The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖) Chapter 20 – Imprisonment

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The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖) Chapter 20

[Linghu Chong picked up the bamboo flute and waved gently. Air flew through the holes on the flute and made several soft tones. Mr. Huang-Zhong plunked the strings a couple of times with his right hand, in the echoing, the end of the zither was already on it’s way towards Linghu Chong’s right shoulder.]

Chapter 20 – Imprisonment

“Brother Tong, will you please let me take another look at your calligraphy book?” still concerned about the “Willful Book” by Zhang Xu, Mr. Bald-Brush begged.

“As soon as First Master defeats my Brother Feng, the book will be part of Third Master’s private collection. Even if you want to look at it for three days and three nights in succession, that’s your own call,” Xiang Wentian said with a grin.

“I’ll look at it for seven days and seven nights in succession!” Mr. Bald-Brush exclaimed.

“Okay, you’ll look at it for seven days and seven nights then,” Xiang Wentian replied.

Mr. Bald-Brush felt his heart itching with that possibility. “Second Brother,” he called out, “I’ll go ask Big Brother to have the match. What do you think?”

“You two stay here to accompany our guests. I’ll go talk to Big Brother,” Mr. Black-White arranged and then stepped out of the room.

“Brother Feng, let’s drink,” Mr. Paint suggested. “Alas, much of this barrel of wine was wasted by Third Brother.” He poured the wine into the wine cups.

“Wasted?” Mr. Bald-Brush rebuffed angrily. “When you drink the wine into your belly, it will only turn into urine and get relieved. How can that even be comparable to the fact that it will now stay on the white wall as calligraphy artwork and last for the eternity? Your wine will only live on because of the calligraphy. One thousand years later, only when people have seen my calligraphy art would they be able to know that this barrel of Turpan red wine ever existed.”

Facing the white wall, Mr. Paint raised his cup. “Hello wall, you are so fortunate to be able to taste the wonderful wine brewed by your Fourth Master, himself. Even if my Third Brother didn’t write calligraphy on your face, you…you…you would have lasted for the eternity.”

“Compared to this ignorant wall, I am much more fortunate to be able to taste such wonderful rare-even-in-one-thousand-year wine,” Linghu Chong showed a big smile. Raising his own cup, he drank it up.

After drinking two cups in accompany by the side, Xiang Wentian stopped drinking, but Mr. Paint and Linghu Chong kept pouring wine down their throats and found their exhilaration surging.

After they each had at least another seventeen or eighteen cups, Mr. Black-White finally returned.

“Brother Feng, my Big Brother would like to meet you. Please come with me. And is it okay if Brother Tong stays here and enjoy some more wine?” he said.

“Well…,” Xiang Wentian was taken by surprise. He could see clearly that Mr. Black-White had no intention of inviting him to tag along, and he couldn’t insist on going after all. “What a pity for life that it’s not my karma to have the honor in meeting First Master,” he sighed.

“Please pardon me, Brother Tong. My Big Brother has been living in seclusion for many years and has repeatedly declined our guests’ requests for an audience. It is only because he heard that Brother Feng’s skills in the art of sword have reached the extreme and felt his admiration soaring, did he decide to invite Brother Feng for a private meeting. We certainly dare not to show any disrespect to Brother Tong,” Mr. Black-White explained.

“I understand. I understand,” Xiang Wentian replied.

Setting his wine cup down on the table, Linghu Chong followed Mr. Black-White out of the game room. He went empty-handed, thinking that it would be inappropriate to bring a long sword with him in the meeting with the lord of the manor.

They crossed through a long corridor and soon arrived at a moon-shaped entry. The tablet above the entry read “Zither Spirit.” The words were made of blue colored glaze and showed vigorous style, most likely the creation of Mr. Bald-Brush. After the moon-shaped entry, a quiet and deep flower-strewn pathway extended further. On both sides of the pathway, thin and long bamboos swayed leisurely in the breeze. The cobblestones in the pathway were covered by moss, clearly indicating that this was a path seldom used. At the end of the pathway were three stone buildings. Seven or eight dark green pine trees stood at the front and the back, each towering high with their branches extending gracefully in all directions, casting a layer of gloom to the surroundings.

Mr. Black-White slowly pushed the door open. “Please come in,” he said in a gentle voice.

As soon as Linghu Chong entered the room, he smelled the pleasant fragrance of sandalwood.

“Big Brother, Huashan School’s Young Hero Feng is here,” Mr. Black-White introduced.

An old man walked out from the bedroom, cupping one hand in the other. “Please excuse my lack of manners for having not greeted Young Hero Feng properly. It is a great honor to have Young Hero Feng in our humble manor.”

The old man appeared to be about sixty years of age. Thin as a lath, and with the muscles on his face sinking deeply, he looked more like a skeleton with the exception of the two bright piercing eyes.

“It was I who took the liberty for the unannounced visit. I’ll have to ask for Senior Master’s pardon,” Linghu Chong said with a bow.

“That’s quite alright,” the man answered.

“My Big Brother’s name is Mr. Huang-Zhong.[1] I am sure Young Hero Feng has known that already,” Mr. Black-White said.

“I have long heard the great names of the four Manor Masters. It is so fortunate that I finally get to meet you in person today,” Linghu Chong said as he thought to himself, “This is quite a joke that Big Brother Xiang has played on me. He didn’t tell me anything beforehand and only told me to let him arrange everything. But now he is nowhere near me. If this First Master here gives me some difficult puzzles to solve, I wonder how I should handle them.”

“I heard that Young Hero Feng is the very disciple of the venerable Grandmaster Feng of the Huashan School and possesses brilliant sword skills,” Mr. Huang-Zhong said. “I’ve always admired Grandmaster Feng’s conducts and his martial arts skills very much. It is such a pity that I never had the honor to meet him. Some time back, it was said around the Martial World that the venerable Grandmaster Feng had passed away. The news brought deep sorrow in my heart. Today, to have the opportunity to meet venerable Grandmaster Feng’s disciple is very gratifying. Is Young Hero Feng a descendent of Grandmaster Feng?”

Linghu Chong thought inwardly, “Grand Uncle-Master Feng earnestly exhorted me to not reveal his whereabouts. Once Big Brother Xiang saw my sword techniques, he figured out that it must have been Grand Uncle-Master who taught me those. He not only wantonly made that widely known, but also claimed that my last name was none other than Feng, which probably had a good amount of swindle and bluff. But if I tell the truth straightforward, it wouldn’t be appropriate, either.” At that thought, he gave an ambiguous answer, “I am a junior of his later generation. I’ve only studied from him for a short while. Being a slow learner, simple and uninformed, I haven’t even mastered ten or twenty percent of his sword arts.”

“If it is true that you have only learned ten to twenty percent of Grandmaster Feng’s sword arts, yet my three brothers have all lost to your long sword, then venerable Grandmaster Feng’s attainments had to be fathomless,” Mr. Huang-Zhong sighed.

“The three Masters only each exchanged a few random moves with me, and before any of the matches had any result, they had already held back their hands,” Linghu Chong said.

Mr. Huang-Zhong nodded, his skinny face revealing a slight smile. “It is rare to see a young man free from arrogance and rashness. Please come in to the Zither Hall and have some tea,” he said.

Linghu Chong and Mr. Black-White followed him into the Zither Hall and seated. Soon, a servant boy brought out green tea.

“I heard that Young Hero Feng has the ancient music score of the ‘Guang-Ling Song.’ Is it true?” Mr. Huang-Zhong asked. “I am rather fond of music. And I’ve always bemoaned when I thought of how Ji Kang played the ‘Guang-Ling Song’ with his zither one last time just before his execution, exclaiming, ‘Guang-Ling Song would be lost for ever from now on.’ If this music can reappear in the world, and I get to follow the music score and play it once in my old age, I would have no regret left in this life.” At these words, his pale face actually showed some redness of skin, looking earnest and anxious.

“Big Brother Xiang’s one lie after another really fooled them well,” Linghu Chong thought to himself. “I can tell that these four Masters of the Plum Manor of the Lone Hill are no ordinary people. Besides, I am here to ask them to treat my injury. How can I keep them guessing? If this music score is really the ‘Guang-Ling Song’ Senior Master Qu Yang obtained from the tomb of that Cai-Somebody of the East Han Dynasty, I should let him take a look.”

Retrieving the music score from his chest pocket, he stood up and then presented it with both hands. “Please take a look, First Master.”

Mr. Huang-Zhong raised himself slightly and took the booklet. “The ‘Guang-Ling Song’ music had been long lost in the world. It is so exhilarating to be able to take a look at the legendary ancient score. But…but I wonder….” He seemed to implicate that how would he be sure that this music score was the authentic “Gang-Ling Song,” not a counterfeit some busybody had faked to fool people.

He thumbed through a few pages at random and then muttered, “Oh, this is a long piece.” Turning back to the first page, he began reading the details. Only moments into it, his face had changed color. Flipping through the music score with his right hand, he set his left hand on the table and the five fingers plucked, twiddled, and pressed as though he was playing an invisible zither.

“Marvelous! Peaceful and fair, yet melodious and deep to the extreme,” he praised.

Turning to the second page, he read for a little while and then praised again, “Lofty and elegant, profound and abstruse. Just by imagining the sounds in my head, I can already feel the utter exhilaration.”

Seeing how Mr. Huang-Zhong was already slightly out of his mind after reading only two pages of the music score, Mr. Black-White knew that if he kept reading, it would be hours before he’ll even take a break. So he cut in.

“This Young Hero Feng here and a Brother Tong from the Songshan School came here and said that if someone in the Plum Manor can defeat his sword art….”

“Um, only if someone can defeat his sword art will he be willing to loan me the ‘Guang-Ling Song’ and make a copy, is that right?” Mr. Huang-Zhong asked.

“That’s right! All three of us have lost our matches. Unless Big Brother takes the field, our Plum Manor of the Lone Hill…well…,” Mr. Black-White replied.

“If you can’t do it, I can’t either,” Mr. Huang-Zhong let out a light smile.

“How can the three of us be comparable with Big Brother?” Mr. Black-White said.

“I am too old. I am of no use now,” Mr. Huang-Zhong replied.

Linghu Chong got back onto his feet. “First Master’s name is ‘Mr. Huang-Zhong,’ then naturally you are an expert in the art of zither,” he said. “Although this music score is rare, it is not classified secret or anything. First Master, please feel free to hold on to it and make copies. I can come back to pick it up three days from now.”

Mr. Huang-Zhong and Mr. Black-White were both taken aback. Mr. Black-White had witnessed, himself, how Xiang Wentian had worked hard at baiting them, deliberately making things more difficult and made his heart itchy as hell. He certainly did not expect to see such a generous Feng Er-Zhong. Being an expert in the art of gamesmanship, he immediately concluded that this had to be a trap Linghu Chong was setting up to trick Mr. Huang-Zhong, but no matter how hard he tried, he still failed catch any clue.

“One does not receive a reward without making a merit. You and I don’t have any prior association. How could I accept such a generous gift from you? Will you please be very frank with me and tell me the real reason for you and your companion’s visit to our humble manor?” Mr. Huang-Zhong asked.

Linghu Chong thought, “Big Brother Xiang didn’t mention a word to me about why we are visit the Plum Manor beforehand. I suppose it must have something to do with asking the four Manor Masters to treat my injury. But all his arrangements seemed so secretive. Besides, the four Manor Masters are all very unusual people. Perhaps telling them the truth isn’t the right way to address the issue. I honestly don’t have a clue about the intention of Big Brother Xiang’s visit, anyway. I guess telling them this part frankly wouldn’t count as trying to deceive them intentionally.” So he said, “I was only accompanying Big Brother Tong in the visit to your respectable manor. To be very honest with you, before stepping into your respectable manor, I have never heard of the names of the four Manor Masters, nor was I ever aware of the existence of the Plum Manor of the Lone Hill.” After a short pause, he added, “That is, of course, only because I am ignorant and ill-informed, and consequently failed to recognize the many respectable senior masters in the Martial World. I beg the two Masters’ pardon.”

Mr. Huang-Zhong cast a glance toward Mr. Black-White and a smile crept onto his face.

“Young Hero Feng is very candid, and I am very thankful. Us, the four brothers, retired to the city of Lin-An to live a hermit’s life; few people in the Martial World knows about it. Besides, the Five Mountains Sword Alliance never had any association with us, so I was quite surprised to learn about your visit. So Young Hero Feng really has no idea about the origin of us the four brothers, have you?”

“This is so embarrassing. When I said earlier that ‘I have long heard the great names of the four Manor Masters,’ actually…actually…well…,” Linghu Chong murmured.

Mr. Huang-Zhong nodded. “Mr. Huang-Zhong, Mr. Black-White and so forth are only nicknames we picked for ourselves. Our true names have long been abandoned. It is only natural that Young Hero Feng has never heard of our names,” he said. Turning the music score booklet with his right hand, he asked, “Are you sincere about loaning this music score to me and let me make copies?”

“Yes,” Linghu Chong affirmed. “I said loaning the book to you only because the music score belongs to Big Brother Tong. Otherwise, you can just go ahead and take it. Like the old saying says, ‘A precious sword should be presented to a person of high endeavor.’ Once presented, there’s no need to return it.”

Mr. Huang-Zhong let out a long breath, and a trace of joy quickly flashed across his emaciated face.

“You agree to loan the music score to my Big Brother. But will that Brother Tong agree as well?” Mr. Black-White asked.

“Big Brother Tong and I are friends until death. He is bold and generous. If I agree to something, no matter how important the matter is, he wouldn’t mind at all,” Linghu Chong assured, to which Mr. Black-White gave a nod.

“I am very grateful for Young Hero Feng’s kindness. But since Brother Tong did not give his consent, himself, I am still very uneasy about it. That Brother Tong said that in order to get the music score, someone from our manor must be able to defeat your sword arts. It would be unfair for me to take advantage of your generosity. Why don’t we exchange a few moves?” Mr. Huang-Zhong proposed.

Linghu Chong thought to himself, “The Second Master said just a moment ago, ‘How can the three of us be comparable with Big Brother?’ Then the Kung Fu skills of the First Master must have been superior to the other three Manor Masters. The three Manor Masters each had unsurpassed Kung Fu skills, and only with the sword techniques I learned from Grand Uncle-Master Feng was I able to get the upper hand in the matches. If I spar with the First Master, I may not win again. Why bother bringing shame onto myself for no reason? Even if I could beat him in the match, what good does it do?” At that thought, he said, “Big Brother Tong was just seized by a whim and being meddlesome when he said something like that, which only embarrassed me more. I am already thankful that the four Manor Masters decide to spare me of reprimand for my arrogance. How dare I spar again with the First Master?”

“You are quite all right,” Mr. Huang-Zhong smiled. “Let’s exchange a few moves, and it’ll just be a harmless contest. That is all. What’s there to worry about?”

He turned around, removed a jade flute from the wall and handed it to Linghu Chong. “You can use the flute as your sword. I, on the other hand, will use my zither as my weapon.” Picking up a zither from the bedside table, he said with a grin, “I wouldn’t say that these two musical instruments of mine are invaluable, but each of them is one in a thousand. I certainly do not want them to smash into pieces. Let’s just put out some stances for the act. That’s all.”

Linghu Chong took a closer look at the flute in his hand. The entire body of the flute was in emerald green. Turned out that it was made of top-quality jade. The several spots close to the mouthpiece were in bright scarlet, and perfectly set off the striking green of the jade flute. The zither held in Mr. Huang-Zhong’s hands appeared dark and ancient. It must have been an antique over one thousand years old. A gentle bump of the two musical instruments would have broken them into pieces. They of course couldn’t be used in a real fight. Having no other excuses, he held the jade flute with both hands and spoke respectfully.

“I await First Master’s advice.”

“The venerable Grandmaster Feng was the ultimate swordsman of the generation. I’ve always had great admiration for him. The sword arts he taught must be extraordinary. Young Hero Feng, please!” Mr. Huang-Zhong said.

Holding the flute in his palm, Linghu Chong gave it a gentle swing. A few soft sounds echoed pleasantly as air went through the holes on the flute.

Mr. Huang-Zhong gave a few plucks to the strings of the zither. Amid the musical sounds, he pushed the end of the zither toward Linghu Chong’s right shoulder.

At the sound of the zither, Linghu Chong felt a slight thump in his heart. He slowly dabbed the jade flute toward the back of Mr. Huang-Zhong’s elbow. If the zither continued its course toward his shoulder, then the acupoint at the back of Mr. Huang-Zhong’s elbow would have been hit first.

Turning the zither upside down, Mr. Huang-Zhong shoved it toward Linghu Chong’s waist, instead. And as the zither struck forward, he plucked the strings and made more sounds.

Linghu Chong thought quickly, “If I block this strike with the jade flute, once the two precious instruments clashes, both would be damaged. In order to preserve the musical instruments, he will certainly withdraw the zither. But fighting like that is really no different from the shameless act of a rascal.”

With that in mind, he drew an arc with the jade flute and stabbed it below the opponent’s armpit. Mr. Huang-Zhong raised his zither in an attempt to ward it off, but Linghu Chong quickly drew his flute back.

Suddenly, Mr. Huang-Zhong played several consecutive notes with the zither and the sound of the music turned pressing and the complexion on Mr. Black-White’s face changed slightly. Slowly, Mr. Black-White backed out of the Zither Hall, shutting the door on his way out. knowing that Mr. Huang-Zhong was, by no means, showing his leisure when he made the musical notes with the zither. He had actually infused superior inner strength into the zither sounds in order to disrupt his opponent’s concentration. Once the opponent’s internal strength resonated with the zither sounds, then he would be controlled by the zither sounds involuntarily. When the zither music slowed down, the opponent’s movement would also slow down; when the zither music hurried, the opponent’s movement would also hurry. But the tempo of Mr. Huang-Zhong’s zither moves would be just the opposite to the tempo of the zither music. His strikes would become faster and faster while the zither music turned more soothing and relaxing, as a result, the opponent would stand no chance of withstanding his attacks. Mr. Black-White knew very well that this Kung Fu of Mr. Huang-Zhong was no trivia matter. Afraid that his own internal strength would be worn off, he receded out of the Zither Hall.

Although the door plank separated him from the Zither Hall, he could still vaguely hear the zither music slowing down and going faster from time to time. Sometimes, the zither sound would suddenly silence, while some other times, the zither sound would all of a sudden clang very loudly. After a while, the tempo of the zither music became faster and faster. Mr. Black-White only felt his heart fluttering with uneasiness and even his breathing became somewhat uncomfortable. Backed out of the front door, he, once again, shut the front door tight. Now with two doors in between, the sound of the zither was almost inaudible. But occasionally when the sound of the zither turned sonorous and passed through all the barriers, it always made his heart thump faster.

He stood there for a good while but the zither sounds kept going and going. He was astounded. “This young man named Feng, no doubt, has excellent sword skills. But it turned out that his cultivation in inner strength is also so capable. How is he able to hold out for so long under the attack of my Big Brother’s ‘Seven-String Invisible Sword’?” he thought. As he pondered upon the question, Mr. Bald-Brush and Mr. Paint arrived side by side.

“How did it go?” Mr. Paint asked in a low voice.

“The fight has lasted a long time. That young man is still struggling to keep up. I am afraid Big Brother will end up injuring him,” Mr. Black-White said.

“I’ll go ask Big Brother to show leniency. We can’t hurt this good friend,” Mr. Paint suggested.

“We can’t go in there,” Mr. Black-White shook his head.

Just at that moment, loud clanking sounds from the zither suddenly exploded in the air. At the first sound, the three of them each took one step back. So after five consecutive zither sounds, the three of them took a total of five steps back involuntarily.

Mr. Bald-Brush’s face turned as white as a sheet. After taking a few seconds to collect himself, he said, “This ‘Six-Ding-God Quarry a Mountain’ move of Big Brother’s Invisible Sword Art is too powerful. The six consecutive notes continue to wallop and strike one after another. How can that young man Feng withstand it?”

Before he even finished his sentence, another loud clank exploded, and immediately after that, several cracking sounds followed, as though several zither strings had suddenly snapped. Astounded, Mr. Black-White and the other two pushed the front door wide open and dashed in. As soon as they opened the door of the Zither Hall, they saw a dispirited Mr. Huang-Zhong standing still in silence. All seven strings of the zither in his grip had snapped and drooped by the side of the zither. Standing by his side was Linghu Chong, holding the jade flute in his hand.

“Please pardon me!” Linghu Chong said, bowing down slightly.

Obviously, just like the others, Mr. Huang-Zhong had lost the match.

Mr. Black-White and his two junior brothers gasped in astonishment. They knew very well that their Big Brother had very vigorous and resourceful inner strength and was, in fact, an extraordinary figure in the Martial World. Who would have expected that he would lose to this young man from the Huashan School just as well? If they hadn’t seen it with their own eyes, they would never have believed it.

“Not only is Young Hero Feng’s sword art the most ingenious sword art I have ever seen in my life, his inner strength cultivation is also so incredibly capable. It is very admirable, indeed,” Mr. Huang-Zhong said with a wry smile. “I had always thought that this ‘Seven-String Invisible Sword’ Kung Fu of mine could be regarded as a consummate skill in the Martial World. Who would have thought that it looked merely like a child’s play in front of Young Hero Feng? We, the four brothers, have been living a hermit’s life in the Plum Manor and haven’t set foot in the Martial World for more than ten years. Alas, turned out we have all become frogs living at the bottom of a well.”[2] His voice turned bleak.

“I had to do my utmost to keep up. Thanks for Senior Master’s leniency,” Linghu Chong said.

Mr. Huang-Zhong heaved a long sigh, but did not answer. Shaking his head dishearteningly, he sat down, his face dreary and desolate.

Seeing the utter gloominess on Mr. Huang-Zhong’s face, Linghu Chong felt very sorry. He thought to himself, “Big Brother Xiang apparently did not want to review the fact that I have lost all my inner strength, so as not to make them aware of my intent to ask for treatment, thus, void any obstacles that might arise. But a real man should be as open as the day. I can’t take advantage of him like that.” At that thought, he said, “First Master, there’s something I must tell. The reason why I was immune to the invisible energy attacks coming out of your zither was not because of advanced inner strength cultivation on my part. It was really because I have no inner strength in me, none whatsoever!”

“What did you say?” Mr. Huang-Zhong stood up, taken by surprise.

“I was injured many times and have lost all my inner strength. That’s why the sound of your zither had no effect on me,” Linghu Chong explained.

“Are you serious?” Mr. Huang-Zhong asked, his voice quavered from mingled shock and joy.

“If Senior Master does not believe me, check my pulse and you’ll see,” Linghu Chong replied and extended his right hand forward.

Mr. Huang-Zhong and Mr. Black-White were both taken completely by surprise. In their minds, although Linghu Chong’s coming to the Plum Manor was not hostile, he must have been up to no good, after all. How could he give out his hand so unperturbedly and hand his lifelines over to others? If Mr. Huang-Zhong suddenly grabbed hold of the acupoint on his wrist using the pretext of checking his pulse, then even if he had all the skills in the world, he would not be able to use any of them and wind up being at the mercy of others like a piece of meat sitting on the chopping block.

Earlier, when Mr. Huang-Zhong had initiated his “Six-Ding-God Quarry a Mountain” Kung Fu, not only had it failed to affect Linghu Chong in the least, at the peak of his inner strength discharge when all seven strings resonated, he actually ended up breaking seven strings all together. Such a crushing defeat was certainly hard to resign to. “If you want me to reach my hand forward so you can clasp the acupoint on my wrist, then we’ll just have another contest in the inner strength,” he made up his mind and then slowly stretched his right hand forward toward the artery on Linghu Chong’s right wrist. In the stretch, he had secretly included the “Tiger Claw Technique”, the “Dragon Claw Skill”, and the “Small Joints Eighteen Holding Positions” these three advanced joint manipulation Kung Fu, so regardless of what moves the opponent might execute, when worst comes to worst, he would simply fail to grab the opponent’s wrist, but his opponent would not be able to take any advantage of him, either.

But when Mr. Huang-Zhong’s five fingers touched Linghu Chong’s wrist, Linghu Chong didn’t even move a muscle, showing no sign of an attack. Slightly taken aback, Mr. Huang-Zhong quickly noticed how feeble and frail Linghu Chong’s pulses were, clearly indicating that he had no inner strength at all. After a short daze, he suddenly broke into loud laughter.

“I see! So that’s how it is! You bamboozled me! You have really bamboozled me well!”

Although he kept saying that he was bamboozled, the expression on his face was actually very delightful. His “Seven-String Invisible Sword” Kung Fu was only made up of zither sounds. The sound itself of course could not injure the enemy. All it did was to stimulate and manipulate the enemy’s inner strength, thus disrupting the enemy’s moves. The stronger the enemy’s inner strength was, the stronger his reaction to the zither sound would turn out. He certainly had not expected Linghu Chong to have no inner strength at all, and consequently, the “Seven-String Invisible Sword” having the least bit of effect on him. Having suffered a severe defeat, Mr. Huang-Zhong had been completely disheartened. But after he found out that the reason he lost the match was not because his unique skill, which he trained for many decades diligently, was no good, he found himself wild with joy. Grabbing Linghu Chong’s hand tightly, he shook it back and forth in excitement.

“Good Brother! Good Brother! Why are you telling me your secret?” he asked, beaming.

“Well, during our match, it was already quite selfish of me to conceal the fact that I lost all my inner strength. How could I keep deceiving you on that? Senior Master was playing music to an ox, and I just happen to be the ox that understood none of the elegance.” Linghu Chong grinned.

“I guess my ‘Seven-String Invisible Sword’ is no garbage after all. For a moment, I thought my ‘Seven-String Invisible Sword’ actually turned into ‘Broken-String Unusable Sword’. Ha-ha! Ha-ha!” Mr. Huang-Zhong stroked his long beard and let out more laughter.

“Young Hero Feng! We, the four brothers, are very grateful for your honesty. But didn’t you know that once you reveal your own weakness, if we want to take your life, it would be as easy as turning our hands over? Although you have excellent sword skills, without any inner strength, you will be no match for us after all,” Mr. Black-White said.

“Second Master is absolutely right. I only told the truth because I can tell that the four Manor Masters are all trustworthy heroes,” Linghu Chong replied.

“Well said! Well said!” Mr. Huang-Zhong nodded at those words. “Brother Feng, you might as well speak frankly and tell us your intention for your visit. We, the four brothers feel like you are almost an old friend of ours even though this is the first time we ever meet. As far as our capacity allows, you can ask us for anything.”

Mr. Bald-Brush also said, “You lost all your inner strength most probably because of a severe injury. I have a very intimate friend whose medical skills are almost godlike. Only that he is kind of eccentric and wouldn’t take in patients easily. But for my sake, I am sure he’d be willing to treat you. The ‘Killer Doctor’ Ping One-Finger and I have been good friends….”

“Did you say Ping One-Finger, Doctor Ping?” Linghu Chong cried out involuntarily.

“That’s right. You’ve heard of his name before, haven’t you?” Mr. Bald-Brush answered.

“Doctor Ping passed away on the Five-Tyrant Ridge in Shandong Province several months ago.” Linghu Chong’s voice turned gloomy.

“What?” Mr. Bald-Brush cried out in shock. “He…he died?”

“He could have cured any disease in the world. How come he wasn’t able to cure his own illness? Oh, was he killed by his personal enemy?” Mr. Paint asked.

Linghu Chong shook his head. He had always felt ashamed of himself for the death of Ping One-Finger.

“Doctor Ping checked my pulse right before he passed away. He said that my injury was too weird and he could not cure me.”

The sudden news of Ping One-Finger’s death struck Mr. Bald-Brush hard. He stared blankly in front of him and soon tears emerged from his eyes.

“Brother Feng, let me point you a direction. But whether he’ll do it or not, it’s hard to say,” after pondering for a long while, Mr. Huang-Zhong finally said. “I’ll write you a letter, and you can take the letter with you and request an audience from the Head Master of the Shaolin Temple, Great Master Fang-Zheng. If he agrees to teach you the ultimate inner strength Kung Fu of the Shaolin School, the Tendon Altering Sutra, then there is a good chance that you’ll be able to regain your inner strength. The Tendon Altering Sutra is the most valued Kung Fu of the Shaolin School, which is not to be taught to any outsider. But many years ago, Great Master Fang-Zheng owed me some gratitude. Maybe he’ll do me a favor for personal consideration and make an exception.”

Linghu Chong knew that both Mr. Bald-Brush’s recommendation of Ping One-Finger and Mr. Huang-Zhong’s direction to Great Master Fang-Zheng were both right to the core of the problem, and both recommendations were made wholeheartedly. It was obvious that the two Manor Masters were not only exceptionally insightful, but also sincerely zealous about his wellbeing. Feeling utterly grateful, he said, “Great Master Fang-Zheng only teaches the ‘Tendon Altering Sutra’ to apprentices of his own school, but it wouldn’t be proper for me to join the Shaolin School. It is very difficult situation.”

After standing up and making a deep bow, he spoke again, “I am very grateful for the four Manor Masters’ kindness. Life and death lie in the lap of the gods. My injury is really not a big deal, and it is certainly not my intention to worry the four Manor Masters. I think it’s time for me to say good-bye.”

“Please wait,” Mr. Huang-Zhong said. Turning around, he went into the inner room, and not long after, he returned with a small china bottle in his hand. “Here are two herbal pills bestowed upon me by my respectable Master many years ago. They are quite effective in nourishing health and healing wounds. Please accept them as my gift, little brother, as a small token to celebrate our meeting today.”

The cork on the small bottle appeared worn and ancient. Linghu Chong knew that if Mr. Huang-Zhong had kept this relic from his deceased Master for all these years, they had to be very precious. So he replied immediately, “These pills were bestowed from Senior Master’s respectable Master, not just any ordinary pills. I dare not accept it!”

Mr. Huang-Zhong shook his head. “The four of us have separated ourselves from the Martial World for many years and no longer strive with other people. These catholicons for injuries are really no good to us. The four brothers of us have neither apprentices, nor children. If you insist on declining, I suppose these two pills would only end up accompanying me in my coffin.”

Sensing the bleakness in Mr. Huang-Zhong’s voice, Linghu Chong did not insist any further and accepted the gift, thanking him earnestly. After bidding his farewell, he headed back to the Game Room with Mr. Black-White, Mr. Bald-Brush, and Mr. Paint accompanying by the side. As soon as Xiang Wentian spotted the solemn expression on the four’s faces, he knew immediately that Linghu Chong must have won yet another sword match against the First Master of the manor. If the First Master had won the match, then even though Mr. Black-White might still maintain his composure, Mr. Bald-Brush and Mr. Paint, fore sure, would have turned daring and militant, demanding Zhang Xu’s calligraphy book and Fan Kuan’s painting from him at the first sight of him.

“Brother Feng, did First Master give you some good pointers as regard to your sword skills?” he asked, pretending he had not a clue.

“The prowess of First Master’s inner strength was simply unimaginable. But it just happens that I have lost all my inner strength and therefore, did not react to the inner strength released from First Master’s zither at all. It was such incredible luck on my side,” Linghu Chong explained.

“This Brother Feng here is an honest gentleman and did not keep back anything. Why did you say that his inner strength was far superior to yours and deceive my Big Brother big time?” Mr. Paint reprehended, glaring at Xiang Wentian as he spoke.

“But at the time when Brother Feng still had his inner strength, his inner strength was indeed far superior to mine. I was referring to before, not now,” Xiang Wentian grinned.

“You are a bad person!” Mr. Bald-Brush grunted.

“Well, since no one in the Plum Manor can defeat my Brother Feng’s sword. Three Manor Masters, I think it’s time for us to say good-bye,” Xiang Wentian cupped his hands. Turning toward Linghu Chong, he said, “Let’s go.”

Linghu Chong also cupped his hands and bowed. “It was a great pleasure to meet the four Manor Masters today. If the chance rises up in the future, I’ll visit your Manor once again.”

“Brother Feng, if you feel like coming over to drink some wine, you can come any day. I’ll let you taste all the great wines I collected throughout the years. But in regard to this Brother Tong here, well! Well!” Mr. Paint said.

“With my small capacity for liquor, I certainly dare not to come and ask for trouble.” Xiang Wentian showed a smile.

After cupping his hands one more time, he walked out, holding Linghu Chong’s arms. Mr. Black-White and the others also walked out.

“Three Manor Masters please don’t bother to see us out,” Xiang Wentian said.

“Ha, do you think we are seeing you out? We are here to see Brother Feng off. If you had come all by yourself, Brother Tong, just watch us and see how many steps we’ll take to see you off,” Mr. Bald-Brush said.

“I see,” Xiang Wentian grinned.

Mr. Black-White and the others walked all the way out of the manor gate before saying good-bye to Linghu Chong. Mr. Bald-Brush and Mr. Paint stared at Xiang Wentian all the way out. How they wished they could just snatch the package off Xiang Wentian’s back.

Holding Linghu Chong’s hand, Xiang Wentian walked deep into the willow woods. When they were far from the Plum Manor, he finally asked, smiling, “Brother, the First Master’s ‘Invisible Sword’ energy from his zither is very powerful. How did you manage to defeat him?”

“Oh, so Big Brother knew everything already. Luckily I have lost all my inner strength, or else I am afraid I probably would have lost my life over that. Big Brother, did you have some scores to settle with these four Manor Masters?” Linghu Chong asked.

“No. I’d never even met them before today, what scores could there be?” Xiang Wentian answered.

Suddenly, shouts came from behind. “Brother Tong! Brother Feng! Please come back.”

Linghu Chong turned around and then saw Mr. Paint running toward him in quick trots. He held a bowl in his hand, which was more than half full with wine.

“Brother Feng, I have half a bottle of more than one-hundred-year old Bamboo-Green. You’d really regret it if you didn’t have a taste,” he said, handing the bowl over as he spoke.

Linghu Chong took the bowl and then took a look. The wine inside the bowl was so green that it almost looked like one solid emerald stone and he couldn’t even see the bottom of the bowl. The strong and mellow smell of the wine soon filled his nostrils. “Great wine, indeed!” he praised.

“Excellent!” after a small sip of the wine, he praised again. Then with another four quick gulps, he poured the entire content of the bowl down his throat. “The flavor of the wine tastes mild yet rich at the same time. It had to the product from around the city of Yangzhou or Zhenjiang,” he commented.

“Right on!” Mr. Paint beamed with delight. “This is the ultimate treasure of the Golden-Hill Temple in Zhenjiang. They had a total of six bottles. The monks in the temple abide by their commandment and do not drink, so they gave me one bottle as a present. After enjoying half of the bottle myself, I begrudged drinking any more of it. Brother Feng, I have several more great wines at my place. I’d really like you to come over and judge them for me. What do you say?”

Linghu Chong was already feeling great intimacy toward the “Four Playfellows of Jiangnan,” now with the prospect of tasting some great wine in addition, he found himself all jubilant. Turning his head over, he looked at Xiang Wentian for his reaction.

“Brother Feng, Fourth Master wants to invite you for some wine. You go ahead. As for me, since Third Master and Fourth Master gets grouchy when they see me, I think I’d better…um, well,” Xiang Wentian said.

“Who said I get grouchy when I see you? Let’s go. All of us! You are Brother Feng’s friend, and you are invited too!” Mr. Paint smiled.

Before Xiang Wentian had any chance to decline, Mr. Paint had already coiled his left arm around Xiang Wentian’s right arm and his right arm around Linghu Chong’s left arm and began walking. “Come on! Come on! Let’s have some more drinks!” he insisted, beaming brightly.

“When we bid our farewell to the Manor Masters earlier, Fourth Master showed a very unfriendly attitude toward Big Brother Xiang. Why has he turned so intimate all of a sudden? Is it possible that he simply couldn’t forget the painting in the package on Big Brother Xiang’s back for a moment and decided to fetch it using some other ways?” Linghu Chong thought to himself.

Soon, the three of them returned to the gate of the Plum Manor, at which Mr. Bald-Brush had been waiting for them.

“Brother Feng is back! Excellent! Excellent!” Mr. Bald-Brush uttered.

The four of them returned to the Game Room where Mr. Paint brought out many kinds of great wine and had a good drink with Linghu Chong. But Mr. Black-White never showed his face all the while.

The time was getting late now. It seemed as though Mr. Bald-Brush and Mr. Paint was waiting for someone, since both of them kept glancing toward the entrance from the corner of their eyes. Xiang Wentian took leave of them several times, but the two hosts repeatedly urged him to stay. Linghu Chong, on the other hand, paid no attention to it and kept drinking his wine.

“If two Manor Masters do not invite us for dinner, I’ll starve to death!” Xiang Wentian checked the color of the sky and then complained with a big grin.

“Right! Right!” Mr. Bald-Brush replied and then called out loudly, “Steward Ding, arrange the banquet! Hurry!”

Ding Jian acknowledged from outside when suddenly, the door was pushed open and Mr. Black-White stepped into the room.

“Brother Feng, there is another one in our manor who would like to have a sword contest with you,” he said to Linghu Chong.

As soon as Mr. Bald-Brush and Mr. Paint heard these words, they jumped back onto their feet in unison, beaming with joy. “Big Brother has agreed!”

“So First Master had to give his permission before that person can have a sword contest with me,” Linghu Chong thought inwardly. “It seems that they had kept me here so the Second Master could talk it over with the First Master. And only after a long plead did the First Master finally consent. Then this person must be either a junior in First Master’s family or his disciple or underling of some sort. Is this person’s sword skill really even better than that of the First Master?” Suddenly another thought popped into his brain and he groaned inwardly, “Oh no! They knew that I have lost all my inner strength. In consideration of their own status, they feel unbefitting doing it themselves. But if they send a junior or an subordinate to fight me and specially challenge me in the department of inner strength, it would take him no time to finish me off!” But then he thought, “These four Manor Masters are all fair champions. How could they commit such despicable act? But Third Master and Fourth Master are simply crazy about that painting and that calligraphy book, and although the Second Master looked calm from the outside, he would certainly not rest contented until he gets his hands on those game manuals. Well, using such a bad method for the sake of those painting, calligraphy book, and game manuals is still well within the logic. If anyone really wants to injure me using inner strength, I’ll just stab his joints or some crucial key points on his body first.”

“Young Hero Feng, May I trouble you with another short trip?” Mr. Black-White asked.

“In regard to genuine Kung Fu skills, I am really no match for Third Master or Fourth Master, much less Second Master and First Master. The four senior masters of the Plum Manor of the Lone Hill all have unsurpassed Kung Fu skills. Only because of the congeniality you felt with me, you have been very tolerant and considerate. It is really needless for me to show my immature and shallow skills again,” Linghu Chong declined.

“Brother Feng, of course that person’s Kung Fu is higher than yours. But you don’t need to be afraid. He…,” Mr. Paint said, which was promptly cut off by Mr. Black-White.

“In our humble manor, there is yet another grandmaster who is an expert at the art of sword. Once he heard about Young Hero Feng’s brilliant sword skills, he longed for a sword contest. I hope Young Hero Feng wouldn’t mind having just one more match.”

Afraid that he might be forced into injuring his opponent in the additional match and thus have a fall out with the “Four Playfellows of Jiangnan,” Linghu Chong said, “Four Masters have been very kind to me. If I have this additional match, I wonder what kind of temper this grandmaster might have. If, for any reason, this ends in discord, or maybe I get injured from this grandmaster’s sword, that would, for sure, hurt the friendly feelings.”

“No worries! He won’t…won’t…,” Mr. Paint tried to comfort him, but again, Mr. Black-White didn’t let him finish.

“No matter what happens, the four of us will never blame you, Young Hero Feng,” Mr. Black-White assured him.

“Fine! You might as well have another match,” Xiang Wentian said. “But I have some things I need to take care right away and can’t stay any longer. Brother Feng, I’ll see you again in the city of Jiaxing.”

“Are you leaving already? You can’t leave yet!” Mr. Bald-Brush and Mr. Paint cried out in unison.

“Unless you leave Zhang Xu’s calligraphy book behind,” Mr. Bald-Brush demanded.

“If you leave now, where are we going to find you to get your painting, calligraphy book, and game manuals after Young Hero Feng loses the match? No, no, you’ll have to stay just a little bit longer. Steward Ding, hurry up with the banquet!” Mr. Paint shouted.

“Young Hero Feng, I’ll go with you. Brother Tong, please have something to eat. We’ll be right back to accompany you. It won’t take very long,” Mr. Black-White said.

But Xiang Wentian shook his head again and again. “You are after a sure triumph with this match. Although my Brother Feng has excellent mastery in the art of the sword, his experience in confrontations is still very shallow. Besides, you have already found out that he has lost all his inner strength. Without me guarding onsite, even if we lose this match, we would not be reconciled to the defeat.”

“What is Brother Tong saying here? Do you really think that we would cheat in the match?” Mr. Black-White asked.

“The four Masters of the Plum Manor of the Lone Hill are all people of exceptional virtues. I’ve always held the four masters in great reverence and, of course, have faith in you. But Brother Feng is having the sword match with someone else. I really had no idea that there’s actually another grandmaster in the Plum Manor besides the four Manor Masters. May I ask Second Master here who is this person? If I know that this person is an honest had straightforward champion just like the four Manor Masters, then I’ll feel much more at ease,” Xiang Wentian said.

“The Kung Fu skills and the fame of this person are only higher than the four brothers of us. There is simply no comparison between him and us,” Mr. Paint said.

“In the Marital World, there are only a few people whose fame could be in comparison with that of the four Manor Masters. Then I am sure I must have heard of his name before,” Xiang Wentian said.

“But we can’t tell you his name,” Mr. Bald-Brush answered.

“Then I must guard onsite during this match. Otherwise we can just forget about the match,” Xiang Wentian insisted.

“Brother Tong, why are you so stubborn? It’s not gonna do you any good coming to this match. This person has lived in seclusion for a long time and would rather not let any other people see his face,” Mr. Paint explained.

“How does Brother Feng have the sword contest with him, then?” Xiang Wentian asked.

“Each side will be wearing a mask, exposing only the eyes. That way, neither could see the other,” Mr. Black-White clarified.

“Will the Four Manor Masters be wearing masks as well?” Xiang Wentian asked.

“That’s correct. This person has very eccentric tempers. If we don’t, he would not fight,” Mr. Black-White affirmed.

“I’ll just wear a mask as well,” Xiang Wentian persisted.

After a long hesitation, Mr. Black-White finally said, “If Brother Tong is determined to watch the match onsite, I suppose we have no choice. But Brother Tong must make a promise that you’ll not make any sound through out the match.”

“Pretending to be deaf and dumb, that’s easy!” Xiang Wentian grinned.

So Mr. Black-White lead the way in the front, Xiang Wentian and Linghu Chong followed in the middle and Mr. Bald-Brush and Mr. Paint followed behind. Linghu Chong couldn’t help but notice that they were actually following the same path that led to First Master’s house earlier. Soon, they arrived outside of First Master’s Zither Hall. After three gentle knocks on the door, Mr. Black-White pushed the door open and stepped in. A man already stood in the middle of the room, a mask made of black cloth covered his head. Linghu Chong easily recognized him as Mr. Huang-Zhong from his clothing. Mr. Black-White walked next to him and then whispered some words in his ears. Then Mr. Huang-Zhong shook his head and whispered some words back, obviously unwilling to let Xiang Wentian participate. Mr. Black-White gave a nod and then turned to the group behind him.

“My Big Brother thinks that the sword match is only a small matter. But if we provoke that friend in any way, there will be much unnecessary trouble. Let’s call the match off.”

The five of them bowed to Mr. Huang-Zhong and then went out of the room.

“Brother Tong, you are really an oddball, you know that?” Mr. Paint said irritably. “Did you think that we would just all swarm forward and bully Brother Feng? Well, your insisting on looking on the match has really cost us the match. Thank you for ruining the day for us!”

“It took Second Brother a great effort to convince Big Brother and get his permission. You’d rather make more trouble,” Mr. Bald-Brush grunted.

“All right! All right! I’ll yield a step. I won’t insist on watching this match. But you have to promise that it’s going to be a fair match and you won’t deceive my Brother Feng,” Xiang Wentian said with a grin.

“What kind of people did you think we were? We’d never deceive Young Hero Feng!” Mr. Bald-Brush and Mr. Paint cried out with joy in unison.

“I’ll wait for you guys in the Game Room,” Xiang Wentian said, smiling. “Brother Feng, I don’t know what kind of clandestine tricks they are trying to pull here. You’d better keep a weather eye open all the time and be very careful.”

“The Plum Manor only has gentlemen with lofty virtues. How can there be anyone resorting to trickery and swindle?” Linghu Chong replied with a smile.

“Right on! Young Hero Feng is not like you, who measure others’ corn by one’s own bushel.” Mr. Paint showed a broad grin.

Xiang Wentian took a few steps and then turned around and waved at Linghu Chong. “Brother Feng, come over here. I’d better exhort you some more so you wouldn’t fall for other’s tricks,” he said, at which Mr. Paint sneered but paid no attention.

“Big Brother Xiang is being too careful. I am not a three-year-old kid. Even if they really plan on fooling me, it’s not gonna be easy,” Linghu Chong thought to himself as he walked toward Xiang Wentian.

Xiang Wentian grabbed hold of Linghu Chong’s hand, and immediately Linghu Chong felt a paper ball placed in his palm. A quick squeeze told Linghu Chong that there was a piece of hard object wrapped inside the paper ball. With a broad smile, Xiang Wentian pulled him closer and then whispered to his ears.

“After you see that person, shake his hands to show your proximity, and then secretly place this paper ball together with the object inside into his palm. This is a very important matter. Don’t take it lightly. Ha-ha! Ha-ha!”

When he said these words, the tone of his voice was very solemn, but he kept the broad smile on his face. The laughter at the end simply had nothing to do with his words. Mr. Black-White, Mr. Bald-Brush and Mr. Paint all presumed that he must have been ridiculing the three of them.

“What’s so funny? Young Hero Feng, no doubt, has excellent sword skills, but we haven’t had a chance to check out the sword skills of Brother Tong,” Mr. Paint challenged.

“My sword skills are most ordinary. There’s no need to check it out,” Xiang Wentian laughed out before waddling out of the room.

“Great! Let’s go see Big Brother again,” Mr. Paint said merrily.

The four of them entered Mr. Huang-Zhong’s Zither Hall once again. Mr. Huang Zhong did not expect their return and had already removed the mask from his head.

“Big Brother, we have finally convinced that Brother Tong. He has agreed to not watch the match,” Mr. Black-White said.

“Good,” Mr. Huang-Zhong replied. Picking up the black cloth mask, he put it back onto his head.

Mr. Paint pulled out a drawer from the wooden cabinet and took out three black cloth masks. He handed one of them to Linghu Chong and said, “This one is mine. You can wear it. Big Brother, I am borrowing your pillowcase.”

He went inside the bedroom and soon returned with a green cloth pillowcase over his head. Two holes had been cut off the pillowcase, showing his two eyes.

Mr. Huang-Zhong nodded his approval and then said to Linghu Chong, “When you have the sword context later, both of you will be using wooden swords in case inner strength is used is used and put Brother Feng into disadvantage.”

“That would be great!” Linghu Chong said happily.

“Second Brother, bring two wooden swords,” Mr. Huang-Zhong said to Mr. Black-White, who, in turn, pulled another drawer from the cabinet and took out two wooden swords.

“Brother Feng, regardless of who wins this contest, will you please not mention a word to anyone else?” Mr. Huang-Zhong said to Linghu Chong.

“That’s of course! I’ve said before that I didn’t come to the Plum Manor to make a name for myself. Why would I want to go out and make it widely known? Besides, there’s a high probability that I’ll be losing this match. What’s there to brag about?” Linghu Chong answered.

“Well, that’s not necessarily a sure thing, but I believe Brother Feng is a man of his words and won’t let the word out. Will you please also not mention a word about anything you see afterwards, not even to that Brother Tong? Do you think you can do that?” Mr. Huang-Zhong asked.

“Not even Big Brother Tong? After the sword contest, naturally he would ask me about the entire course. If I keep my mouth completely shut, isn’t it rather harsh for our friendship?” Linghu Chong hesitated.

“That Brother Tong is a worldly-wise man. Once he is made aware that Brother Feng has made a promise to me, he would understand that a true man’s promise is worth one thousand gold and you must make good your promise, then naturally he won’t force you to tell against your will,” Mr. Huang-Zhong said.

“That’s true. I promise you,” Linghu Chong agreed.

Mr. Huang-Zhong cupped his hands together. “Thank you for your understanding, Brother Feng! Let’s go.”

Turning on his heels, Linghu Chong began walking toward the outside. So when Mr. Paint pointed toward the bedroom and said, “This way,” Linghu Chong was completely taken by surprise. “How come we are going into the bedroom?” he thought, but then he immediately came up with an answer, “Oh, I see. The person who will have the sword contest with me is a woman. Maybe she is First Master’s wife or a female relative. That’s why they insisted on not having Big Brother Xiang watching the match by the side. They don’t want her to see my face and don’t want me to see her face, either, all because males and females should be distinguished. And First Master urged me again and again to not mention a word to anybody else, not even to Big Brother Xiang. If it weren’t because it had something to do with a female, why would they be so serious?”

Once he figured this part out, all his suspicions suddenly cleared away, then when he felt the paper ball and the small hard object inside in his palm, he thought inwardly, “It looks as though all Big Brother Xiang’s careful and shrewd arrangement only are for one purpose: to enable him to pay a visit to that woman. Since he couldn’t see her himself, he entrusted me to pass a letter and a keepsake to her. Then there must have been some kind of an obscure affair between them. Even though Big Brother Xiang is my sworn-brother, the four Manor Masters have also been very kind to me. If I pass these along, it would really be unfair to the four Manor Masters. What should I do?” Then he thought, “Big Brother Xiang and the four Manor Masters are all people well above their fifties or sixties. That woman must have not been young, either. Even if there was intertwined love relationship involved here, it had to be a past thing many years ago. I suppose passing this letter along wouldn’t damage the woman’s chastity.”

While he was muttering to himself, the five of them had entered the inner bedroom. The arrangement in the room was very simply, with only a bed and a small table. The gauze bed-curtain hung above the bed appeared antiquated and showed slight yellow. On top of the small table sat a short zither, completely black as though it was made of iron.

“Everything panned out as Big Brother Xiang planned. Alas, his love is so deep, how can I not help him fulfill this wish?” Linghu Chong thought.

He always had a carefree disposition and never cared much about the Confucian code of etiquette. At the moment, he vaguely felt as though that woman had turned into his little apprentice sister, Yue Lingshan, who had married her junior apprentice brother Lin Pingzhi, and he was Xiang Wentian, who was trying every possible way to pay another visit to little apprentice sister after several decades. When a meeting turned out to be impossible, he then tried to pass along a keepsake from the old days to merely express his feelings and slightly relieve the decades of lovesickness.

“Maybe it was also because of this old lover of his, Big Brother Xiang broke away from the Demon’s Cult and didn’t hesitate to have a complete fall out with the Chief and his fellow members in the cult,” Linghu Chong thought.

Amid his reverie, Mr. Huang-Zhong had already lifted the beddings on the bed, removed the bed board off the bed, exposing an iron plate with a copper ring attached to the top of it. With a tight grip at the copper ring, Mr. Huang-Zhong pulled upward, and a four-foot wide and five-foot long iron board rose up slowly, revealing a large rectangular-shaped opening. The iron plate was at least half-a-foot thick and appeared to be extremely heavy.

After placing the iron plate on the floor, Mr. Huang-Zhong said to Linghu Chong, “This person’s residence is kind of strange. Brother Feng, please follow me.” At those words, he jumped into the opening.

“After you, Young Hero Feng,” Mr. Black-White urged.

Very surprised, Linghu Chong followed suit and also jumped into the opening. What he saw next was an oil lamp hanging from a wall, which illuminated the surroundings indistinctly. Where he stood now seemed to be the beginning of a tunnel. Following behind Mr. Huang-Zhong he walked forward, and soon Mr. Black-White and the rest of the people also jumped down one after another.

About twenty feet following the passageway, the tunnel seemed to have come to an end. Mr. Huang-Zhong took out a string of keys from his chest pocket and inserted one of them into a keyhole. Turning the key several times, he pushed forward; amid a series of scrunches, a stone gate slowly opened up.

Linghu Chong found himself more and more astounded, and at the meantime, felt more and more sympathy toward Xiang Wentian. “They have locked the woman up in a dungeon, then of course she was imprisoned against her will. These four Manor Masters all appeared to be man of kindheartedness and justice; how could they have committed such a contemptible deed?” he pondered.

He followed Mr. Huang-Zhong and entered the stone gate. The tunnel began to descend as the passageway extended in front them. After several hundred feet, another gate appeared in front of them, this time, an iron-gate. Taking the string of keys out once again, Mr. Hung-Zhong opened the iron-gate.

The tunnel kept descending deeper and deeper under the ground. By then they were probably over one thousand feet below the surface. The tunnel made a few turns when another gate met Linghu Chong’s eyes.

“I had thought that since the four Manor Masters are adept at music, gamesmanship, calligraphy, and painting, the ‘Four Arts’, they must have been persons of lofty virtues and poetic temperament. Who would have thought that they would set up private prisons and imprison a woman in such a hellhole that’s completely void of daylight and sunshine?” Linghu Chong felt resentment brewing inside his chest.

When he first entered the tunnel, he had no intention to watch out for the four Manor Masters, but at the moment he simply couldn’t help feeling his vigilance growing considerably. “They couldn’t defeat me in sword tests. Could it be possible that they have lured me down here so they could imprison me here? There are gates after gates inside the tunnel, no one would be able to escape even if he was furnished with wings.” That thought almost made him shudder. But with Mr. Huang-Zhong in front of him, Mr. Black-White, Mr. Bald-Brush, and Mr. Paint behind, and not a single weapon in his hands, he found himself quite helpless.

The third gateway actually consisted of four separate doors. Behind the iron door was a wooden door covered with cotton wadding nailed onto the door plank. Behind the wooden door stood another iron door, behind which was another wooden door covered with cotton waddling.

“Why have they placed two wooden doors covered with cotton wadding in between the two iron doors?” Linghu Chong wondered. “I got it. I suppose the prisoner has very formidable inner strength. The cotton wadding was used to absorb the fierce power from her palm and prevent her from breaking down the iron doors.”

For the next one hundred feet or so, there were no more gates along the way. The oil lamps hung from the tunnel wall stood further and further from each other. In some sections of the tunnel, the oil lamps had long extinguished, leaving only complete darkness, and the pack had to feel their way forward for dozens of feet before seeing the next light.

The further they went, the harder it was to breathe, Linghu Chong found. Moreover, the tunnel wall and the tunnel floor had turned awfully damp. Suddenly, a thought came to his attention, “The Plum Manor sits on the bank of the West Lake. After walking for so long, we are probably deep underneath the West Lake by now. This person is locked up underneath the West Lake, not only is it impossible for her to escape by herself, it is also impossible for others to rescue her, because as soon as they dig open the tunnel wall, water from the lake would have poured in from above.”

After another thirty or forty feet forward, the tunnel suddenly turned very narrow, and they had to bend their backs to proceed forward. The further they went, the lower they had to bend their backs. Another twenty feet later, Mr. Huang-Zhong finally held his steps and took out his flint to light up the oil lamp on the tunnel wall. Before long another iron-door came into view under the dim light, an iron-door with a square-shaped opening one-foot wide.

“Mr. Ren, Huang-Zhong and his brothers have come to visit you!” Mr. Huang-Zhong spoke toward the square-shaped opening, loud and clear.

“What? How could it be Mr. Ren? Shouldn’t the person locked inside a female?” Linghu Chong was taken aback.

But no response came from the inside.

“Mr. Ren, we are very regretful for not having sent our respects to you often. We have come today to inform you of an important matter,” Mr. Huang-Zhong spoke again.

Suddenly a hoarse voice bellowed from inside the cell, “Important matter my ass! If you’ve got horseshit, unload it now! If not, get the hell out of here!”

Linghu Chong was dumbfounded. Instantly, all his previous fancy disappeared like mist and smoke. Not only did the voice belong to an old man, the words this man used were also so crude that they had to come from the mouth of a street vulgar.

“Before, we had always thought that when talking about exceptional sword masters of our time, Mr. Ren would undoubtedly be ranked as the number one on the chart. But how wrong we were! Today we had a visitor to the Plum Manor. The four brothers of us certainly were no match for him; even Mr. Ren’s sword art would pale into insignificance by comparison,” Mr. Huang-Zhong said.

“He is using mocking words to goad that man into entering a sword context with me,” Linghu Chong thought to himself.

The man burst into loud laughter. “You four sons of bitches couldn’t beat him, so you goaded him into sparring with me and hoped that I would take care of this tough enemy for you, didn’t you, you scumbags? Ha-ha, what wishful thinking! Too bad that I haven’t touched a sword for over ten years and have completely forgotten all my sword skills. Why don’t you just put your tail between your legs and get the hell out of here, you bloody bastards!”

Linghu Chong gasped with astonishment. “This man is so incredibly sharp-witted and could predict with miraculous accuracy. Just from Mr. Huang-Zhong’s words he had figured everything out,” he thought to himself.

“Big Brother, in no way would Mr. Ren be this person’s rival. This person said that nobody in the Plum Manor could defeat him, and he wasn’t overstating the case. There’s no need to talk further with Mr. Ren,” Mr. Bald-Brush said.

“Give it up! Provoking me won’t cut it. Did you actually think I would do anything for you four bastards?” the man named Ren snarled.

“This person has truly mastered the sword skills taught by the venerable Grandmaster Feng Qingyang of the Huashan Sword School. Big Brother, I heard that years ago when Mr. Ren roamed the Martial World, he feared neither Heaven nor Earth, except one person – Grandmaster Feng. Mr. Ren’s nickname was something like ‘Flee at the Sight of the Wind’, and the word ‘wind’ here refers to the venerable Grandmaster Feng Qingyang.[3] Is that true?” Mr. Bald-Brush asked.

“What stinking fart! Rubbish!” the man named Ren roared at these words.

“Third Brother said it wrong,” Mr. Paint joined in.

“Why?” Mr. Bald-Brush asked.

“You got one word wrong,” Mr. Paint elaborated. “Mr. Ren’s nickname is not ‘Flee at the Sight of the Wind’. It is ‘Flee at the Sound of the Wind.’ Now think about it. If Mr. Ren had already had Grandmaster Feng in his sight, the two of them couldn’t have been very far from each other, and how could Grandmaster Feng have allowed him to get away? Only that as soon as he heard Grandmaster Feng’s name mentioned he starts running right away, restless like a cur stray from his pack….”

“…and hasten like a fish slipping out of the net…,” Mr. Bald-Brush added.

“…is he able to keep his head on his neck all the way till today!” Mr. Paint completed the sentence.

The man named Ren seemed to be quite amused by these words and laughed out loud. “You four stinking bastards found yourself driven from pillar to post by him, and then thought that you could beg me to take him on. Go jump in the lake. Did you think I am so stupid to fall for your tricks?”

Mr. Huang-Zhong heaved a sigh. “Brother Feng,” he said to Linghu Chong, “this Mr. Ren here is already frightened out of his wits simply at the mentioning of the ‘Feng’ in your name. There’s no need for another sword match. We’ll just admit that you are the number one sword master in the entire world.”

Although Linghu Chong knew that he had imagined everything wrong when he found out that the person was not a woman, seeing him stuck in the dungeon, and obviously for a very long time, the feeling of sympathy soared in his heart spontaneously. From the tone of everybody, he deduced that this person had to be a very senior master with extraordinary Kung Fu skills. So when he heard Mr. Huang-Zhong’s words, he objected.

“First Master, it is not true. When Grandmaster Feng discussed sword arts with me, he held this…this venerable Mr. Ren in very high esteem. He said that in regard to sword masters of our time, the revered Mr. Ren was the only person he had admiration for and that if I were lucky to meet this Mr. Ren someday, I must kowtow to him with utter respect and ask for his advice with sincere desire.”

These words sent Mr. Huang-Zhong and his sworn brothers in complete shock while that Mr. Ren found himself on the high ropes. Laughing loudly, he said, “Little friend, what you said is very correct. Feng Qingyang is no ordinary swordsman. He, and only he, is capable of recognizing the subtlety of my sword arts.”

“Grand…Grandmaster Feng knows that he…he is here?” Mr. Huang-Zhong uttered. His voice quivered and Linghu Chong almost felt he sensed dread in his voice.

“Grandmaster Feng thought that the revered Mr. Ren had retired to a scenery spot in a famous mountain,” Linghu Chong decided to run wild with his made-up story. “During the time when he trained me in the art of sword, he had frequently mentioned about the revered Mr. Ren. He said that the only purpose of training in these sword moves was to fight revered Mr. Ren’s students. If revered Mr. Ren never existed, then it would have become completely unnecessary to learn these very complicated sword moves.”

By then he had become very discontented with the four Masters of the Plum Manor, thinking that the man named Ren must have been a champion of the past, and his captivity in the dark and degrading prison must have resulted from some sort of a despicable plot in secret set up by the four Manor Masters, so even his words carried much ridicule and sarcasm.

“Um, that’s right, my little friend! Feng Qingyang really has some good insights. You got the better of these folks in the Plum Manor, didn’t you?” The man named Ren asked.

“Well, since my sword skills were taught my Grandmaster Feng, himself, then unless it was you, Mr. Ren, or unless it was a student of yours, ordinary people of course wouldn’t stand a chance,” Linghu Chong replied.

By saying these words, he had publicly denounced Mr. Huang-Zhong and the bunch. The more he felt how dark, damp, and gloomy the dungeon was, the angrier he was at the four Manor Masters. He had only stayed here for a very short while and was already feeling awfully uncomfortable, but they had locked this senior master in this appalling place, a place completely unsuitable for human inhabitation, for god knows how many years. That was just atrocious. As the moral indignation grew rapidly inside him, he had no more scruple with the choice of his words, thinking that even if worst came to worst and they killed him on the spot, he wouldn’t have cared any more.

When Mr. Huang-Zhong and the rest Manor Masters heard these words, they of course felt much snubbed. But they did lose their matches and had nothing to contradict.

“Brother Feng, what are you…?” Mr. Paint muttered, but after Mr. Black-White gave his sleeve a tug, he held his tongue.

“Very good! Very good! Little friend, you’ve really given me a vent to my anger. Now tell me, how did you beat them?” the man asked.

“The first person from the Plum Manor to have sword match with me was a friend named Ding Jian with a nickname called something like ‘Straight Line Lightning Sword’,” Linghu Chong said.

“His sword moves are flash and without substance. He doesn’t have any true skills, and all he does is to try to scare people with his sword flashes. You don’t have to use any move sparring him. Just place your blade there and he’ll send his fingers, wrists, or arms onto your blade and have them cut off, himself,” the man said.

Feeling utterly astounded, the five listeners cried out in unison.

“What? Was I not right?” the man asked.

“You are absolutely right. It’s almost like you have seen it with your own eyes,” Linghu Chong answered.

“Great! Then did he cut off his five fingers or a hand?”

“I turned my sword blade a little bit,” Linghu Chong said.

“Wrong! Wrong! Why be so nice to your enemy? You are too kindhearted and one day you’ll for sure get the worse of it. So who was your second opponent?”

“It was Fourth Master.”

“Um, Fourth’s sword skills of course are better than that ‘Straight Line Fart Sword’, but not by much. After he saw you defeat Ding Jian, I bet that he’d be using that unique stun of his, which he prided himself on. Ah, what was that sword art called? Oh, yeah. It’s called the ‘Splashing Ink Slicing Hemp Sword Art’, with something like ‘White Aurora Shooting the Sun,’ or ‘Mounting Flood-Dragon and the Soaring Phoenix’, or something like ‘Willow Wickers Fluttering in the Spring Breeze’.”

Hearing that the man was able to spell out his prided sword moves with such accuracy, Mr. Paint found himself in an even bigger shock.

“Fourth Master’s sword art was actually quite clever, except that it has too many flaws when he attacks,” Linghu Chong said.

“Ha-ha, Old Feng’s student certainly has a few tricks of the trade. You hit the mark with a single comment and have identified the deadly flaw in this ‘Splashing Ink Splitting Hemp Sword Art’ of his. Within this sword art of his, there’s one move, which he always thought to be the most formidable killer move in the entire sword art, called ‘Jade Dragon Hanging Upside Down’ where he would bring the sword swishing down from above with shear force. If he indeed launched this move against a student of Old Feng, then all the opponent had to do was to slice the long sword upward right next to his sword blade, and all his five fingers would have been sliced off, and the blood from his hand would splash everywhere like splashing ink. It’s called the ‘Splashing Blood Slicing Fingers Sword Art’! Ha-ha! Ha-ha!”

“Senior Master can predict with miraculous accuracy. I did defeat him on this move exactly as Senior Master has described. But I have no grudges against him; besides, Fourth Master had feasted me with great wines and treated me very kindly. So in regard to the five fingers, there’s no need to slice them off. Ha-ha! Ha-ha!” Linghu Chong said.

By then, Mr. Paint’s face looked as though someone had painted it scarlet and violet, and he was well worthy of the name “Mr. Paint”. Except that his head is covered by a pillowcase, so no one could actually see his face.

“Bald-headed Third uses a Judge’s Pen. His handwriting is no better than a three-year-old kid, yet he loves posing as a lover of culture and even claims that his Kung Fu contains conception from famous calligraphers. Little friend, I am sure you understand that combat with your enemy is an important matter that distinguishes between life and death. Even if one wrestles with all his strength, he is not guaranteed a triumph, where would he find such leisurely and carefree mood to be particular about the style of the inscription or script? Only when your opponent’s Kung Fu is far inferior to that or yours, you might be able to tease him or play him, but if the two sides’ Kung Fu skills are comparable and you still try to write words with your Judge’s Pen, you are only offering your own life with both hands to the mercy of your enemy.”

“Senior Masters’ words are very precise. The Third Master is a bit too casual when he fights others,” Linghu Chong agreed.

When Mr. Bald-Brush first heard the man’s comments, he was furious. But the more he thought about these words, the more he found them to be in the right. It was a lot of fun when he permeated calligraphy in his Judge Pen moves, but the power from his weapon did decrease dramatically after all. If it weren’t because Linghu Chong held back, even ten Mr. Bald-Brush would have been slain easily. At that thought, he broke into cold sweat.

“To beat Bald-headed Third is as easy as a walkover,” the man said with a laugh. “His Judge Pen Kung Fu used to be quite worthy, but he is too bigheaded and would rather add some kind of calligraphy in his Kung Fu. Humph, when elite fighters exchange moves, the outcome is determined from very minor aspects. Treating his own life as a joking matter, it is really a miracle in the Martial World that he was able to stay alive till today. Bald-headed Third, for the last ten years you just holed up and didn’t go around the Martial world, didn’t you?”

Mr. Bald-Brush let out a snort but didn’t answer, when, in fact, a chill just shot down his spine. “He is absolutely right. If I had been wandering in the Martial World in the last ten years, there’s no way I’d still be alive today,” he thought inwardly.

“Second’s Kung Fu with his Magnetic Iron Game Board is genuine talent, though,” the man continued. “Once he starts his attack, each move becomes faster than the previous one, and the attack would swamp his opponent like a gust of blizzard or a sudden downpour. It is indeed not easy to withstand for ordinary martial artists. Little friend, tell me how you broke his attack?”

“Well, I certainly dare not to use the word ‘break’ here. Only that as soon as the fight broke out, I initiated my attack as well as the Second Master and was able to force him into defense,” Linghu Chong replied.

“Excellent! How about the second move?” the man asked.

“With the second move, I used a forestall attack again, and Second Master took a defending stance again.”

“Excellent! Then how about the third move?”

“With the third move I was still attacking and he was still defending.”

“Incredible! In the old times, Black-White was indeed awe-inspiring in the Martial World. By then he used a regular Iron Board, and if anyone could withstand his three consecutive strikes, Black-White would spare his life. Later he changed his weapon to the Magnetic Iron Game Board and gained great advantage in his weapon, consequently, became even more capable. Little friend, you were actually able to force him into three consecutive defending moves, that’s excellent! So on the fourth move, how did he counterattack?”

On the fourth move, again, I attacked and Second Master defended.”

“Is Old Feng’s sword art really this brilliant? Even though to defeat Black-White is not difficult, you were actually able to force him into a defending stance again on the fourth move? Hmm, excellent! Excellent! On the fifth move, it must have been him who attacked?”

“On the fifth move, the situation remained the same.”

“Oh!” the man named Ren fell silent. Only after a long pause did he speak again. “After how many of your attacking moves Black-White was able to counterattack?”

“Um…well…I don’t remember how many,” Linghu Chong answered.

Mr. Black-White picked it up and said, “Senior Master, Young Hero Feng’s sword skills are so brilliant that from the beginning all the way to the end, I was not able to attack even once. After over forty moves, I knew I was no match for him so I stopped the match and admitted my defeat.” Only by then did he speak to the man named Ren and the tone of his words was unexpectedly respectful.

“Ah!” the man cried out loudly. “This is ridiculous! Although Feng Qingyang is an exceptional talent in the Sword Branch of the Huashan Sword School, Huashan Sword Branch’s sword art still has its limit. I’d never believe that someone from the Huashan School can attack Black-White with over forty moves and not let him return even a single blow!”

“Revered Mr. Ren is really flattering me, a junior! This Brother Feng here has well surpassed his teacher. The level of his sword skills has far exceeded the extent of Huashan Sword Branch. When we look around the entire Martial World, only someone like the Revered Mr. Ren, someone to be considered the mightiest fighter of our time, is capable of giving him some pointers,” Mr. Black-White said.

“Mr. Huang-Zhong, Mr. Bald-Brush, and Mr. Paint all sounded very rude while Mr. Black-White spoke with the utmost esteem. But whether they were provoking words or flattering words, their intention remained the same, that is to let this Mr. Ren have a sword contest with me,” Linghu Chong thought to himself.

“Humph! Your fawning stinks just the same!” the man reprimanded. “Huang-Zhong’s moves and techniques are only on par with that of Black-White’s, but his cultivation in inner strength is not bad at all. Little friend, is your inner strength stronger than him, too?”

“I had incurred prior injuries and had lost all my inner strength, that was why First Master’s ‘Seven-String Invisible Sword’ had no effect on me at al,” Linghu Chong replied.

The man burst into loud laughter. “That is very interesting. Little friend, I think I’d like to check out your sword art,” he said.

“Senior Master, please don’t fall for their scheme. The Four Playfellows of Jiangnan want to goad you into having the sword match. But they actually have ulterior motives,” Linghu Chong urged.

“What ulterior motives?” the man asked.

“They made a wager with a friend of mine that if any one in the Plum Manor can defeat my sword art, then that friend of mine would have to lose a few things to them,” Linghu Chong explained.

“Lose a few things? Um, I suppose they must be rare music scores, game manuals, or probably authentic calligraphy books or paintings from ancient times,” the man said.

“Senior Master can foresee with divine accuracy!” Linghu Chong said.

“I only want to see your sword art; we are not having a real fight. Besides, who said I’d be able to beat you for sure?”

“It’s practically certain that Senior Master would prevail over me. But we must ask the four Manor Masters to give their words on one condition,” Linghu Chong said.

“What condition?” the man asked.

“If Senior Masters defeats the long sword in my hand and win those several treasures for them, the four Manor Masters must open the cell door and let Senior Master leave this place,” Linghu Chong explained.

“Little friend has a very fantastic idea. Did Feng Qingyang teach you that?” the man grinned.

“Venerable Grandmaster Feng has no idea that Senior Master is imprisoned here. And I had absolutely no clue about it as well,” Linghu Chong said.

“Young Hero Feng,” Mr. Black-White suddenly called out. “What is the name of this Revered Mr. Ren? What nickname has he gained from fellow martial masters in the Martial World? Which school was he the Head Master of? Why is he locked up here? Did the Venerable Grandmaster Feng tell you anything about it?”

Facing these four sudden questions from Mr. Black-White, Linghu Chong found himself tongue-tied. Before when Linghu Chong had attacked forty or so moves in quick successions, Mr. Black-White had been able to ward them of with forty or so defending moves. But now when Mr. Black-White suddenly asked him four questions in quick successions as though he was attacking with four moves, Linghu Chong couldn’t even fend off any one of them. After some indistinct falters, he said, “Well, I haven’t heard any of those from Grandmaster Feng. I…I really don’t know the answers to those.”

“Right! I bet you don’t have a clue,” Mr. Paint joined in. “If you had known the cause here, you wouldn’t have wanted us to release him. If this man gets to leave this place, then the entire Martial World would have been turned upside down. Countless of people would die under his hands and there will never be another peaceful day in the entire Martial World.”

“That’s correct!” the man guffawed. “No matter how daring the Four Playfellows of Jiangnan are, they’d never have the guts to let me out of the prison cell. Besides, they are only following orders to watch over this place, nothing more than four puny prison guards. How could they have the authority to release me? Little friend, this request of yours has really elevated their status too much!”

Linghu Chong kept his silence, thinking, “I had the least bit of idea about any of these implications. No wonder only a few sentence into it, I’ve already given myself away.”

“Brother Feng,” Mr. Huang-Zhong said, “when you saw how gloomy and damp the dungeon is, naturally you sympathized with this Mr. Ren, therefore, felt resentment toward us four brothers. That only shows the errantry in your heart, and I don’t blame you. But did you know that if this Mr. Ren returned to the Martial World, just in your Huashan School, at least half of your people would have been wiped out. Mr. Ren, am I correct on that?”

“You are correct! Is Huashan School’s Head Master still Yue Buqun? He is a complete hypocrite. Too bad at first I was too busy, and then fell for a secret plot afterwards, otherwise, I would have tore his hypocritical mask off a long time again,” the man scoffed.

Linghu Chong felt big shock in his heart. Though his Master expelled him from the Huashan School and also proclaimed to the entire world, making him the public enemy of all orthodox schools in the Martial World, he always recalled with emotion the kindness his Master and Master-Wife had shown him bringing him up and treating him like their own son. When he heard the man named Ren fouled and insulted his Master, he couldn’t help but roar, “Shut up! My Mas….” But he immediately swallowed the rest of the word down, remembering that when Xiang Wentian brought him to the Plum Manor, he had been introduced as the Uncle-Master of his Master. Before knowing whether these people were good or evil, it would have been unwise to reveal the truth.

The man named Ren, of course, did not know the true meaning behind Linghu Chong’s roar. While laughing loudly, he continued, “Within the Huashan School, there are of course people I think much of. Reverend Feng is one; you, little friend, is another. And there is another junior of yours called something like ‘Jade Maiden of Huashan’ Ning…Ning something. Oh, I got it. Her name is Ning Zhongze. That little girl is actually straightforward and heroic. She is a talent. What a pity it is that she had to marry that Yue Buqun like a beautiful flower stuck on a pile of cow dung.”

Linghu Chong didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when he heard the man referring to his Master-Wife as a “little girl,” so he didn’t respond. At least he had favorable comment for Master-Wife and called her a talent.

“Little friend, what’s your name?” the man asked.

“My surname is Feng, and my first name is Er-Zhong,” Linghu Chong replied.

“Anyone with the surname Feng in the Huashan School can’t be bad. Come in here. Let me check out Reverent Feng’s sword art,” the man said. He had been referring to Feng Qingyang as “Old Feng” at first, but then changed it to “Reverent Feng” later. He must have been quite pleased with the way Linghu Chong talked and turned courteous toward Feng Qingyang in his words.

Linghu Chong’s curiosity had been growing constantly for a good while and was very eager to meet this man, to take a look at how he looked and to find out how great his Kung Fu was.

“My shallow sword art is only good for bluffing some people on the outside. But in front of Senior Master, it is nothing more than a laughing matter. But the Revered Mr. Ren is a man with exceptional abilities. Since I am already here, how can I not pay a visit?” he said respectfully.

Mr. Paint moved closer and then whispered to his ears, “Brother Feng, this man’s Kung Fu is very bizarre, and the methods he employs are also very sinister. Be very careful. If anything doesn’t feel right for you, come back out immediately.” His voice was very low, but the caring and concern obviously came from complete sincerity.

“Fourth Master is treating me like a true friend!” Linghu Chong thought inwardly. “I ridiculed him with my words just a moment ago. Not only didn’t he bear grudges at all, on the contrary, he sincerely cared for my safety.” At that thought, secretly, he couldn’t help but feel ashamed.

“Come in! Come in! What are they talking about on the outside, talking so furtively? Little friend, the Four Clowns of the Jiangnan are no good apples. All they want is to have you fall for their trick. Nothing good will come out of their mouths. Don’t trust a word from them,” the man said loudly.

Linghu Chong found himself wavering, not sure which side he should trust and which side he should help. Mr. Huang-Zhong took out another key from his chest pocket and then turned it several times after inserting it into the keyhole on the iron-door. Linghu Chong had thought that after he unlocked the door, he would go ahead and push the iron-door open, but quite to his surprise, Mr. Huang-Zhong stepped back and Mr. Black-White stepped forward, who also took out a key from his own chest pocket, inserted the key into the keyhole, and then turned a few times. After him, Mr. Bald-Brush and Mr. Paint each took out his key and turned the key in the keyhole respectively.

Linghu Chong suddenly realized, “This Senior Master’s status must have been very prestigious. The four Manor Masters each is holding a separate key and it takes all four keys combined to be able to open the iron-door. The Four Playfellows of Jiangnan are as intimate as real brothers, and the four of them are almost like one unity. How come they don’t even trust each other?” Then he thought, “A moment ago, that Senior Master said that the Four Playfellows of Jiangnan are only acting under orders like prison guards. They have no authority to release him at all. Maybe it was the same person who appointed them the guard duty who ordered them to each holds a separate key. The turning sounds of the keys were strident and unsmooth, obviously the lock was covered with rust and it has been a long time since the iron-door was last opened.”

After Mr. Paint turned his key in the keyhole, he grasped onto the door handle, shook it a few times, and then pushed hard. Amid the loud scrunching sounds, the iron-door opened for a few inches inward. As soon as the door opened, Mr. Paint leapt backward. Mr. Huang-Zhong and the other two Manor Masters also leapt back many feet. Instinctively, Linghu Chong also took a few steps back.

“Little friend, they are afraid of me, but why would you be?” the man laughed loudly.

“Right!” Linghu Chong answered and then stepped forward. Reaching his hand out, he pushed on the iron-door. The hinges on the door were so rusted that he pushed very hard and only was able to open the door two feet wide. Immediately, a strong stale smell filled his nostrils.

Mr. Paint stepped forward and then handed him two wooden swords. Linghu Chong took the wooden swords and held them tightly with his left hand.

“Brother Feng, take an oil lamp with you,” Mr. Bald-Brush suggested, taking an oil lamp off the wall.

Linghu Chong took the oil lamp with his right hand and then entered the room. The prison cell was about ten-foot long and ten foot wide. A narrow and long bed lay next to a wall, on which sat a man. Long whiskers and mast aches covered the man’s face, making it impossible to see his look. The long beard under his chin almost reached his waist. But his hair, beard, and eyebrows were jet black without even a grain of grey.

“It is so fortunate of me to be able to meet the Senior Master Ren today. I hope I’ll be getting many good advice from you,” Linghu Chong bowed.

“Don’t be modest. I’ll have to thank you for coming here to dispel my loneliness,” the man grinned.

“You flatter me. Should I put the oil lamp on the bed?” Linghu Chong asked.

“Fine!” the man answered but didn’t reach out to get the lamp.

“This prison cell is too small to have a sword fight here?” Linghu Chong thought to himself.

He walked next to the bed and set the oil lamp down. Expediently, he gently tucked the paper ball and the hard object inside into the man’s palm. The man was slightly taken aback but still took the paper ball as he asked in a loud voice, “Hey, you four chaps! Are you coming in to watch?”

“The space is too limited. There’s no room,” Mr. Huang-Zhong replied.

“Suit yourself! Little friend, shut the door,” ” the man said.

“Yes,” Linghu Chong answered and then shut the cell door.

The man stood up and immediately a series of slight clanking sounds clanged from around his body as though many thin steel chains were clanking against each other. Reaching out with his right hand, he took a wooden sword from Linghu Chong and heaved a long sigh.

“I have not touched a weapon for over ten years. I wonder if I still remember the sword arts I learned many years back.”

Linghu Chong noticed a steel circle around his wrist, and a steel chain attached to it connected all the way to the wall behind him. Another glance quickly confirmed that there were also steel chains shackling the man’s other hand and both of his ankles to the wall behind him. Then the four walls grabbed his attention. Under the dim light from the oil lamp, they shined in dark green – turned out the four walls were all made of pure steel. He figured that the chains and shackles on the man’s wrists and ankles must have been made of pure steel, or else, chains this thin wouldn’t have been able to restrain a top notch Kung Fu master like him.

The man gave the wood sword a swing. The swing came from above to below and the sword merely moved about two feet in the air, but suddenly loud buzzes echoed in the small room.

“Senior Master, what incredible strength!” Linghu Chong praised.

The man turned around, and Linghu Chong could vaguely see that he opened the paper ball, saw the hard object wrapped inside, and began reading the writings on the paper. Taking a step backward, Linghu Chong intentionally blocked the square hole on the iron-door with his head, so no one from the outside could see what the man was doing. The man’s body trembled slightly as though the writings on the paper had greatly agitated him, and the steel chains clanged again and again. But only moments later, he had already turned around, and sharp stares shot out of his eyes.

“Little friend, although my hands cannot move freely, it is not necessarily true that I cannot win over you!”

“As a young and green junior, I, of course, is no rival for Senior Master,” Linghu Chong said.

“You attacked Black-White over forty moves in succession and didn’t give him any chance to launch his counterattack. You want to give me try?” the man demanded.

“Please forgive my audacity!” Linghu Chong replied and then thrust his sword at that man. The move he used was none other than the exact same first move he had used in the match against Mr. Black-White.

“Excellent!” the man commended and thrust his wooden sword at Linghu Chong’s left chest at an angle. It was a defending move that carried strong offence, and an offence move backed by strong defense at the same time, a swift and fierce sword move indeed.

Mr. Black-White watched the fight through the square shaped hole on the iron-door. As soon as he saw this move, he couldn’t help but shout, “Brilliant move!”

“Today is you four chaps’ lucky day. I am going to really widen your view now,” the man chortled.

By then, Linghu Chong’s second sword attack had arrived. The man swung his wooden sword outward and pointed it at Linghu Chong’s right shoulder, another smart move that had both strong defense and strong offense. Linghu Chong’s heart thumped. It felt as though there was not a single flaw in the man’s move that he could explorer to thrust forward and attack the opponent’s vital points. Having no alternative, he leveled his own sword in a block, tilting his sword tip, implying a possible attack toward the opponent’s lower stomach, a defending move that also carried much offense.

“Very clever move!” the man smiled, retracting his sword and swept it to the side.

The two of them went back and forth, and within just a few moments had already exchanged twenty moves or so. But during the entire course, the two wooden swords never even touched each other. The man’s sword moves had such complicated variations and movements; ever since Linghu Chong had learned the “Dugu Nine Swords,” he had never run into an opponent so formidable and powerful. It wasn’t that his opponent’s sword moves were void of flaws, but because the moves fluctuated so unpredictably he simply couldn’t attack the flaw or crack within. But he sincerely followed the gist in Feng Qingyang’s teaching, which was to “conquer a move with no move,” and shifted his moves at will. Although the “Sword-Breaking Stance” was only one stance in the “Dugu Nine Swords,” it was a combination of the essentials in all the sword arts of various schools and factions in the world. So even though it was “no move,” when in fact it built its foundation on all the moves in all sword arts.

The man also noticed that Linghu Chong’s new sword moves emerged one after another, and every change seemed completed new to him. Relying on his abundant experience and profound Kung Fu skills, he was able to resolve them one after another, but after over forty moves, he could already feel a slight sluggishness in his sword movement. Slowly, he attached more and more inner strength onto his wooden sword, and every swing of his sword seemed to have created vague echoes of gust and thunder.

But no matter how resourceful the opponent’s inner strength was, when those moves met the profound and subtle sword techniques of the “Dugu Nine Swords,” they all came to nothing. Only that the man’s outstanding prowess in inner strength and his superb ingeniousness in sword techniques had become simply inseparable from each other. Several times the man had already forced Linghu Chong into extremities, where Linghu Chong should have had no choice but to throw down his sword and submit, but Linghu Chong would always be able to suddenly come up with some bizarre moves, which not only rescue himself out of the dead-end position, but also enable him to use the opportunity to launch his counterblow. The brilliance of these moves was simply unimaginably queer.

Mr. Huang-Zhong and the rest three Manor Masters crowded over the iron door and watched through the square-shaped hole. The hole was so small that there was only space for two persons to watch at the same time, and even with the two persons watching, one had to watch only with his left eye while the other one watched only with his right eye. So two of them would watch for a while before moving aside to let the other two watch for the next while.

At the beginning, the four of them gasped in admiration when they watched the marvelous sword moves exchanged between the man and Linghu Chong, but soon afterwards, they could no long understand the brilliance in the two’s sword moves. Sometimes after Mr. Huang-Zhong saw a move, he had to ponder upon the subtlety within the move with all his might. Only after a long contemplation was he able to comprehend. But by then, the two men inside had already exchanged another dozen moves, and he pretty much had been turning a blind eye on how those next dozen moves had panned out. After he finally got over the initial amazement, he couldn’t help but wonder.

“It turned out that Brother Feng’s sword skills have reached such an extreme. When he fought me earlier, he probably only utilized thirty or forty percent of his true skills. I had thought that my ‘Seven-String Invisible Sword’ from my zither failed to subdue him only because he had no inner strength. But even if he does have resourceful of inner strength, my “Invisible Sword” wouldn’t have had any impact just the same. All he had to do was to launch three quick attacking moves, and I would have no choice but to drop my zither and admit defeat. If it had been a fight for survival, he could have easily blinded my eyes with the jade flute in his first move.”

Mr. Huang-Zhong, of course, had no idea that he had really overrated Linghu Chong’s sword skills. The “Dugu Nine Swords” was a Kung Fu that turned more powerful when the opponent was stronger. If the opponent were not adequate, then the brilliant techniques in the “Dugu Nine Swords” would not have been applicable. The man Linghu Chong was fighting today was a world-shaking figure in the entire Martial World. The aptitude of his Kung Fu had reached a level that’s well out of people’s imagination. Only with the stimulation from his extraordinary Kung Fu, were the many profound and subtle aspects of the “Dugu Nine Swords” able to make the most revealing performance. Even if Dugu Seeking-A-Loss could come back to life, or if Feng Qingyang had come himself, they would have found great joy fighting such a capable opponent. To successfully use the “Dugu Nine Swords” relied on not only a very good understanding of the sword techniques and variations, but also the intelligence of the practitioner, where the second part played even a bigger part. Once the practitioner had reached a stage where he could extend at will with no restraints and no boundaries, then the more intelligent the practitioner was, the more brilliant the sword art would become, and to him, each sword contest would have been like a poet composing a wonderful poem after following his greatest inspirations.

After another forty moves or so, Linghu Chong found himself fighting with greater and greater facility. Many of the clever knacks he used were ones that even Fang Qingyang had never mentioned before. On encountering the brilliant sword moves from his opponent, the “Dugu Nine Swords” spontaneously originated corresponding moves to counter. At the moment fear had been completely cleared off his mind, or in another word, he had been concentrating wholeheartedly in the art of sword, having no leisure for any feeling of fear or delight on his mind. That man changed into eight different styles of advanced sword arts in succession, some uninterrupted and unbroken, some delicate and swift, some others firm and forceful, but regardless of how he changed his moves, Linghu Chong was able to handle the with ease, as though these eight sword arts were ones he had been trained to spar against ever since he was young.

The man suddenly swung his sword in a block and yelled out loud, “Little friend, who on earth taught you your sword art? I don’t think Reverend Feng has that capability.”

Linghu Chong was slightly surprised. “If this weren’t taught by Reverend Feng, who else could have it been?” he uttered.

“That is true! Why don’t try this sword form of mine?” the man demanded.

He let out a long howl and suddenly brought his wooden sword swishing down from above. Linghu Chong thrust out in a tilted angle and forced him to withdraw his attack to block. The man roared again and again as though he had gone completely mad. The more pressing his roars were, the faster his attacks became. Linghu Chong didn’t find anything peculiar about this sword form, but each of the thundering roars made his ears buzz uncomfortably and made him feel annoyed and perplexed. He tried to hold his calm with difficulty and continued breaking the opponent’s attacks, but suddenly, the man let out an earth-shattering and heaven-battering howl. Linghu Chong felt a loud ring in his ear as though his eardrums had been shattered by the thunderous shock. A strong dizziness quickly consumed him and before he knew it, he had collapsed to the floor and lost his consciousness.

__________

[1] The first temperament of the “Twelve Temperaments” used in ancient music. Huang-Zhong is the lowest out of the twelve and all other temperaments are derived from it.

[2] Chinese idiom. For a frog living at the bottom of a well, because the frog could only see the sky in the shape of the opening of the well, so the frog thought that the sky must have been only as big as the opening of the well. The idiom is used to depict a man of ignorance and with a very limited outlook,

[3] The character “Feng” stands for wind in Chinese.

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