Ling raged, her eyes burning with fire. In a moment of shock, she forgot to retaliate with her Blood Shadow Palm and only managed to sputter, “You dare hit your elder sister?”

    In the background, Kuk Wai remained quiet, even though a flicker of surprise briefly flashed across his eyes. On the opposite side of the cave, Sit Chung Nam raised his eyebrow at the scene unfolding before him. With an amused smile gracing his lips, Chung Nam leaned back against the cave wall, watching the unexpected drama with great interest.

    “Oh, you actually remember that you’re my elder sister?” Yan countered, just as angry. “Our parents have already passed away. As my elder sister, you are the only elder family member I have left in this world. You should be protecting me, and yet, your actions are not befitting of an elder at all!”

    Ling narrowed her eyes at Yan and leaned in closer, glowering threateningly at younger sister. “You dare lecture me, you little pest?”

    “I would rather be a pest than be a shameless hussy, like you!” Yan threw the insult in Ling’s face, her finger jabbing Ling in the shoulder to emphasize each of her words.

    “Did you just call me a hussy?” Ling’s face turned a scary shade of red at the derogatory term.

    “You deny that you are a strumpet?” Yan challenged. She pointed at the silent Kuk Wai standing near the cave entrance, her sharp eyes figuratively slicing Ling to pieces. “You already have a good husband. Why can’t you just treasure what you have? Please show him some respect and stop making inappropriate remarks about other men!”

    Ling snorted incredulously at Yan’s accusations. “I love your act, Little Sister. So virtuous, so indignant for the two handsome men here!” Mockingly, she reached forward and lovingly stroked Yan’s soft cheek. “If I were a man, I would fall in love with you, too.”

    Standing stiffly, Yan swatted away Ling’s offensive hand, her expression frigid.
    Undeterred by Yan’s icy look, Ling smirked, allowing her hand to drop away from Yan’s face.

    “And if I were a man, I would avoid you at all costs.” Yan smiled coldly at her older sister. “I used to idolize you, Elder Sister, and followed you everywhere, trying to imitate everything you did. Now, I am glad we have gone our separate paths, for you are no longer the family I once knew. You now disgust me.”

    “You...!” Ling bared her teeth. “Who are you to judge me? You don’t know what I have been through!”

    Livid, Ling suddenly raised her palm, as if to strike Yan. As her palm approached dangerously close to Yan, a blur flashed forward. Ling glanced up to see Sit Chung Nam somehow materialize beside her little sister. He thrust his palm forward and intercepted her Blood Shadow Palm. However, before her palm could touch his to transfer the Blood Shadow Palm poison, an impenetrable wall of qi radiated from Chung Nam’s palm and knocked Ling backward.

    As Ling stumbled away from the wall of internal energy, she panicked briefly as realization hit her. Sit Chung Nam had just avoided contact with her palm through his more superior qi. If he continued to do this, he could wear down her strength even before she could manage to achieve contact to transfer the Blood Shadow Palm poison. Ling knew that retreating would be the best plan of action, rather than take the risk of engaging in an internal energy struggle with Sit Chung Nam.

    With that thought in mind, Ling started to turn to leave. However, from the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of Yan, the ethereal, delicate beauty who had always evoked protective urges in those around her. Her anger suddenly rose the more she thought of Yan’s good fortune and her own misfortune. An uncontrollable rage blinded her mind suddenly, and instead of leaving as intended, she lunged toward Yan again.

    This time, before she even reached her little sister, a sword flashed forward and blocked her path. Ling followed the blade to its owner and stared up at Kuk Wai’s disapproving eyes.

    “That’s enough, Ling.” His face hostile, Kuk Wai gripped his weapon’s hilt tightly, as he tried to control his fury. “You’ve said enough for one night.”

    Ling widened her eyes at her husband, and then she laughed bitterly. “I should have known that you would side with Yan instead of with your own wife.”

    Kuk Wai did not bother to respond to Ling’s accusation. “Just leave, Ling.” He advised through gritted teeth.

    “What if I won’t?” Ling advanced one step closer toward the sword pointed at her throat. “If I insist on teaching Yan a lesson tonight, would you kill me?” Keeping her eyes steadily on his, she took another step closer to the pointy tip of the blade. “Do you even remember who is your wife? I almost became the mother of your child!”

    Kuk Wai did not withdraw his weapon despite Ling’s unrelenting approach, step by step, until the tip of his sword pricked the delicate skin of her neck. He watched the thin trickle of blood snake its way down the slender column of her neck, his expression remaining stoic.

    “I never wanted you or the child,” he retorted coldly. “Now that the child has passed, you and I are no longer connected in any way.”

    Ling gasped at his words. “Kuk Wai!” She clenched her teeth. “How could you even make such comments so emotionlessly? You’re even calling our baby ‘the child’ instead of ‘our child’ as if our baby was some demonic thing!” Recalling the fragile life in her womb, the tiny life that had left as quickly as it had come, Ling closed her eyes briefly, her hand quivering slightly as it touched her abdomen.

    “How could I speak so dispassionately about the baby?” Kuk Wai’s eyes flashed.

    Something inside his chest that had been suffocating him for so long was finally nearing eruption.

    “It is because I did not choose to be with you, nor did I choose to have a child with you. I never had a choice in this matter.” He answered his own question with clenched fists.

    The words coming from his throat sounded hoarse and tightly restrained, as if he was trying hard to keep himself from punching a hole in the cave wall.

    “If the baby had survived, then I would have been trapped in a lifetime of unhappiness with you. If I said I would eventually learn to accept you and the baby, then I would be blatantly lying to you and to myself, because love cannot be forced. Now that the baby has died, I cannot admit that I am relieved, because that would make me a monster. I lose either way. I am as much a victim in this situation as the child was.”

    As Kuk Wai uttered that last statement, his eyes seemed to glaze over, his mind numb. His hand clenched around the sword hilt so tightly that his short fingernails cut into his palms, drawing blood, but he didn’t appear to notice. For a long moment, a tense quietness ensued. Then suddenly without warning, Kuk Wai whirled his head around and stared straight at Yan.

    “I am a victim, too.” He repeated quietly, his eyes never leaving Yan’s face.

    In the background, Yan’s eyes connected with Kuk Wai’s for a brief moment. Her hands shook imperceptibly. As the tremor worsened, Chung Nam quickly wrapped one arm protectively around her shoulders, while he steadied her hands with his other hand.

    Chung Nam leaned down and whispered into her ear, “Yan Yan, it’s all right. I’m here. I’m here.”

    Chung Nam’s deep voice calmed her, and Yan’s shaking lessened.

    “Stop staring at her.” Ling’s icy voice broke through Kuk Wai’s tortured silence. “To you, it has always been about Yan, but look how she has already abandoned you for another man.” Ling jerked her hand toward Yan, who leaned safely within Chung Nam’s embrace.

    Kuk Wai turned to stare blankly at Ling, as if he had long forgotten about her presence, as if only Yan existed in his world.

    Ling looked at his empty glance and her heart ached. “Kuk Wai, I can hear the pleading in your voice just now. You are still hoping that she will return to your side, aren’t you?”

    When he continued to ignore her, Ling snapped. “Well, let me do you a favor tonight, Husband. I’m going to get rid of my little fox spirit sister right now and free you from her spell.”

    Without warning, Ling raised her palm, launching the opening sequence of her Blood Shadow Palm. A red glowing palm illuminated the dark interior of the cave. Immediately, Chung Nam raised his palm in preparation, as he pushed Yan behind him.

    However, before Ling could approach Yan, Kuk Wai sent his sword flying through the air, forcing Ling back. The weapon whirled rapidly and encircled Ling, hovering dangerously close to her head. Ling heard the barely imperceptible whisper of the blade in the air, and a touch of cold brushed fleetingly against her cheek. Then the sword traveled in a tight arc and returned to its owner. Kuk Wai retrieved his weapon, and with one smooth flick, sheathed the sword.

    A few paces away, Ling watched in disbelief as a small lock of her hair drifted to the ground. Raising her hand up to touch the spot where the lock of hair once was, she twisted her lips bitterly.

    “So this is how it is, huh?” She chuckled mirthlessly. “Should I consider my severed lock of hair a warning from you?”

    “Yes,” Kuk Wai answered succinctly. “The last time, I could not protect Yan from you. As a result, you destroyed all her internal energy, and she nearly died at your hands. This time, if you try to harm her again, the consequences will be more serious than a severed lock of hair.”

    Ling flattened her lips, her heart raging. She wanted to charge forward and tear off Yan’s head. How come Yan had two handsome men protecting her, coddling her, while she had none? Hadn’t she suffered enough? Didn’t she deserve some compensation for her past pain? However, she wisely reigned in her temper. If she attacked now, she would have to battle against both Sit Chung Nam and Kuk Wai. Even against Sit Chung Nam alone, she had no confidence that she would emerge victorious. Now with Kuk Wai openly choosing to side with Yan, she would definitely lose.

    Sending Sit Chung Nam and Kuk Wai a pitying glance, Ling curved her lips into a feral grin. “You two handsome men think you know Yan, but you don’t know her as well as I do.” Leaning forward slightly, she whispered throatily, “Be careful of her.”

    With those words of warning, she somersaulted out of the cave entrance, the thick curtain of snow outside quickly engulfing her figure, leaving only her malicious, mocking laugh echoing in the night.

    “Be careful of Yan. Ha ha ha!”

    MOUNT HEAVENLY CRANE
    HEAVENLY CRANE SCHOOL

    Leader Luk Dai Yung of Heavenly Crane School stared at the dishes of hot, steamy food on his table. He should be hungry in the presence of such a delicious meal, but he only felt nauseous as his stomach churned with anxiety. With his hand clutching over his abdomen to calm his nerves, he glanced toward the wall with the hidden compartment, which Heavenly Crane School’s poison proof gloves had been stored in.

    Just thinking of Sit Chung Nam and those gloves worsened his nausea. Leader Luk started to hyperventilate, beads of sweat rolling down his back. Shakily, he lifted his teacup and gulped down the hot liquid, not even noticing the burning of his throat.

    He shouldn’t have listened to that person, he fretted. He shouldn’t have laced Heavenly Crane School’s gloves with the poison that person had given him. He shouldn’t have presented the poisoned gloves to Sit Chung Nam. That person knew that Sit Chung Nam was a lethal thorn in the eyes of the orthodox schools. Even more embarrassing, he, Luk Dai Yung, the distinguished leader of a revered orthodox school, was like a prisoner on his own territory, all thanks to Sit Chung Nam’s Floating Cloud Sect members now stationed on Mount Heavenly Crane. Nobody, not even he, dared to offend those impudent Floating Cloud Sect bandits for fear of slighting their bandit leader.

    That person knew that even he, the esteemed and supposedly fearless Luk Dai Yung, was actually a cowardly fool afraid of dying at Sit Chung Nam’s hand, and yet couldn’t stomach the deep shame of being under the bandit leader’s thumb. From the time he could remember, he had been groomed to become the leader of Heavenly Crane School. He took his coveted position seriously and with great pride, and for more than forty years, he had led his Heavenly Crane School well. His students revered him; the other orthodox school leaders respected him.

    But now...

    Now he was nothing more than an aging idiot compared to Sit Chung Nam, a coward who couldn’t even stand up to a bandit leader decades his junior. He had to even fear that bandit leader’s sect members. Worst of all, he had to rely on Sit Chung Nam to help him rid of his own Heavenly Crane School’s disgruntled and vengeful former disciples. Were his disciples laughing at him behind his back right now? What face did he have left in wulin?

    Therefore, that person had persuaded him to poison the Heavenly Crane School’s gloves before presenting them to Sit Chung Nam that day. That person had guaranteed that the poison would definitely kill Sit Chung Nam. With the Floating Cloud Sect Leader dead, the bandits could easily be purged from his Mount Heavenly Crane and order could be restored. Hence, in a moment of weakness, he had agreed.

    Unfortunately, ever since he had given Sit Chung Nam the poisoned gloves, he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t rest in peace. Something deep in his heart told him that Sit Chung Nam would not die so easily, and if he survived the poisoning, he would be back to seek revenge.

    Every shadow spooked him. Every creak made his heart lurch. Everywhere he looked, he saw Sit Chung Nam lurking about, his eyes dispassionate, as he stood there staring... Staring...

    Thinking of his situation, Leader Luk’s heart pounded even harder.

    Just at that moment, a shadowy figure flashed across his window. Leader Luk blinked.

    Sit Chung Nam! He was finally here to kill him and massacre his Heavenly Crane School!

    The shadow knocked on the door, freaking Leader Luk out. He leapt up from his chair and stumbled backward, tripping on one of the table legs, rattling the dishes. As bowls and plates crashed to the floor, the shadow knocked again, this time more urgently.

    Leader Luk gasped out loud and scurried even further away from the door.

    “Ah!” He shrieked, his eyes focused fearfully at the shadow behind the door. “It wasn’t my idea to poison you!”

    The shadow paused and then quickly pushed open the door with a bang.

    “Teacher!” Ling Dong rushed in, his brows furrowed with concern. “What is wrong? What poison?”

    The clashing of the door against the wall jerked Leader Luk out of his dazed state. He blinked, releasing a shaky breath as he realized his eldest disciple stood before him, not Sit Chung Nam.

    “Nothing,” Leader Luk shook his head quickly, coming to his senses.

    With weak legs, he stumbled over to a chair and collapsed into it. Beside him, Ling Dong observed him with a puzzled, worried expression.

    “Teacher,” Ling Dong peered at Leader Luk, “you look ashen. Are you all right?”

    When Leader Luk swiped at the beads of sweat dotting his forehead but remained silent, Ling Dong placed his hands together in an apologetic gesture.

    “Forgive this disciple for being inappropriately curious, but Teacher has been very preoccupied lately, staying in your chambers for several days without stepping out.” Ling Dong lowered his head, knowing his next words may be too disrespectful. “Ever since the Floating Cloud Sect members moved into our Heavenly Crane School, they have been obnoxious and outright contemptuous to you and to all the fellow disciples. Yet, Teacher tolerates their impudence and just sits in your chamber, allowing those bandits to terrorize us.”

    At Ling Dong’s words, Leader Luk jerked his head up and blinked, bewildered, at his student.

    Seeing Leader Luk’s empty stare, Ling Dong sighed and leaned down closer to observe his teacher. “Teacher, we have to do something about Sit Chung Nam and his Floating Cloud Sect! We initially aligned ourselves with him, thinking he could help us defeat the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan. However, our disciples continue to die at the hand of the Blood Shadow Palm, and Sit Chung Nam has yet to lift a finger to help us destroy the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan. At first, I showed Sit Chung Nam the painting of Black Rose, thinking he would be tempted enough to rip apart the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan to possess her. Unfortunately, it appears that she is now accompanying him willingly. Our disciples have spotted the two roaming happily around wulin, and she does not look like his hostage. The leaders of the Floating Cloud Sect and the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan have united, and the bandit leader we have sent to destroy the demonic clan will now only stand by Black Rose and her clan’s side.”

    Ling Dong paused, frowning at his own words. He tightened his grip on Leader Luk’s arm, shaking the older man urgently.

    “Teacher!” Ling Dong raised his voice, his frustrations showing. “Teacher, do you hear me! We can’t trust Sit Chung Nam, nor can we rely on his help any longer. We may have unintentionally helped strengthen the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan. With Sit Chung Nam on its side, the clan’s power will surge.”

    When Leader Luk remained silent and dazed, Ling Dong leapt up and dragged his teacher up with him. “What is going on, Teacher?!”

    With a shudder, Leader Luk jerked out of his reverie. “Dong, I think the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan is the least of our worries right now.”

    Puzzled, Ling Dong wrinkled his brows. “What do you mean, Teacher? Just a couple of weeks ago, ten of our disciples have died from the Blood Shadow Palm.”

    “Ten disciples are nothing compared to annihilation of our entire school.” Leader Luk whispered.

    “Annihilation of our entire school?” Ling Dong shook his head in confusion. “What do you mean, Teacher? So far, the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan has not specifically targeted our school, but just the orthodox schools and clans generally.”

    “I’m not referring to the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan. We have a bigger problem - Sit Chung Nam. He has always settled his scores mercilessly.” Leader Luk sighed. “Remember the poison proof gloves I gave to Sit Chung Nam a while ago?”

    “Yes...,” Ling Dong answered uncertainly, “the fake, useless pair...”

    “Well, it’s not only useless and phony, it’s also poisonous.” The elder man confessed to his student. “I sprinkled poison on it before giving it to Sit Chung Nam.”

    Ling Dong froze in surprise for a second after hearing this. “What? Poison? Why? What poison did you add?”

    Leader Luk shook his head and laughed in self-deprecation. “I don’t even know what poison I added. After you and I had discussed that we should give the fake gloves to Sit Chung Nam as he had requested, you left my chambers. Briefly after that, a black-robed person suddenly appeared and handed me a bottle of poison, telling me to poison Sit Chung Nam.”

    “Who is this person?” Ling Dong stared at his teacher in disbelief.

    “I don’t even know!” Leader Luk hit his palm against his own forehead with frustration. “The person’s face was covered with a dark veil.”

    “Teacher, you didn’t even know this person’s identity and yet you listened to him?” The younger man gaped incredulously.

    “He goaded me, taunted me, belittled me.” Leader Luk slammed his fist onto the table top. “He said I was a spineless wimp, a coward who couldn’t even protect my own school and students. I had to rely on Sit Chung Nam, a notorious bandit and a man decades my junior, to defend Heavenly Crane School from exiled former disciples and from the threat of the Blood Shadow Palm.” Clenching his teeth, he seethed. “This person laughed and told me that I might as well resign from my position as Heavenly Crane School Leader and go lick Sit Chung Nam’s boots. He said if I had any bravery left in me, I should rid myself of that pest, Sit Chung Nam. Then he handed me the perfect solution. It didn’t matter how I killed Sit Chung Nam, whether through a duel or by poisoning him, I would be able to stand tall and proud again.”

    Leader Luk suddenly stopped confessing to dart frantic eyes at his eldest disciple. “Dong, I was not thinking clearly, and I succumbed to that person’s jeers. I sprinkled the poison onto the gloves, hoping the poison would kill Sit Chung Nam. Unfortunately, your junior martial brothers have recently reported back that they have seen Sit Chung Nam around wulin, appearing healthy and fine.”

    Grasping Ling Dong’s arm tightly, Leader Luk gulped. “If Sit Chung Nam doesn’t die, he will come back and finish us all off. Mount Heavenly Crane will be submerged under a sea of blood.” He laughed mirthlessly. “I, Luk Dai Yung, the forty-ninth leader of Heavenly Crane School, will be the one to bring about destruction to our school. I have failed our school’s ancestors. Dong, I don’t know what to do!”

    Ling Dong remained silent for a long moment. Finally, he spoke calmly and clearly, “All right. All right, what is done cannot be changed. We should focus on how to defend ourselves when Sit Chung Nam comes.”

    He paused and thought for another moment before speaking, “Teacher, I think we should call together the other three major orthodox clans and schools and the thirty-six minor clans for a wulin heroes gathering to properly elect a wulin chancellor. We cannot defeat Sit Chung Nam alone, especially if our suspicions are correct, and he has now aligned himself with Black Rose of the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan.”

    “Elect a wulin chancellor?” Leader Luk frowned skeptically. “All the orthodox clans and schools have always maintained their own sovereignty. I fear that no one will agree to this plan.”

    “We must convince them.” Ling Dong reasoned. “We will tell the other schools and clans that it is to everyone’s advantage to select a leader. Right now, we are like a handful of loose pebbles, harmless and without direction. However, if we band together, we can form a formidable wall of stone against our enemies.”

    “But I don’t wish to bow down to another clan or school’s leadership.” Leader Luk shook his head with reservation.

    “Then we make sure Teacher will become Wulin Chancellor!” Ling Dong stated firmly. “The other schools and clans will surely suggest holding a martial arts competition to determine the leader. Our Heavenly Crane School martial arts is one of the strongest among the orthodox schools and clans in wulin. I have confidence that we can emerge as the victor.”

    When Leader Luk continued to frown with concern, Ling Dong insisted, “There is no other way, Teacher. If we hope to defend ourselves against the Floating Cloud Sect and the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan, then we need the backing of a united wulin.”

    Hearing his eldest disciple’s rationale, Leader Luk slowly nodded his head. “All right, prepare to send out invitations to the other orthodox schools and clans for a wulin heroes gathering. However, do so quietly, so that the Floating Cloud Sect members currently living on Mount Heavenly Crane do not become suspicious.”

    Ling Dong bowed, “Yes, Teacher.”

  14. #334
    Senior Member Melanie's Avatar
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    CHAPTER 27 --- TEARS FROM THE PAST

    Characters appearing in this chapter:
    Wallace Chung Hon Leung 鍾漢良---Sit Chung Nam (Xie Zhong Nan) 薛钟南
    Sun Fei Fei 孫菲菲---Fa Heung Yan (Hua Xiang Yan) 花香燕
    Wallace Huo Jian Hua 霍建華---Kuk Wai (Qu Wei) 曲偉
    Laughing Ghost Healer 笑鬼醫
    Hu Ge 胡歌---Miu Jing Hung (Miao Jing Xiong) 苗靖雄
    Cecilia Liu Shi Shi 刘诗诗---Bak Yeuk Lam (Bai Ruo Lin) 白弱琳

    OUTSKIRTS OF NORTH STAR TOWN
    CAVE

    After Ling’s departure, the cave fell into an awkward silence. Chung Nam had abandoned the blanket Yan had wrapped around him earlier and had put on his robe. He stood near Yan, his arms crossed across his chest as he glowered at Kuk Wai, who hovered quietly by the opposite end of the cave.

    Outside, the snowstorm intensified with white specks of snow dancing wildly in the night, like tiny silver fairies twirling in the wind. With the freezing chill and howling wind outside, the interior of the cave should have been a welcomed refuge with its toasty campfire. However, the temperature inside seemed to rival the iciness outside, as Kuk Wai and Sit Chung Nam sized each other up with suspicious, narrowed eyes. Though they both appeared calm, every muscle in their body tensed, like two feral animals ready to spring toward each other. The shadows of the flickering campfire bounced off the cave walls, the black amorphous shapes like a ghostly audience watching gleefully at what the two men will do next.

    Suddenly, Yan sneezed from the cold, jerking both men out of their staring match. Immediately, Chung Nam took the blanket draped forgotten over his arm and made a move to place the blanket over her shoulders. At the same instant, Kuk Wai also stepped forward, his fingers touching the straps holding his winter cloak around his shoulders. Both men reached Yan at about the same time, each with the intention of covering her up.

    As Chung Nam’s blanket collided with Kuk Wai’s cloak, both men paused and glared at each other over Yan’s head.

    “Young Hero Kuk, you should keep your cloak. You will need it in this blizzard when you leave in the next few minutes.” Chung Nam remarked coldly, his words very clearly hinting that Kuk Wai should leave...now.

    “How do you know my name?” Kuk Wai asked icily.

    “Just now before she left, Clan Leader Poison Snake addressed you as her husband.” Sit Chung Nam replied calmly. “Who in wulin doesn’t remember the extravagant and highly publicized wedding a little over a year ago between Young Master Kuk Wai of the Heavenly Weapons Manor and Clan Leader Poison Snake of the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan? Everyone knows your late mother was the younger sister of the previous Heavenly Weapons Manor Leader. You are an only child, while your late uncle and former Heavenly Weapons Manor Leader, Lau Lik, had three children, Eldest Brother Lau Ming Leung, Second Brother Lau Ming Hou, and Third Sister Lau Ji San. You are the eldest of all four cousins. By tradition established by the ancestors of Heavenly Weapons Manor, the eldest child in every generation would take over the leadership of the manor when the former leader passes away. Therefore, by birthright, you should have been the next leader of the lofty and powerful Heavenly Weapons Manor.”

    “Instead,” Sit Chung Nam deliberately paused and sighed with feigned pity, “you disappeared for years, leaving the seat of power to your three younger cousins, who co-ruled the manor in your absence. When you resurfaced in the Central Plains a little over a year ago, the manor’s leadership should have been handed back to you, but your cousins refused when they learned of your wedding to the demonic clan leader of the Thousand Snake Black Rose Clan.”

    Chung Nam sighed mockingly again. “Everyone in wulin claimed you were quite the romantic, Young Hero Kuk, as you gave up your claim to the almighty Heavenly Weapons Manor and its countless arsenal of powerful and deadly weapons for love.”

    When Kuk Wai remained stonily silent, Chung Nam smirked. “Since you are so in love with Clan Leader Poison Snake to give up such power, then you should leave right now and chase after your wife.”

    Placing the blanket securely around Yan’s shoulders, Chung Nam hugged Yan possessively and shot Kuk Wai a challenging look. “Yan Yan is very tired and should get some rest. We won’t see you out, Young Hero Kuk.”

    Ignoring Chung Nam’s rude dismissal, Kuk Wai glared at the other man. From the corner of his eye, Kuk Wai noted Yan’s ankle bracelet dangling from the other man’s waist sash. He had one just like that dangling from his own waist sash. Very clearly, he recalled seeing this tall man not too long ago in a forest. Then he remembered hearing Yan’s scream echoing through the woods. He and this other man had immediately raced toward the sound, but he had reached her a second too late. By the time he had arrived, this man was already holding Yan’s hand, laughing with her, teasing her, as if they were an intimate couple.

    At that very thought, Kuk Wai clenched his fists.

    He should have revealed himself that night when he saw them together, but he had frozen. When he had finally shaken himself out of his daze, they had already walked off.

    “You must be Floating Cloud Sect Leader Sit Chung Nam.” Kuk Wai raised one eyebrow, recalling that Ling had told him Yan had been seen accompanying the bandit leader around wulin. “Sect Leader Sit should not believe every rumor he hears in wulin. I may have given up my leadership claim to the Heavenly Weapons Manor, but I did not do it for Poison Snake.”

    “Oh?” Chung Nam raised one eyebrow tauntingly. “Whom did you give up your birthright for? Yan Yan?” Before Kuk Wai could respond, Chung Nam laughed derisively. “Don’t tell me the upstanding and romantic Young Hero Kuk wishes to embrace elder sister Fa Heung Ling with one arm and younger sister Fa Heung Yan with the other arm?”

    “You...!” Kuk Wai huffed, his eyes boring holes into the insolent bandit leader.

    “Yan Yan deserves a man who will love only her and will have only her by his side.” Chung Nam sneered back. “You should leave now, Young Hero Kuk, or I will personally escort you out.”

    “I won’t be leaving anytime soon, Sect Leader Sit,” Kuk Wai countered, his tone just as frigid, “unless Yan personally asks me to go.” He turned to look at Yan. “The last time, I could not protect Yan. This time, I won’t leave her again.”

    “How chivalrous of you, Young Hero Kuk.” Chung Nam remarked dispassionately. “However, Yan Yan has me. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of her and won’t let anything happen to her.”

    “Yan and I have known each other for many years. How long have you known Yan, Sect Leader Sit?” Kuk Wai challenged. “I thank you for taking care of my fiancee while I have been absent. Now that I am present, Yan does not need you anymore.”

    “My feelings for Yan Yan cannot be measured by the length of time we have known each other.” Chung Nam’s eyes narrowed dangerously at Kuk Wai’s words. “We have weathered through life and death situations together. But what about you, Young Hero Kuk? Where were you when your wife was chasing Yan Yan through wulin, determined to take her life?”

    Kuk Wai clenched his fists. Sit Chung Nam’s words were too close to the truth. He had not been around to protect Yan from Fa Heung Ling. After he had been drugged and had mistakenly slept with Ling, Yan had avoided him, and he had let her.

    Yan used to smile shyly at him whenever he entered the room, her eyes full of worship. However, after that unfortunate incident, she never smiled at him again. She became so quiet, so withdrawn. Her change infuriated him. He was the victim, so why couldn’t she understand that? Therefore, he retreated, too, and ignored her. Pain and anger consumed him, and he couldn’t see that he was not the only victim. Yan was, too. However, at that time, he didn’t care about her. He just wanted to be alone, to get away from Yan. It was almost as if he was more furious at Yan than he was at Ling.

    When he left without a farewell, he knew he would hurt Yan. He knew he had to go, or he would eventually just lash out at her. Therefore, he vanished for nearly half a year. When he finally realized how much he missed her and that he could only heal together with Yan, he rushed back to her side, but she was already near death, brutally stripped of all her internal energy by Ling.

    Sit Chung Nam was correct; he had failed Yan. What right did he have to still call her his fiancee, to demand that Yan still love him? Perhaps he and Yan will never be able to find those feelings they once had for each other, but he knew that he could not lose her, and he was willing to grasp tightly at any leftover affection she had for him.

    With that resolution in mind, Kuk Wai ignored Sit Chung Nam’s taunt and directly gazed at Yan. “Yan, I’ve been searching for you for so long.”

    He reached forward for her, but she instinctively backed away one step, looking like a trapped little animal. It was just one tiny step backward, but Kuk Wai felt like she had taken one giant leap backward. He didn’t think he could hurt any more than he already did, but her one little step shredded his heart.

    “Yan, do you want me to leave? Do you want me to disappear from your life forever?” He asked hoarsely.

    “Yan Yan, you do not have to answer him.” Chung Nam wrapped the blanket securely around Yan’s shoulders, embracing her and shifting slightly so that he stood protectively in front of her.

    Locking gazes with Kuk Wai, Chung Nam icily stated, “Young Hero Kuk, I don’t know what past you share with Yan Yan, but I know that she is very upset right now. Pressuring her to answer such a question right now is not what someone who cares for Yan Yan would do. What do you want her to say? If she says she wants you in her life again, then she may not be making that choice with a clear mind and may be simply prolonging her psychological agony. If she says she wants you to disappear forever, then she would feel like an unfeeling monster.”

    “You don’t speak for Yan.” Kuk Wai exclaimed stonily.

    “You’re right,” Chung Nam smiled thinly, “I don’t speak for her, but if she wants to be with you, she would have spoken up by now.”

    Disregarding Chung Nam’s rebuttal, Kuk Wai made a move closer toward Yan. Immediately, Chung Nam blocked his advance. Before a fight could break out, Yan’s soft, but firm, voice interrupted them.

    “Stop,” Yan sighed.

    She straightened away from Chung Nam so that she stood between the two men. Yan opened her mouth, about to ask to speak with Kuk Wai alone. No matter what had happened in the past, no matter who was right or wrong, they needed to speak frankly now so that they won’t continue to hurt.

    However, before she could utter a single word, a shadow streaked by, taking even the two highly skilled pugilists, Sit Chung Nam and Kuk Wai, by surprise. The shadow brought along with it a mini tornado of freezing snow, flooding the cramped interior of the cave with thick, opaque layers of white. The snowy whirlwind seemed impenetrable, backed by a powerful field of qi, as it surrounded Yan, Chung Nam, and Kuk Wai.

    Suddenly, a shadowy hand reached into the tornado and grabbed Yan, trying to yank her out.

    “Yan!” Kuk Wai called out in alarm.

    “Yan Yan!” Chung Nam hollered at the same time.

    Both men reacted simultaneously, as if on cue, and clutched onto Yan’s shoulders, pulling her back toward them. The shadowy hand, so swift that it was almost undetectable, flashed forward again, this time aiming for Kuk Wai. Within seconds, the hand knocked Kuk Wai’s hand away from Yan’s left shoulder, leaving only Chung Nam’s hand on Yan’s right shoulder. Immediately, the shadowy hand swerved and headed for Chung Nam.

    Forewarned, Chung Nam pulled Yan closer to his side. With his left hand still clamped protectively on Yan’s right shoulder, he raised his right hand in attack position. As the shadowy hand darted forward, Chung Nam opened his palm. Immediately, a burst of qi shot from his fingertips. With a flip of his palm, the qi sword in his hand multiplied into two, then four, then eight. The eight invisible swords vibrated with intense energy, whirling rapidly, forming a shield of internal energy, preventing the shadowy hand from reaching Yan.

    Changing tactics, the hand withdrew outside the tornado, but almost instantly, it was replaced by the blurry figure of a man. The attacker emerged from the whirling walls of the tornado and rushed at Yan. Yan blinked, but this person moved so quickly she couldn’t see anything beyond a shadowy form.

    Shifting slightly to shield Yan, Chung Nam collapsed his qi swords and intercepted the opponent’s palm with his own.

    The shadowy figure chuckled, “Sect Leader Sit, your internal energy is impressive, but I am still your elder.”

    Channeling a sudden burst of qi toward his palm, the shadowy figure forced Chung Nam back several steps. As Chung Nam stumbled, he lost his grip on Yan’s shoulder.

    Before the shadow could grab Yan, Kuk Wai somersaulted forward and pulled Yan back. His sword intercepted the enemy’s palm, but the shadow easily evaded his serious of swift sword strikes. Within three stances, the shadow managed to sandwich the tip of Kuk Wai’s sword between his second and third fingers. With a flick of the hand, the shadow twisted the weapon out of Kuk Wai’s hand.

    Laughing, the shadow shook his head at Kuk Wai. “Another youngster with potential but still no match for me.”

    With one smooth move, the shadow flung the commandeered sword back at Kuk Wai, who quickly backflipped once to avoid being pierced by his own weapon. Taking advantage of his younger opponent’s preoccupation, the shadow again reached toward Yan. To counter, Kuk Wai somersaulted toward his opponent and thrust his palm forward. The shadow backflipped away, but then suddenly flipped forward again, his palms heading straight for Kuk Wai’s palms. For several seconds, their palms locked in a battle of internal energy.

    No match for the shadowy figure’s more superior qi, Kuk Wai skidded backward. With one more push, the shadow nearly knocked Kuk Wai to the ground. In the background, Chung Nam somersaulted toward the battling duo, and slammed his palms against Kuk Wai’s back, combining their internal energies.

    The internal energy standoff lasted for what seemed like an endless period of time. The qi field generated by the battle among the three sent Yan catapulting backward toward one side of the whirlwind. As she flew toward the wall of swirling snow and wind, the barrier suddenly stiffened to the consistency of stone. Yan slammed into the wall hard and bounced off like a rag doll. Unable to withstand the trauma of the impact and the intense force of the internal energy field radiating from the three combatants, Yan blacked out.

    “Yan!” Kuk Wai and Chung Nam bellowed in unison.

    Both men glanced involuntarily toward the unconscious Yan, and in that moment of their preoccupation, the shadow sent a flying kick at Kuk Wai, who subsequently slammed backward into Chung Nam. Skidding backward before collapsing to the ground, both men vomited up blood from the internal injury.

    Undeterred, Kuk Wai and Sit Chung Nam scrambled up. Unfortunately, before they could regain their footing, the shadowy figure flashed toward Yan and flew out of the tornado of qi with her.

    Immediately, Chung Nam and Kuk Wai thrust their palms outward, using their internal energy to push aside the whirlwind, but the vortex tightened around them, enveloping them within.

    “Yan!” They called urgently.

    “Ha! Ha!” Laughter echoed back toward the cave, as the shadow raced through the dark night, dragging Yan along with him. “You two youngsters have great potential, and if circumstances were different, I would have loved to take you as disciples. However, today, I need to take my future daughter-in-law off to her wedding ceremony with my son!”

    Recognizing that voice, Chung Nam growled, “The Laughing Ghost Healer! He’s back!”

    “The Laughing Ghost Healer? What does he want with Yan?” Kuk Wai shouted back quizzically at Sit Chung Nam.

    Glaring back at Kuk Wai, Chung Nam gritted his teeth. “We need to find Yan Yan before that crazy old man marries her off to his lunatic son, whoever he is!”

    Both men regarded each other suspiciously amidst the swirling mists of snow. Putting aside their animosity, they nodded almost imperceptibly at each other. Then quickly, each turned so that they stood back to back. Each clasped his palms together, gathering his qi. Then, in unison, they unleashed their internal energy toward the tornado surrounding them.

    The vortex shifted slightly, but its amorphous form rapidly tightened again and closed in on the two men. Stubbornly, Chung Nam and Kuk Wai switched positions and again unleashed their internal energy toward the whirling mass. The walls quivered slightly, but as both men retracted their palms and tried to charge through the momentarily weakened walls, the qi field reinforcing the snowy barrier pushed back, sending both catapulting toward the center of the tornado.

    Swearing profusely, both men leapt up from the ground, determined. They glanced at each other, before darting their eyes back speculatively at the vortex surrounding them. After a few moments, they arrived at the same conclusion.

    To escape this amorphous mass of qi, one person needed to channel his internal energy consistently at one spot in the vortex. The sustained stream of internal energy would force a hole to temporarily open, allowing the other person to slip though. Once on the other side, the person on the outside of the tornado would then, in turn, use his internal energy to keep the hole open so that the man on the inside can also leap out.

    As both realized that they needed to cooperate to escape, they sighed and nodded at each other silently.

    “I will exit first, and then help you out,” Chung Nam declared.

    “How will I know you won’t leave me trapped in here once you are free?” Kuk Wai narrowed his eyes at his love rival.

    “You won’t know.” Chung Nam smirked. “You will just have to trust me.”

    When Kuk Wai only glared back at him, Chung Nam sighed. “We’re wasting precious time that could have been spent saving Yan Yan. The Laughing Ghost Healer is a formidable and unpredictable opponent. No matter how much I dislike you, Young Hero Kuk, I will need your help to rescue Yan Yan. Trust me that I won’t gamble with her life.”

    Seeing the sincerity in the bandit leader’s eyes, Kuk Wai nodded reluctantly. “All right. You exit first, Sect Leader Sit.”

    Without wasting further time, Kuk Wai thrust his palms out. A burst of qi burned a hole in the wall of the vortex. Focusing all his strength toward that small defect in the tornado, Kuk Wai grunted and channeled another wave of qi toward his palms. The hole widened, just enough for Chung Nam to leap through.

    Now on the outside, the bandit leader whirled around and directed his palm energy toward the already opened window in the whirling mass, allowing Kuk Wai to somersault through.

    With no victims trapped inside, the tornado of qi automatically collapsed, leaving nothing but a powdery mist in the air. Both men looked at each other awkwardly for a brief moment, each refusing to thank the other. Then, each turned, trying his best to ignore the other, and strapped his weapon to his back before quickly dashing out to search for Yan.

    ONE MONTH LATER
    VALLEY OF LOST SOULS

    To the north of the outskirts of the bustling North Star Town lay the barren Valley of Lost Souls, a land rumored to be haunted by hundreds of forsaken spirits. Just one year ago, this land had bustled with life and laughter. Instead of the Valley of Lost Souls, it had once been called the Valley of Everlasting Youth, named after the prominent circular well found at its village square. The villagers who had once lived happily here were humble farmers, surviving off the land, farming the fertile soil. Even during the bitter cold of winter or during the drought of summer, the land remained lush and green.

    Therefore, rumor had spread that the valley’s good fortune must be due to its gigantic, impressive well, which contained a water source directly from the heavenly rivers of the sky. Soon, the tale expanded, claiming that the well’s water also had immortal properties. If one drank from it, he would become forever young and even attain immortality. Not surprisingly, due to this rumor, many powerful and corrupt people set their sights on this “well of immortality.”

    Exactly one year ago, the nefarious governor of a nearby province had ordered for the slaughter of the entire village so that he could possess the well. On that night of the tragedy, men on dark horses tore through the village, impaling and beheading helpless villagers, sparing none.

    Coincidentally that night one year ago, a young constable had passed through the area with his wife and baby. The chivalrous constable rushed forward upon hearing the screams for help. With his sword, he cut a swift path through the throng of assassins, reaching the huge circular well in record time. The entire village had already been massacred, but a family of six managed to hide inside the well, hanging onto the rope attached to the top of the well. Unfortunately, several assassins eventually discovered the hidden family, and was maliciously sawing slowly and tauntingly at the rope, torturing the family with inevitable death.

    Seeing this, the young constable somersaulted forward and struck down his opponents easily. The almost completely shredded rope snapped, but the constable fearlessly leapt down into the dark abyss, catching hold of the father’s hand in time, while the other five members of the family dangled from the rope the father held in his other hand. Woken up from sleep, the baby clutched in the mother’s arm cried. Using his lightness kung fu, the constable inched his way back up the inside walls of the well with his legs and his free hand, while dragging the family of six behind him.

    Just at that moment, another baby’s wails permeated the air, and the constable froze. He peeked over the edge of the well and spied the corrupt governor looming over the well, baring his teeth in a malicious grin, one hand dangling the constable’s baby by her feet.

    Off to the side, a large group of assassins surrounded the constable’s wife. Her eyes glazed over with a mixture of fear, desperation, and murderous intent. She tried to fight her way through the assassins to rescue her baby, but they simply surrounded her, chortling, taunting her. She jerked her head toward her husband, her eyes begging him to help their baby.

    The corrupt governor did not appreciate a lowly constable interfering with his plans for immortality. If the constable did not step aside meekly and let the last six villagers die, then he would hurl the constable’s baby into the well.

    The constable’s wife begged her husband to save their baby, but how could he, a law enforcement official, allow a family of innocents to die? At that moment, the village couple’s baby wailed, causing the constable’s heart to ache. How could he sacrifice six lives for his own baby? And so with his decision to save six strangers, he sentenced his own child to her death. With his own eyes, he watched helplessly as his own baby fell to her death.

    He had successfully saved the six villagers and had brought the governor to justice, but he had lost his family that night.

    After that tragedy one year ago, the well mysteriously dried up. Some said that it was because an innocent baby had died in its watery depths. Some claimed that hundreds of lost souls still wandered over this land, cursing the well to never flourish again, for it had led to their demise. Soon, the land dried up, became barren and desolate and...haunted.

    In the dark of night, many from the neighboring villages and towns swore that they could hear moans and wails. Nobody dared to venture near this village again. Quickly, the townspeople named this area the Valley of Lost Souls.

    Now one year later, the land remained empty and dark. The blizzard that had fallen upon North Star Town had moved north to the Valley of Lost Souls. The snow blanketed the dusty earth, quickly turning into mounds of dirty, brownish slush, making the valley seem even more pitiful and bleak. All around, the forgotten cottages collected cobwebs. Over a year’s worth of fallen twigs and debris had gathered around the forgotten well. The wooden bucket once used for transporting well water dangled from the rod over the top of well, creaking eerily as it swung from the frayed rope.

    Despite the frightful rumors of vengeful ghosts wandering the land, a lone man stood by the side of the massive well, unbothered by any possible apparitions. He stood so still and for so long that he appeared to be a statue. The snow continued to pour down from the heavens, pelting the man’s bamboo hat. The wind howled in his ears, flapping the man’s cloak wildly around his body. Yet, he could only hear the cries of a baby. In his dreams, he could hear her laugh. During his waking hours, he missed her presence and yearned for her sweet baby smell whenever he held her in his arms. Now in front of this well where she had died exactly one year ago, he could hear nothing but her cries, her hollow wails as she plunged into the dark abyss.

    His wife had left him, but perhaps that was for the best, for he did not deserve to be forgiven, did not deserve happiness. He wanted to cry, but he was so empty that even the tears wouldn’t come. He wanted to scream, but his heart felt so pained and suffocated that no noise could escape his lips. He wanted to simply close his eyes and never wake up, but he couldn’t bear to leave and never see his wife again.

    He no longer knew what to do, so he could only come here and stare at this well, this well which had stolen his life in one mere night.

    Footsteps, light and dainty, yet strangely heavy with despair, intruded upon the constable’s thoughts. He looked up and adjusted his bamboo hat.

    The young woman stopped a few paces away from him and simply stood staring at him. She wore a simple white robe bordered with a soft furry lining at the collar. Each time a gust of wind blew by, the furry border of her dress would flutter, kissing the underside of her chin. The snowflakes danced around her before finally landing onto the top of her head, decorating her simple hairstyle with small glistening droplets of moisture. Her pale, beautiful face was expressionless, but a tinge of sadness could be seen in her eyes. Surrounded by the thick flurry of snow, she appeared heavenly and delicate, like a fairy sent to this barren land to heal his empty heart.

    A myriad of feelings rushed through him - surprise, happiness, and hope. He clenched his hands tightly into fists, afraid to let that feeling of hope surge.

    “What are you doing here?” Bak Yeuk Lam asked, her voice so soft he could not tell whether she was displeased or indifferent.

    “I’m...,” Miu Jing Hung stopped and cleared his throat. “I just want to come here and...” He hesitated again and couldn’t bring himself to finish his thought.

    “It has been exactly one year,” Yeuk Lam stated flatly. “She was only barely ten months old.”

    His fists clenched even more tightly, so tightly that his short fingernails drew blood from his palms.

    “Did you know that night, before the incident, she started babbling a word that sounded like ‘papa‘ for the very first time?” She smiled lightly at the fond memory. “You weren’t around at that time to hear her say it, but I remember feeling slightly indignant. How come she said ‘papa‘ first and not ‘mama’?”

    His heart pounded painfully at her words.

    Papa

    His baby had started to call him papa. But what kind of papa was he to let her die? He should have died with her that night.

    Yeuk Lam remained silent for a very long time, staring off into space. Only the howling of the wind could be heard. Its sound felt like a thousand cries. Were the heavens crying for them, since they had no tears left?

    “Do you know why I fell in love with you?” Yeuk Lam suddenly began speaking again.

    When Jing Hung did not answer, she laughed softly to herself.

    “It was because you are a true hero, always fighting for the oppressed and the weak.” She turned and tilted her head slightly at Jing Hung, her eyes soft as she remembered the first time she realized she loved him. “What young maiden wouldn’t fall in love with you? Tall, handsome, gentle, heroic.”

    A burst of hope bloomed across his chest at her confession. Jing Hung took a step toward Yeuk Lam, but she quickly shook her head at him.

    “How could I possibly predict that your heroism would be the very thing that would drive us apart?” She clutched at her heart, as if the pain was too much. “After that night, I hated your heroism. I couldn’t stand being around you after her death. I needed to go as far away from you as possible. What kind of hero would let his own baby die? Because you wanted to save six strangers?” She jerked her head toward Jing Hung, her expression suddenly murderous. “I understand that every life is precious, but how could you choose the lives of six strangers over our own baby’s life?”

    “I’m so sorry, Yeuk Lam!” Jing Hung responded hoarsely.

    Without warning, she lunged toward him and grabbed the collar of his robe. “I hate you! I hate you!”

    She raged at him, hitting his chest blindly. He didn’t resist. He simply stood still and suffered her blows. He deserved them.

    Finally, after an indeterminable time, she slowed down, her blows becoming ineffectual, halfhearted whacks. Exhausted, she collapsed against him. He caught her before she fell to the ground and embraced her tightly.

    “I’m so sorry, Yeuk Lam! I’m so sorry!” Jing Hung kept muttering against the top of her head.

    She didn’t respond, but she didn’t resist his embrace, either. Limply, she lay against his chest, listening to the hollow wailings of the wind. The tears that had never come one year ago finally spilled down her cheeks. Silent tears progressed to loud, heart-wrenching sobs that shook her delicate-framed body. Slowly, he rested his cheek against the top of her head, as one single teardrop rolled down his cheek.

    The wind picked up, and the blizzard intensified. The sun slowly descended, blanketing the land in that soft, blurry glow of twilight. However, the two people embracing made no move at all.

    Suddenly, a scream echoed through the valley, jolting Jing Hung and Yeuk Lam out of their reverie.

    “Help!” The voice called out urgently. “Help me!”

    They turned toward the sound, just in time to see a petite figure stumbling toward them. Above the figure calling for aid, a shadow somersaulted rapidly toward them...

  15. #335
    Senior Member H.Ge-C.Liu's Avatar
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    Back to spcnet for a visit, and planning to catch up on all the chapters I missed!
    Biases: Hu Ge, Qiao Zhenyu, Liu Shi Shi
    Jiang Hu Fansubs - Recruiting members (especially translators).

  16. #336
    Senior Member Melanie's Avatar
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    Oh, wow. Hi, H.Ge-C.Liu! I didn't know you were still reading this story.

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