Chapter 45: Only one kind of person has the right to stand by me, and that is my rival.
In fact, unless Yan Wushi was willing to sleep in the room that the abbot had slept in or simply leave the monastery and look for somewhere else to stay, staying with Shen Qiao was his only choice.
Luckily, Shen Qiao had just cleaned the room, and the abbot’s youngest disciple had taken the bedding out for sunshine just a few days ago —— it still had that sweet, fresh smell on it.
The bed was a single-person bed, so it wasn’t surprising that it seemed a little crowded for two people. But Shen Qiao said to him, “You can have it. I’ll just take a brief nap as I meditate.”
The room was simple and crude. As moonlight slid into the room through the cracks on window paper, the night breeze snuck in together with it. Fortunately, the weather wasn’t cold anymore around this time of the year, and they were both martial arts experts, so they didn’t need to worry about catching a cold.
Shen Qiao sat cross-legged. His back was straight like a green pine or a verdant bamboo. It was early summer already, so his clothes were getting thinner. One could vaguely see the waistline underneath.
Time slowly flowed by. The moon had reached the highest point in the sky, and the well rippled of its cold shine.
Yan Wushi stared at Shen Qiao’s silhouette from behind. Suddenly, he struck out a finger at lightning speed towards the center of Shen Qiao’s back!
Immersed in meditation, Shen Qiao was entering a mysterious state. However, for martial artists, unless they were in Closed Door Meditation, they would almost always detach a part of their mind aside to watch for possible danger in the surrounding environment so as to avoid being ambushed by others. Not to mention, Shen Qiao was also staying in an unfamiliar place. However, he was only guarding against enemies from the outside and never thought that Yan Wushi would plot against him.
That sense of vigilance quickly pulled him out of meditation, but the gap between their current level of martial arts was simply too big, and they were too close to each other as well, so that by the time he reacted, the other person had already locked all the key acupoints on his back, and he could no longer move.
Yan Wushi caressed his cheek. He couldn’t help but let out a soft sigh, “Ah-qiao, why do you always trust others so easily?”
Shen Qiao frowned, “I thought we were friends.”
Yan Wushi slightly smiled, “You can only blame yourself. If you hadn’t said anything about friends, I might have waited a little longer before acting on you. Why would a person such as myself need someone as desperate as you who hasn’t recovered his martial arts, been kicked out of his sect, and been ridiculed by everyone, as my friend?”
Shen Qiao stopped talking.
Yan Wushi carried him in his arms and walked out without telling anyone.
Even though he was carrying a person with him, his steps were just as light as if he had no weight. Beneath the moonlight, he slid across the fallen leaves in such grace and ease, not leaving any traces behind him, his long sleeves fluttering in the wind. If anyone else was here, they would not have believed that such an immortal-looking figure was in fact the Demonic Sovereign whose name alone frightened everyone.
“Why don’t you ask me where we are going?”
Shen Qiao didn’t say anything. People who didn’t know what happened would probably think he was mute as well.
Yan Wushi looked at him and found out that Shen Qiao had closed his eyes.
He couldn’t help but laugh, “I’m taking you to meet someone, and telling you a story on our way there.”
“Since we haven’t met the person yet, you may start with the story first.”
“More than ten years ago, when I first obtained The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang, I didn’t think it was worth a single glance. Because at that time, I didn’t think there were any martial arts better than The Fundamentals of Phoenix and Qilin. Even though I had lost to Qi Fengge, I believed it was largely due to the person practicing it, not the martial arts itself. The first sect master of the Sun-Moon Sect had once achieved the tenth stage, or the final stage, of The Fundamentals of Phoenix and Qilin. No one from the Daoist sects or the Confucian sects at that time could even compete against him. It was said that he had lived for more than one hundred and twenty years, and by the end, he saw through the ultimate of the Way of martial arts. With his spirit refined back into emptiness, he himself was liberated from his mortal corpse.”
“But later, I discovered that the legend was wrong. Even though that person was able to live to one hundred and twenty years old, he didn’t ascend to heaven because of his pursuit in higher level of martial arts as people said so. He died to Qi Deviation. Because even though The Fundamentals of Phoenix and Qilin was a powerful martial art, it also had a fatal weakness. Simply speaking, you can think of a person’s body as a vessel. As the person builds up their inner qi, this vessel is constantly reshaped in order to adapt to the increase in their martial arts skills. Therefore, the stronger a person is in terms of martial arts, the stronger their meridians are.”
Shen Qiao still didn’t say anything, but the expression on his face indicated he was listening.
Yan Wushi continued, “But with The Fundamental of Phoenix-Qilin, things are the opposite. The higher a person’s level of martial arts is, the more restrictions it has on their body. When the ‘vessel’ can no longer keep up with the martial arts it holds, their body will explode and they will die.”
Shen Qiao finally opened his mouth, “The problem you just mentioned exists in all martial arts. While the pursuit of martial arts is never-ending, a person’s aptitude is limited by their physique and their finite lifespan. As long as one continues to strive for improvement, they will eventually find themselves in a predicament some day. In fact, my master failed the Closed Door Meditation and passed away for the exact same reason.”
Although his martial arts could no longer compare to that of before, he still got the insight and there was no problem for him to discuss it.
Yan Wushi said, “That’s right. However, it wouldn’t be a threat to him if he was willing to stop. The Fundamental of Phoenix-Qilin is different. The danger it poses to a person’s body will only become greater as time passes by, even if they stop practicing it. Therefore, I thought of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang. If I can integrate martial arts from different schools, it may lead to some unexpected discovery.”
Shen Qiao said, “But you failed.”
Yan Wushi pulled a faint smile, “I failed. It was my eagerness to succeed that planted the hidden danger of Qi Deviation in me.”
Shen Qiao suddenly frowned, “Based on what you said, the Fundamental of Phoenix-Qilin possesses a big flaw. Since almost everyone from the Cleansing Moon Sect and the other two sects practice it, won’t they all find themselves in the same predicament?”
With a chuckle, Yan Wushi finally stopped and put Shen Qiao down. “Ah-qiao, you always surprise me. I thought you would ask me why I’m telling you all of this, but you end up caring about other people’s lives instead. You can relax. This flaw only reveals itself to those who have achieved a certain stage, and if a person can reach the ninth stage like me, they have few worthy matches in this world. Even if they are aware of the martial arts’ flaw, they will be too reluctant to give up.”
“My story is finished. Any thoughts on it?”
Shen Qiao shook his head.
Yan Wushi seemed to be bored by his reaction. Just as he was about to say something, they heard a laugh coming from the far distance, “Sect Master Yan looks just as elegant as ever. I really miss you a lot!”
The voice sounded both far and near. At one moment, it was coming from the horizon, yet the next second, it was as if it was next to one’s ears. The voice seemed to contain an indescribable charm, and it suddenly gave Shen Qiao a sinking feeling.
Yan Wushi said coldly, “Sang Jingxing, are you trying to shame yourself by using the Devil’s Charm on me?”
The other person replied with a laugh. As if he could teleport through space, with only a few steps, he had already walked up to them from afar.
Compared to Yan Wushi, Sang Jingxing had a much worse reputation in the pugilist world. But because he was horrifyingly strong in martial arts, no one would ever openly oppose him. They would rather swallow their anger and suffer in silence to avoid a quarrel. The best example was what happened to Ren Yin, who was also known as the Wild Blade, from Prefecture Xian. Ren Yin’s youngest daughter, a lovely girl with snowy skin, accidentally became a target of interest of Sang Jingxing, and the latter demanded to take her as his disciple. Everyone knew that disciple was just Sang Jiangxing’s excuse for his endless need for girls to use for dual cultivation. Ren Yin had always been a short-tempered man, but even he did not dare to put up a fight. He instead bore the humiliation of becoming a laughing stock of the world and handed his daughter over to Sang Jingxing at last, while he himself withdrew completely from the pugilistic world together with the rest of his family. It was said that not many years after, Sang Jingxing and the other powerful members of the Harmony Sect got tired of her and gave her to his disciple Huo Xijing. The latter peeled off her face and used it for one of his puppet doll collections.
But after Yan Wushi’s reappearance in the pugilistic world, because he was much more overbearing than Sang Jingxing, people began to put most of their attention on him and had gradually forgotten how cruel and frightful Sang Jingxing was.
As a disciple of Cui Youwang, Sang Jingxing was never a person to be looked down on. His ambition was well hidden beneath his cynical and frivolous appearance. People all thought he willingly became Yuan Xiuxiu’s lover and took pleasure in managing the Harmony Sect for her, while in fact the conflict and discrepancy between them had existed for quite some time. Yuan Xiuxiu couldn’t do anything to Sang Jingxing, nor could Sang Jingxing kill Yuan Xiuxiu at the moment. Their only choice was to hold their noses as they maintained the temporary facade of fraternity.
He was a tall and powerful man, but his countenance was extremely beautiful and elegant. In fact, his skin was so fine and smooth that it was comparable to a woman’s, along with a pair of watery eyes. Unfortunately, the glance coming out of those eyes was rather cold and malicious, and it made people afraid to look directly into them.
With a smile on his face, he greeted Yan Wushi, “I heard that Zhou’s plan on attacking Qi worried Yuan Xiuxiu so deeply that she visited Sect Master Yan to seek your help in killing me. Is this true?”
If Yuan Xiuxiu was here, these words sure would surprise her. This was supposed to be a secret plan. No one else should know her deal with Yan Wushi, but for some reason, the news had been leaked.
Yan Wushi said, “That’s right.”
“So, the reason Sect Master Yan came today is to kill me?”
“I brought a person for you.”
Sang Jingxing’s eyes fell on Shen Qiao. “Who is he? Well, at least he doesn’t look bad.”
Sang Jingxing’s eyes narrowed. The careless expression in them was immediately replaced by a sharp glare. “That Shen Qiao who killed Huo Xijing?”
Sang Jingxing suddenly burst out laughing, “I heard that Sect Master Yan and him were on some quite intimate terms. How come all of a sudden you are willing to bring him to me? I’m not a merciful or caring person, so if he’s broken by the time you want him back, it’ll be too late!”
“Since I am giving him to you, of course you can treat him however you want. I won’t ask about him again.”
Upon hearing this promise, the smile on Sang Jingxing’s face clearly widened. He usually preferred teenage girls and boys. Shen Qiao obviously didn’t fall into this category, but he was good-looking, and most importantly, he was Qi Fengge’s disciple. A rotten ship would still have three pounds of nails. Even if Shen Qiao’s status and martial arts could in no way compare to the past, his foundation was still there. From Sang Jingxing’s perspective, it wouldn’t be a bad choice to just absorb what remained of Shen Qiao’s martial power after he was done “using” him.
“So Sect Master Yan is going to give him to me just like this? There’s no other condition?”
“I demand that you return my sword.”
Sang Jingxing didn’t think he would make such a request. After a brief moment of shock, he laughed, “How unfortunate! I don’t have it with me today. I hope you wouldn’t mind me having it delivered to you some other day.”
They were talking about the Taihua Sword, the sword which Yan Wushi used before he was defeated by Cui Youwang. After he lost, the sword was also taken away by the other party. Now that Cui Youwang was dead, the sword naturally fell into the hands of his disciple, Sang Jingxing.
Sang Jingxing tried to probe further, “I thought Sect Master Yan already achieved the peak of martial arts. Having a sword or not shouldn’t make a difference to you anymore. Why do you suddenly want Taihua Sword back?”
Were it not for his restraining fear towards Yan Wushi’s martial arts, with Sang Jingxing’s personality and style, he would never talk to people with such courtesy.
Yan Wushi replied coldly, “What’s mine will always be mine regardless of time. It’s just a matter of whether I want it back or not.”
Sang Jingxing smile understandingly and said with a seemingly teasingful tone, “I heard that Sect Master Yan and Shen Qiao have been traveling together for a while like a golden couple. It surprises me how Shen Qiao is only worth a Taihua Sword to you. What a sad thing to hear!”
When they were talking, Shen Qiao’s eyes remained closed. He didn’t raise his head, nor did he open his eyes. In fact, his expression was calm as if this whole conversation was totally unrelated to him.
Yan Wushi said, “On one side, it looks like Yuan Xiuxiu is trying to work with me to kill you, while on the other side, she is also secretly keeping a relationship with the Turks. What are you going to do?”
A trace of anger flashed across Sang Jingxing’s face, but he soon smiled again, “That bitch has always been a backstabbing double-crosser. It’s not the first time I’ve encountered something like this. When and where did you agree to meet her?”
“June 6th, at three o’clock in the afternoon, we will meet at the Snowy Peony Monastery east of the city. She said you like to spend time over there.”
Sang Jingxing raised his eyebrows, “Well, I gotta say she does know my tastes.”
Snowy Peony Monastery, just by listening to its name alone one could tell it was not a serious temple, but a private property disguised as a monastery. Sang Jingxing recently was fond of a new style of play. He would have the girls’ heads shaved clean, dress them up as little nuns, and let them live in the monastery while he himself would play the role of a rapist, coming into the temple and playing with them wantonly. Such an act often lasted for more than half a day. This was supposed to be an ultimate secret, but if he knew about Yuan Xiuxiu’s movements, of course Yuan Xiuxiu would know his as well.
Sang Jingxing laughed, “Then I shall invite Sect Master Yan to come watch a play. If that bitch wants to kill me, she can’t blame me for not caring about our old love.”
Yan Wushi had no interest in the history between the two, but a powerful and unified Harmony Sect undoubtedly served him no good. Since Yuan Xiuxiu and Sang Jingxing were set on killing each other now, that was exactly what he wanted to see. He wouldn’t mind letting the fire burn a little higher.
He bent over and grabbed Shen Qiao by the chin. “Do you still see me as your friend now?”
Shen Qiao didn’t say anything.
Yan Wushi suddenly laughed, “Ah-Qiao, you are way too naive. People have treated you badly in all kinds of ways. How could you forget about it so soon? I told you a long time ago that the only reason I saved you was because I wanted a rival. But you turned out to be such a disappointment. If I show you just a tiny bit of kindness, you would cling on it and not let go. Did Yu Ai and the others’ betrayal make you long for friendship and affection more than ever?”
Perhaps due to the breath when he spoke, Shen Qiao’s eyelashes quivered slightly, but his face remained completely expressionless. It was hard to tell whether it was because his heart was in so much despair that nothing could grieve it further, or because he simply didn’t feel like answering Yan Wushi’s question.
Yan Wushi continued, “People who are naive like you are destined to live a short life. Without Mount Xuandu, without Qi Fengge’s halo, you are nothing, and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t recover your martial arts, nor can you answer the questions I have. If you agree to join the Cleansing Moon Sect and study the Fundamental Records of Phoenix-Qilin, then I might still be willing to grant you a chance to live.”
Shen Qiao finally opened his eyes and said calmly, “The reason I am betrayed over and over again is not because I am too naive, but because I believe that kindness exists in this world. Without fools like me, where would Sect Master Yan find your pleasure?”
Yan Wushi laughed heartily, “Those are some interesting words!”
He said to Shen Qiao, “I don’t need friends. Only one kind of person has the right to stand by me, and that is my rival.”
“And you have already lost your competence.”
After this sentence, Yan Wushi stood up. He threw Shen Qiao’s sword into his arms, then said gently, “Ah-Qiao, pray for yourself.”
Sang Jingxing watched them from the side with a smile, showing neither the intention to stop them nor to interrupt. It wasn’t until Yan Wushi left did he finally click his tongue and say, “How does it feel to be abandoned?”
Shen Qiao closed his eyes again and didn’t say anything.
Like a fish caught in a net, there was nothing he could do except allow himself to be trampled on. So Sang Jingxing wasn’t in a hurry to start moving in on him.
For him, catching Shen Qiao was rather a pleasant surprise. It was true that the other party was in much worse condition than before and couldn’t bring him much benefits, nor was he the type Sang Jingxing liked. However, the fact that he was Qi Fengge’s disciple and the former sect leader of Mount Xuandu was already enough to excite him.
The thought of having the other person crying and begging underneath him, or humiliating him in front of all of his disciples made the smile on Sang Jingxing’s face even wider.
“This is the Griefing Celestial Sword that Qi Fengge used back in those years, isn’t it? Yes, it must be. I still remember that your master once defeated me using this sword. But at that time, I was shameless enough to kneel and beg piteously in front of him, so he agreed to let me go. The deep scar he left on my back is still visible even today. Had he known that one day his disciple would fall into my hands, I wonder if he would regret not killing me back then?”
Sang Jingxing gently stroked Shen Qiao’s face, “Which hand did you use to kill Huo Xijing? There’s no need to be afraid. I won’t kill you. After I’m tired of you, I’ll chop off that hand as a memorial sacrifice to my poor disciple. Then just like what Gao Wei did to Concubine Feng, I’ll strip you naked and have everyone come and appreciate Mount Xuandu’s former sect leader’s shameful performance. How does that sound?”
Under the moonlight, Shen Qiao’s face seemed pale and emotionless, like a beautiful, fragile sculpture made of white jade.
But the more he was like this, the more interested in him Sang Jingxing became.
Sang Jingxing’s favorite thing in life was to destroy those that were beautiful, making them so broken and filthy that they could only struggle and eventually sink to degradation for the rest of their life.
“But Feng Xiaolian charges a thousand pieces of gold for every glance. You may not be able to match that price. Why don’t we start off with ten then? I bet there will still be many who are willing to spend money to see you in dire straits. Do you think Yan Wushi would be there too?” Sang Jingxing said slowly.
As if he finally had teased enough of his prey, he reached out to grab the Griefing Celestial Sword.
Sang Jingxing wasn’t interested in the sword, because sword wasn’t his main weapon of choice. However, the sword of the previous best martial artist in the world has its own special significance. If it was made available to the pugilistic world, it would no doubt become a legendary weapon that everyone would fight for.
“If you agree to beg me and say some good words, I might be willing to treat you more gently…” Sang Jingxing said. His fingers were already touching the sword hilt.
However, at that very moment, things changed!
A band of sword light suddenly exploded in front of his eyes, turning from a bright white into thousands of glitters!
However, within the extremely brilliant and iridescent sword light came forth a fierce killing intent. Martial power containing powerful inner qi rushed forth like tidal waves. In only a brief instant, the whole sky was filled with gales and thunder, as snow and rain swept across the land!
Sang Jingxing was taken aback. He had no choice but to withdraw his hand and retreat as fast as possible in order to avoid this sudden attack from the other party.
A person who was able to kill Huo Xijing could not have been a weakling that one could easily take advantage of. Although Sang Jingxing’s words were filled with insults, he was in fact secretly on guard throughout this time, because it was common for people in the demonic sect to backstab each other. The higher position a person held, the more hidden blades they had to deal with. If Sang Jingxing was a person full of blind confidence, he would have been killed long ago.
But until this moment, he realized that he had still underestimated Shen Qiao.
He struck out a palm as he moved backward. However, the sword light was everywhere around him. Even the inner qi from his palm couldn’t find a place to penetrate, as each one of his attacks was dissolved into nothingness.
Was this person really that Shen Qiao who had lost almost all of his martial arts?!
Surprised and bewildered, Sang Jingxing almost suspected that Yan Wushi and Shen Qiao had set up a trap together.
But he didn’t have time to take his theory any further. The sword light was already close to his face, its sounds as deafening as thunder and its light as bright as the sun. Just like how the sky, the wind, or the vast ocean and green mountains embraced every manifestation of nature, receiving one and turning it to a myriad, within the sword light were infinite potential moves, each and every one of them unbroken and interlocked. They followed Sang Jingxing relentlessly like a shadow after its body, making it impossible to hide or dodge. It seemed like the only way left was death.
But Sang Jingxing was not someone easy to deal with. He sneered, and within merely a few steps, he had changed numerous positions, walking unhurriedly in between the sword light. He struck a palm directly at the light, his inner qi turning into blue air as it roared and whistled its way through with the momentum of a mountain. The light from the Griefing Celestial Sword instantly dimmed a little.
Before one move was finished, the next one had already arrived. The martial arts of the Harmony Sect stemmed from the same origin as those of the Cleansing Moon Sect, but they were even more changeful and unpredictable. This set of “Dragon Imprints” was already mastered and polished by Sang Jingxing to perfection. Each turn and flip was like a mark made by a dragon. After all nine palms were used, a real dragon appeared in the air. Manifested in the form of inner qi, it howled across and instantly engulfed the sword light.
All the glistering light suddenly disappeared. It was still the same forest and the same two people. Shen Qiao spat out a mouthful of blood. His body fell backward uncontrollably and hit the tree trunk. He could hardly hold his sword.
There was finally a look of surprise and anger on his expressionless face!
Just now, he had used everything he ever learned in his life to fight Sang Jingxing. It was already a strenuous task since his martial power was not enough to support it. However, after he used up all of his inner qi, not only did his Dantian not generate any new supplemental inner qi, but as if a whirlpool had suddenly appeared inside him, it started greedily absorbing what was left.
Meanwhile, Shen Qiao could feel the inner qi rampaging inside him like a mad horse. It bounced tirelessly between his organs, causing his mind to become anxious restless. An abundant amount of internal heat rose and enveloped his entire body like a dark shadow, leaving no place for him to escape. He was on the verge of qi deviation.
Yan! Wu! Shi!
Yan Wushi had planted a Demonic Core in him while he was unconscious!
Perhaps it all happened while he was still unconscious after falling off Half-Step Peak, or perhaps it was one of the many times when he was asleep and all defenseless due to injuries. That strand of Demonic Qi silently snuck in and quietly docked inside his body like a seed, refusing to come out regardless of any means, making it almost impossible to detect its existence. Until now, it was fully awoken by Sang Jingxing’s demonic martial power in its full potential. The seed finally broke through the ground and grew into a towering tree.
But he had fought with Yan Wushi countless times in the past. Why did he never sense the Demonic Core’s existence?
Or could it be that Yan Wushi had been waiting for this day since long ago, so he didn’t use his full strength when fighting Shen Qiao?
Shen Qiao couldn’t even find the words to describe what he was feeling.
He felt like his body was wrapped in fire. That fire had turned into sharp teeth, slowly nibbling at his meridians and organs. He was in such extreme pain, but at the same time, he couldn’t feel any more clear-headed.
Shen Qiao couldn’t tell whether it was the momentary spurt before death or an illusion caused by the unbearable agony, but he could actually see with his eyes, which he felt were burning just a moment ago, Sang Jingxing attacking him with his palm.
It was so fast, but it was also so clear and visible.
It was the moment of life or death, but what Yan Wushi once said to him suddenly came to his mind.
When you are reduced to a truly desperate state, isolated and betrayed by everyone around you, will you still not harbour any grudges against others and insist on repaying people with kindness?
Shen Qiao closed his eyes. He could taste blood even in his breaths.
In the meanwhile, the scorching air brought forth by the palm was already blowing into his face.