Chapter 42: What a pity.
Shen Qiao had no desire to take the conversation any further. The bamboo stick in his hand was moving so fast that it had practically turned into a shadow. Together with the wuthering wind wrapped around it, they poured down in torrents from above and the narrow space was instantly filled with surges of inner qi. The torch had long been extinguished, and the moonlight which had secretly invited itself in intertwined with the movements of the palms, creating a picture so swift and elegant that it was like a deluge from heaven.
Every collision of inner qi turned into a sharp blade. In just a few seconds, Li Yue’s face and hands were already showing bleeding cuts. Only Yan Wushi was still sitting there cross-legged just like before, as if he was damage-proof. External forces and inner qi could hardly leave any traces on him.
Fearing that an extended battle might lead to undesired turns, Bai Rong had no patience for a long fight. She shook her sleeves. Countless specks of colorless and odorless powder spread into the air along with the wind brought forth by her palm. An ordinary expert could definitely dodge them in time with no problem, but in Shen Qiao’s case, no matter how sharp his ears were, he couldn’t detect them immediately. A moment later, he felt a slight numbness across his body, with his hands and legs becoming weak. He knew he had fallen into the other person’s trap.
“Shen-lang, I still showed mercy to you even though you almost ruined my good deal. This drug is not poisonous. It will only weaken your limbs for a while. You should remember this favor from me, but for now, could you please move out of my way?”
When she said this, her tone was as suave and gentle as if she was playing coquettish with her sweetheart, but at the same time, she struck a palm at Shen Qiao. After all, drugs were not perfectly safe. She’d rather beat the person till he had no strength left to fight back so she could set her mind at rest as she took care of Yan Wushi.
Shen Qiao was hit by her palm and his back crashed against a pointy, crude rock on the wall. A sharp pain penetrated his body. Something warm and wet started to spread out underneath his clothes.
Bai Rong said gently, “Shen-lang, don’t blame me for being too ruthless. You insisted on protecting him. I had no choice but to take you down first. But relax, I’ve changed my mind. A dead Yan Wushi isn’t worth a lot, but a stupid, brainless sect master would best serve the Harmony Sect’s interests. Therefore, I won’t take his life!”
As she said that, she had already lifted her fine, delicate palm and aimed it at the top of Yan Wushi’s head!
Bai Rong thought she had the power well under control. Her palm would leave the other person’s skull intact and only damage the brain matter inside.
However, before Bai Rong could land the attack successfully, she had to turn her body to the side in order to dodge the bamboo stick that was chasing after her like a shadow.
“You didn’t inhale the drug?” Bai Rong almost couldn’t believe it.
“I did, but just a little. I was able to hold my breath in time.” Shen Qiao gave a cough, and the movement of his hand slowed down a bit.
Bai Rong spotted the opportunity and attacked. Using the Sixteen Steps to Heaven, she approached Shen Qiao from the front like a phantom. She pointed her middle and index fingers right at Shen Qiao’s heart, making it almost impossible to defend. She wanted to take this opportunity to force the other person to withdraw, but to her surprise, not only did Shen Qiao refuse to step back, but he even moved forward and ended up stopping Bai Rong from advancing any further.
“Do you really like him so much that you’re willing to protect him with your life?!” Bai Rong shouted, fuming with rage.
Shen Qiao didn’t say anything. It was hard to tell whether it was because he didn’t wish to explain or because he thought it too troublesome.
Right at that moment, Yan Wushi’s eyes which had been tightly shut all this time flung open!
Shen Qiao had his back towards him and did not see it, but Bai Rong did.
It shocked her quite a bit to see Yan Wushi staring directly at her. She couldn’t tell what state he was in right now. “Shen-lang, your lover boy just woke up. Are you sure you still have time to fight me?”
Shen Qiao thought she was lying and ignored her. He only felt alerted when he sensed a cool breeze coming from behind. He had to turn around to defend.
Taking advantage of this opportunity, Bai Rong drifted to the entrance of the cave and said, “You thought I was trying to trick you? Well, I’ll leave you two alone. Hope you have a good time together!”
With a giggle, she disappeared outside the cave.
She could handle Shen Qiao alright, but with Yan Wushi joining, especially a Yan Wushi that was capable of fighting, it would undoubtedly be a road to death. Therefore, as soon as she confirmed that Yan Wushi was awake, she immediately decided to slip away.
The bamboo stick was swept to the side by the brutal force coming straight at his face. Before Shen Qiao could say anything, someone had already grabbed him tightly by the throat.
The voice was bone-chilling. There seemed to be absolutely no emotion in it.
The other person’s grip was so strong that it was almost going to break his neck!
Shen Qiao was shocked. In spite of the fact that he was about to suffocate, he still struck out a palm.
To his surprise, Yan Wushi didn’t dodge at all. The palm landed solidly on his body, and his hand loosened at the same time. He took a few steps back, but he didn’t spit out any blood.
On the other side however, Shen Qiao bent down and coughed so hard that he couldn’t stop crying. His body, after losing all its power, felt to the side.
After quite some time, Yan Wushi finally spoke again, “Why are you here?”
The tone of this sentence sounded much more normal, but Shen Qiao dared not be careless about it. He leaned against the cave wall and gasped, “You had a qi deviation.”
Yan Wushi glanced at Li Yue who was still lying on the ground and turned his eyes back to Shen Qiao. He suddenly laughed, “I must be mistaken or something. It was such a perfect timing, yet not only did you let go of the opportunity to kill me, but you even stopped the others from doing it?”
Shen Qiao asked, “Why would I kill you?”
Yan Wushi burst out laughing, “Ah-qiao, having been together for such a long time, did you really fall in love with me?”
Still panting, Shen Qiao said slowly, “I’m repaying your kindness.”
“Repaying my kindness?” Yan Wushi’s smile now looked a little amazed, “I believe I told you this a long time ago. Saving you was just a momentary impulse of mine. I want to see if you were qualified to be my rival. At the same time, I wanted to enjoy watching whether a poor soul like you, after being betrayed by everyone including your closest friends and left with nothing, would collapse or even go crazy because of these heavy blows.”
“Whatever your original intention was, it does not change the fact that you saved my life. Even if you decide to save me just so you can kill me, I should still be grateful for it before I am killed.”
Yan Wushi couldn’t help but laugh even harder, “Ah-qiao, I think you should really be practicing Buddhism instead of Daoism. Someone as soft-hearted as you would have probably become a monk of great virtue long ago. Then you wouldn’t have been knocked off a cliff and ended up in such a miserable state.”
Shen Qiao ignored his sarcasm. He sucked a deep breath and continued, “Under Yuwen Yong’s governance, life in Zhou today can still be considered as peaceful. But without you, Bian Yanmei and Yu Shengyan may not be able to defend the Cleansing Moon Sect against all the ambitious forces. If anything happens to Yuwen Yong because of this, the officials can still live on serving a different emperor. But if other countries take this opportunity to declare war against Zhou, ordinary people will eventually suffer.”
Yan Wushi smiled, “Your speech is getting sharper.”
As they were talking, Li Yue also woke up.
At first he looked startled and at a loss, but when he saw Yan Wushi gazing at him full of interest, the blankness on his face immediately turned into terrified alarm, and he scrambled to escape without a word.
Yan Wushi unhurriedly flicked out the pebble in his hand. The stone fragment brushed past Li Yue’s ear, leaving behind a trace of blood.
Li Yue shrieked in fear and ran even faster.
If Yan Wushi had the intention to kill him, he would have turned into a cold corpse already.
Shen Qiao didn’t know why Yan Wushi suddenly changed his mind, and neither did he have the strength to make conjectures. He leaned against the rock wall. The cut on his back which had already dried up began to hurt more and more. If it was not for the qi that was still circulating in his body, he would have been dead and frozen.
However, Yan Wushi turned to him and said, “I won’t kill him. There are many other ways to make him live a life worse than death. He wanted to kill me, yet he was unable to do so. Moving forward, he will surely spend the rest of his days lost in fear, dreading my retribution. His life won’t be any more relaxed than it is now; all I need to do is to send people from time to time under my name to harass him, and he will probably end up scaring himself to death. Don’t you think this is much more interesting?”
But Shen Qiao suddenly remembered something else, “Even if I didn’t try to stop them, Li Yue and Bai Rong couldn’t have killed you, could they?”
“That’s right. Though I couldn’t move, I could still sense the outside world and I heard the conversation between all of you. You felt that icy stream of the qi within me. If they tried to kill me, they would have been swallowed by it as well.”
Shen Qiao heaved a sigh of relief and suddenly said, “Bai Rong left.”
Until just now, Bai Rong was probably still lurking outside the cave trying to confirm whether Yan Wushi had truly recovered or not. It was not until she saw Li Yue running out and heard the conversation between Yan Wushi and Shen Qiao did she really give up and leave.
Yan Wushi laughed, “There’s no need to sigh. You climbed all the way up this mountain to search for me and even stayed to protect me in spite of all the dangers. How could I not do you this favor? If you don’t like to see me killing others, it doesn’t hurt to let them go this time. What a pity it would be if that little girl Bai Rong were to die right now! With her presence, there’s going to be a lot of fun awaiting the Harmony Sect in the future!”
He bent down and carried Shen Qiao in his arms. When his hands touched Shen Qiao’s back, the latter shook slightly. It was probably due to the clothes rubbing against the wound.
Yan Wushi noticed it and moved Shen Qiao onto his back instead.
He was suffering from a dangerous qi deviation just a little earlier, but now he looked all fine and normal, walking down the mountain cave in such leisure as if he was treading on flat ground. After a short while, they had already reached the foot of the mountain.
They returned to the guest house and applied medicine. Because Shen Qiao needed to regulate his breaths and heal his wounds, he took a three-day Closed Door Meditation.
When he came out three days later, Zhou’s envoys had just completed their mission and were preparing to head back.
Yuwen Qing specifically sent over a lot of supplements after hearing about Shen Qiao’s injuries. He was very curious about the results of the battle between Yan Wushi and Ruyan Kehui. Although he heard it was a draw, he didn’t know exactly what happened. Since he dared not ask Yan Wushi in person, he decided to turn to Shen Qiao for an answer. Unfortunately, Shen Qiao happened to be in a Closed Door Meditation and was thus unable to meet him. He had to wait anxiously for three days before Shen Qiao finally came out.
Yuwen Qing could hardly wait to go visit Shen Qiao. He first asked how the other person was doing, then, feeling a little embarrassed, he said, “I didn’t think it would be so crowded that day and was almost separated from Yuzi as well. Is your body alright?”
Shen Qiao said, “Thank you very much for your sincere concern, Brother Yuwen. It was just some minor injuries, most of which have already healed.”
Yuwen Qing said, “I’ll be honest with you. We’re getting ready to head back to Zhou. Normally, the Linchuan Institute should also send people to see us off. As for whether Junior Preceptor Yan won the battle against Master-in-Charge Ruyan, since you watched the entire battle on the side, you must know all about it. Junior Preceptor Yan didn’t say anything, and I don’t have the guts to ask him. However, if he did win, I would like to mock those from the Linchuan Institute to show them the Great Zhou’s prowess!”
Shen Qiao didn’t expect that he’d come to him in such a hurry just for something as trivial as this and found it somewhat funny, “Sect Master Yan should have won by a narrow margin.”
“Ah!” Yuwen Qing’s eyes twinkled with pleasure. He almost couldn’t believe it, “Really? From what I heard, Ruyan Kehui is a very seasoned martial artist. In fact, he could probably make it to the Top Three, or perhaps even the Top One?”
Knowing that Yuwen Qing didn’t understand much about martial arts, Shen Qiao only explained briefly, “Actually, both of them were injured. In Sect Master Yan’s case, it brought up some old wounds he had, whereas for Master-in-Charge Ruyan, if I have guessed correctly, he might have injured his meridians. Therefore, he won’t be able to use his inner qi again for at least a month.”
“Just a month? I’m afraid he can’t fight again for at least three more months.”
A cold voice came from the door as Yan Wushi walked in.
“What is the question you have? Why didn’t you ask me in person?”
For some reason, the sight of Yan Wushi always made Yuwen Qing nervous. As soon as the other person glanced over with those terrifying eyes, Yuwen Qing found it hard to sit still as if there were needles on his chair. He immediately replied with nervous laughter, “Junior Preceptor Yan attends to a myriad of affairs each day. I dare not bother you. Not at all. In fact, I’m going right now to check whether they’ve been busy packing, and I’ll send people over to notify you two when we’re ready to leave.”
Upon finishing, he immediately made an expeditious retreat and disappeared outside the door.
Yan Wushi turned to Shen Qiao and asked, “How is it?”
Shen Qiao knew what he was asking about. He said slowly, “The battle between you and Ruyan Kehui is a rare marble to behold — a splendor one usually doesn’t find in this world. Perhaps others will be enlightened by it, but out of my three-day mediation, I wasn’t able to achieve anything apart from recuperating some old wounds. I made close to no progress in terms of martial power. There seems to be an invisible barrier preventing me from advancing any further, as if I was just going around in circles. The only thing positive that came out of it was perhaps the fact that my inner qi can circulate a little more smoothly and that my eyes are getting better. I can roughly make out some blurry shadows now.”
What a pity. A voice said in the bottom of Yan Wushi’s heart.
Cold and unfeeling. Apathetic and heartless.
But none of these were reflected in his expression. In fact, he even replied with a smile, “That’s good.”
The battle between Yan Wushi and Ruyan Kehui soon spread far and wide.
The only thing that everybody cared about was the outcome.
In the Southern state, Ruyan Kehui was not only reputable in the pugilistic world but he was also well-acknowledged among the imperial households. Not only did the Emperor of Chen treat him with utmost respect, even Empress Liu was a disciple of the Linchuan Institute. Therefore, in many southerners’ eyes, the Linchuan Institute’s status was so superior that it could almost be considered as the leader of all Confucian sects and the entire southern pugilistic world.
With such status and reputation, if Ruyan Kehui were to lose to Yan Wushi, the impact would be almost unimaginable.
However, the fact was that everyone who went to watch the fight that day said it was a draw. Ever since Ruyan Kehui came back, he had shut himself up in the Institute and never saw anyone. Yan Wushi was very much the same as he stayed in the guest house all this time. All of these made the rumors even wilder. Some said both sides were seriously wounded, while some said that Ruyan Kehui’s skill was slightly superior and that Yan Wushi was too ashamed to appear in public again.
At the same time, Yuwen Qing also sent out some words, saying that Junior Preceptor Yan invited Master-in-Charge Ruyan to a banquet held in the guest house and hoped that Master-in-Charge Ruyan would find time to grant them this honor. This was simply an idea he came up with to tease those southerners after hearing what Shen Qiao said. If the Linchuan Institute failed to respond to their invitation, he could pour ridicule on them. Even if Ruyan Kehui did make it in person, it wouldn’t matter since he never promised that Yan Wushi would be there.
Even though the two countries were in alliance right now, everyone knew it was just a temporary thing due to a common objective they had. Once this objective was gone, the allies would turn back to being enemies. Everything might still look alright on the surface, but the wrestling underneath never stopped.
Many southerners felt strongly offended by this and thought Yuwen Qing had gone too far in disparaging them. In fact, a lot of them who were confident in their martial arts came to Yuwen Qing’s door and requested to challenge Yan Wushi.
However, for someone like Yan Wushi, even his arrogance and conceit was something that he would only reveal to those whom he considered to be at the same level as him. All the other mediocre people couldn’t even make it into his eyes, so it was even less likely that he would care about what they thought or said. If he were to really “receive” them personally, these people probably wouldn’t be able to see the sun the next day.
Actually, Yan Wushi didn’t need to do anything himself. Those people who came together with Yuwen Qing were already enough to deal with those martial artists who dropped by their door every now and then.
Two days later, the Linchuan Institute finally responded. They politely turned down Yuwen Qing’s invitation, saying that Master Ruyan was in a Closed Door Meditation and would not meet anyone.
This response seemed to have proven Yuwen Qing’s words. Those voices criticizing how wildly arrogant the Zhou people had disappeared almost instantly. Yuwen Qing couldn’t even describe how proud he was. He came to tell Shen Qiao, all happy and cheerful, but only to find out from Ruru that Shen Qiao had already left.
Since Ruru didn’t seem to know anything about it, no matter how much Yuwen Qing dreaded talking to Yan Wushi, he couldn’t help but come to him at last: “Junior Preceptor, do you know where Daoist Priest Shen went?”
“Why? Do you really miss him that much?”
Yuwen Qing carefully returned an apologetical smile, “There’s no such thing. It’s just that since Priest Shen came together with us, so he should be returning with us. Now that he’s gone, I thought I would at least ask about it.”
Yan Wushi said, “He left.”
Yan Wushi had no intention to take the topic any further at first. After seeing how lost and disappointed Yuwen Qing looked, however, he found it a bit interesting, “He made it very clear a while ago that he would leave on his own right after he saw the fight between Ruyan Kehui and me.”
Yuwen Qing mumbled to himself, “But where can he go by himself? Didn’t he say that he could no longer return to Mount Xuandu?”
Yan Wushi laughed, “Yuwen Qing, you brought your beloved concubine with you for the journey, yet you’ve changed your mind so fast and paid so much attention to Shen Qiao. Do you really regard me as nothing?”
He said it with a smile, but Yuwen Qing felt a chill run down his spine. He dared not ask any more questions as he excused himself and ran away as quickly as possible.
Watching Yuwen Qing fleeing in embarrassment, Yan Wushi slowly put down the book in his hand and looked outside the window.
The corner of his mouth was still smiling, but the glints of interest in his eyes were as cold as ice.
At this moment, Shen Qiao was on his way to the north.
The weather was just perfect. With a bamboo stick in his hand and the corner of his blue robe fluttering in the wind, he couldn’t help but pull a light smile.
Now, if he put his hand against his forehead to shield his face against the sunshine, he could see by squinting his eyes. Even though the images were not as clear as they were before the injury, only by losing something would a person truly appreciate what they had.
Before he left, he went over to Yuwen Qing’s place to inform his leave in person. But the other person was not there, so he left a letter and asked Ruru to pass it to Yuwen Qing on his behalf. However, Ruru was very much afraid of her master. She might have given it to Yan Wushi first. In any case, there was nothing important in that letter other than some general courtesy.
Shen Qiao originally thought Yan Wushi would refuse to let him go, but everything went surprisingly smooth. Yan Wushi didn’t say anything and agreed right away, which actually left Shen Qiao a little surprised.
Just like what the rumor out there said, the temperament of the sect master of the Cleansing Moon Sect was truly too erratic. Even after spending such a long time together, Shen Qiao still couldn’t say that he completely understood what kind of person Yan Wushi was.
It was possible that because he refused to plant a Demonic Core in him and the recovery of his martial arts still lay over the horizon, Yan Wushi no longer saw him as a matched rival, that he was too disappointed and therefore readily agreed to let him go. Or perhaps he was finally moved by Shen Qiao’s arduous effort in climbing up the mountain and stopping Li Yue and Bai Rong from sneak attacking him. In that case, didn’t it prove that no matter how unfeeling and cold-hearted a person might appear, there was always a soft spot somewhere deep inside them?
Shen Qiao shook his head and laughed at his own conjectures. It might just be the case as he always thought too kindly of others. But if it could make his life happier, it wouldn’t hurt to think a little more kindly of people, would it?
The road leading out from Jiankang was quite smooth. The Jiangnan region had always been prosperous ever since ancient times due to its easy access to both land and water along with the stable political situation. Because of these, it was very easy for people living here to forget that the world was still in turmoil.
However, right after he passed the border of Chen and started going north into Qi, he could clearly feel the decrease in the number of travelers and merchants on the road. People’s faces showed less happiness and affluence. Instead, they were filled with more nervousness and weariness.
Perhaps he had spent a long time determining how others felt solely based on their voices, but Shen Qiao found out that he liked observing the emotions on other people’s faces more and more. Although he still couldn’t see very clearly, he would always have a lot of discoveries.
He traveled from April to May, stopping here and there, but his overall speed wasn’t slow. When he felt like it, Shen Qiao would also use his lightness skills. Few people recognized this scholarly traveler who didn’t even have a Daoist robe on walking around all cozy and leisurely with a bamboo stick. He was actually that former sect leader of Mount Xuandu whom everyone believed to be nothing but a wretched attachment to the Demonic Sovereign.
By this time, almost everyone knew about the battle between Yan Wushi and Ruyan Kehui. There was probably some sort of grand gathering going on in the City of Liang Prefecture, for Shen Qiao had seen quite a number of martial artists heading in that direction, almost all of whom were discussing about this fight. The people in North Qi didn’t revere Ruyan Kehui as much as the southerners. On the contrary, in their conversations, it sounded like they praised Yan Wushi quite a lot, all because it was human nature to admire the strong and able. With the strength Yan Wushi had, even if he wasn’t from the Demonic Sect, there would still be many who admired and idolized him.
In a teahouse outside the City of Liang Prefecture, Shen Qiao was listening to others discuss how spectacular the fight between Ruyan Kehui and Yan Wushi was. Even though they hadn’t witnessed it themselves, their depiction was so extravagantly colorful that it was almost as if they had all seen it with their own eyes. Shen Qiao couldn’t help but give a smile.
The seat next to him was still empty, but it was soon taken by someone else. Shen Qiao continued enjoying his tea and didn’t raise his head, but he suddenly heard the other person greeting him, “What a coincidence!”
Shen Qiao: “…”