Chapter 46: If you can start over, will you regret?
There was a gap between their martial arts levels. Not to mention that ever since Shen Qiao found out that Yan Wushi planted a Demonic Core in him, an internal heat had been burning inside his body, and his foundation was on the verge of collapsing. The advantage he obtained by striking first had now completely vanished. The sword light was forcibly suppressed, turning from a brilliant blaze to a dim glow, just like the spark of Shen Qiao’s own life as it flickered in the wind and was about to extinguish at any minute.
Sang Jingxing was initially surprised by the fact that he had underestimated Shen Qiao, but the surprise didn’t last for long. Seeing that Shen Qiao couldn’t keep up anymore, he even laughed, “Looks like the rumors were true. You really lost most of your martial arts. Now I wonder why Yan Wushi didn’t just absorb whatever was left but instead chose to leave you to me.”
His attacks weren’t affected by him talking at all. Wherever “Dragon Imprints” went, his inner qi would form the vague shape of a dragon along its path. However, instead of assuming the usual auspicious and friendly appearance, this dragon charged at Shen Qiao with a frantic and devastating momentum as it opened its bloody mouth!
Sang Jingxing wasn’t planning on killing Shen Qiao right now, therefore he didn’t strike with full strength. He only used about eighty percent of his martial power —— even if he ended up breaking all of Shen Qiao’s meridians and limbs, the other person could still live long enough for Sang Jingxing to have his fun.
The wild dragon covered the entire sky, preventing even moonlight from coming through. In such complete darkness, one could not even see the trees around them but only hear the rustling as the leaves screamed in the grave storm!
But the roaring dragon was forced to halt in midair!
Because from within Shen Qiao suddenly came forth a powerful wave of energy so extremely brilliant and dazzling that it was like a beam of light exploding in the darkest night.
The “light” quickly expanded, becoming larger and larger. That murderous dragon which refused to retreat without its share of blood was instantly engulfed by its energy and reduced to nothingness!
Sang Jingxing didn’t even have time to express his shock. His face paled as he forcibly turned himself around in midair in preparation to retreat.
However, it was too late. Shen Qiao shot upright from the ground and, using the Griefing Celestial Sword in his hand, thrust straight at him with a crushing blow!
There was no fancy technique to it, nor was it a profound move. The sword was wielded out in such a plain manner, and Shen Qiao’s body, while drifting in the wind like a piece of paper but at the same time as firm as a mountain, instantly appeared before Sang Jingxing with an almost impossible speed!
Sang Jingxing felt a chill running down his back, as if someone had poured a bucket of cold water over his heart.
However, he was not Huo Xijing, nor would Huo Xijing’s way of death reoccur on him.
He used one hand to strike out a palm towards Shen Qiao, while his other hand went after Shen Qiao’s wrist that was holding the sword.
But it was to no avail. Sang Jingxing could feel the extreme anguish coming from his hand as if it was being grounded into pieces. The inner qi protecting his body seemed to have lost all effectiveness. He could even feel the flesh on his palm being cut off slice by slice!
His expression changed drastically, finally revealing a trace of fear and unbelievableness. He stared at Shen Qiao as if he was looking at a lunatic.
“You destroyed your own foundation?!”
Foundation was undoubtedly what all martial artists treasured the most.
It was accumulated little by little through years of unremitting practice ever since their childhood. It could not be faked.
Shen Qiao’s foundation was his Daoist Core. Now, by destroying his own Core, he was determined to bring down Sang Jingxing together with him.
Even though Sang Jingxing was stronger than him in terms of martial arts, if the fight continued, unless Sang Jingxing was also willing to risk destroying all of his own martial arts to fight Shen Qiao tooth and nail, he would not stand a chance.
Of course Sang Jingxing was not willing, so he chose to withdraw and retreat!
But even so, the inner qi bursting out of Shen Qiao’s body had already completely eroded both of Sang Jingxing’s palms, leaving him nothing but piles of horribly mangled flesh and unbearable pain.
He clenched his teeth in rage but at the same time also felt somewhat unwilling to accept his defeat. However, because of the tiny slowdown in his movement, the surging force generated by the other person’s self-explosion had already penetrated his inner qi. The sword light directly left a cut so deep on his chest that one could even see the bones through it!
“Ahhhh!” Sang Jingxing couldn’t help but scream. Without any hesitation, he turned around and fled at once.
However, behind him, the fierce and dazzling tangible Sword Intent was already making its descent as it shrouded the land.
“Master! Master! Just now when Ah-yu and Ah-ying were practicing the Azurewave Sword Arts, both of their postures for the last move were different from what you taught us. Why didn’t you correct them?”
“Because ‘tip of sword pointing upward’ is just a vague description. There’s no established rule defining whether one should point it up by an inch or two. Ah-qiao, rigidly adhering to the rules will only limit your own thoughts and visions, and this is true for learning martial arts as well as for conducting yourself.”
The child’s steps were a little unsteady due to being wrapped in too many layers of clothing, but he still tried hard to grab onto the robe of the lofty figure in front of him. He didn’t seem to have fully understood what was just said, but still, one could not have mistaken the admiration and attachment on his face.
The person the child was holding onto saw it and smiled, deciding he might as well bend down and pick the boy up before continuing.
“There are many people in this world —— some of them are good, and some of them are bad. But there are even more who can’t be simply classified as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They may not think in the same way you think, or walk the same path you walk. Just like the case with Yu Ai and Yuan Ying —— even the same set of sword arts looks slightly different in different people’s hands. Don’t deny others just because they are different from you. Like how the ocean is capable of holding water from thousands of rivers, a person should be forgiving and tolerant to diversity, and it is the same for practicing martial arts. People who are narrow-minded can only achieve so much. Even if they do reach the summit, they cannot stay there for long.”
“What about me? Am I a good person or a bad person?” The round eyes were extremely black and clear, reflecting the image of the person most intimate to him.
Someone briefly struck his hair. The hand was warm and dry, like sunlight shining on his body.
“My Ah-qiao is the cutest person.”
The answer made him a little shy, but he couldn’t help smiling happily because of satisfaction.
All of a sudden, however, the warmth disappeared. The surrounding scenery shattered almost instantly, together with the person holding him.
He was still on Mount Xuandu.
Back then when I first planted that willow on the southern bank of the Han River, it used to be so green and fresh with its branches swaying in the wind. But today when I saw it again, it was all withered and cranked, making the river bank all the more somber and pitiful to look at. Even trees are like this, let alone a person.
Even scenery may change as time goes by, let alone people.
The little boy who used to chase after him insisting on Shen Qiao addressing him by ‘Senior Martial Brother’ had now grown up to be the same height as him. He stood before Shen Qiao, questioning him with grief and lament, “Senior Brother, no one is willing to be left in the cold. Mount Xuandu is already the number one Daoist sect under the heavens. We have the strength to support a wise lord and spread the Daoist sects’ influence to every corner of the world. Why should we keep ourselves in the deep mountain like those hermits? Almost everyone on Mount Xuandu is thinking the same thing, except you. You’re too naive!”
Is it true? Was he really too naive?
All he wished was to protect this piece of land left to him by his master and the previous generations of sect leaders and to keep these martial brothers and sisters safely away from the fire of war and the intrigue and politics of the pugilist world.
Was he wrong?
“Yes, you’re wrong.” Someone once said to him, “You’re wrong because you don’t understand people enough. Do you think that everyone is as desireless and easily content as you are? Humans are evil by nature. No matter how deep your relationship is, if you get in their way, they will eliminate you without any hesitation. Are you still not aware of it?”
“Naive people 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.”
“I don’t need friends. Only one kind of person has the right to stand by me, and that is my rival.”
“You destroyed your own meridians?! Are you burning your own boat?! You must be insane!!!”
All of the flashbacks and voices suddenly vanished after this sentence.
Everything seemed to have returned to the beginning.
He experienced a sharp pain in all of his limbs and bones. The pain was so great that it was as if someone had been filing his bones with a blunt knife or if there were thousands of ants drilling through his flesh. He always thought he had a high level of endurance for pain, but at this moment, he could not help wanting to let out a long groan, a cry, or even to take a sharp sword and stick it in his own heart just so he could stop this endless suffering.
But what he thought to be screams and shrieks were just as light as mosquito buzzes in other’s ears.
“Mister Shen, are you awake?”
The voice was very soft and only faintly discernible, as if it was coming from far away.
In reality, the person was talking right next to Shen Qiao’s ear. It was just that with Shen Qiao’s current state, it was hard for him to hear clearly.
He tried his best to respond with his voice, but in the end, he was only able to move a finger.
The other person saw it and whispered to him, “Mister Shen, you can hear me, can’t you? Then let me do the talking. You can just listen. If you can hear me, please tell me by moving your finger.”
Shen Qiao quickly responded.
He recognized the other person’s voice. It was that young daoist priest from the White Dragon Monastery —— the abbot’s youngest disciple, Shiwu.
As expected, the other person said, “I’m Shiwu. I found you two days ago while I was gathering herbs on mountain. You were hiding inside a cave. Your body was so cold, and you were barely breathing. It scared me so bad. I’m not strong enough to move you by myself, so I had to go back to tell my master and ask him to carry you back.”
That’s right. Shen Qiao now remembered. At that time, he destroyed his own foundation and was going to take down Sang Jingxing together with himself. Even though he didn’t succeed, the other person was also seriously injured, which gave Shen Qiao the opportunity to escape and hide inside the White Dragon Mountains. He thought there was no way he could have lived, but it turned out Shiwu had found him.
He wanted to ask if Sang Jingxing had found his way here, or if he had implicated them. But despite some strenuous efforts, he still failed to make a sound. His eyelids were trembling rapidly, indicating how anxious he was.
Shiwu noticed it. He quickly found him a cup of water and carefully fed it to him.
The cold water ran through and moistened his throat. After quite some time, Shen Qiao finally felt a lot better. He opened his eyes and, just as he had expected, there was nothing but darkness.
He thought it was his eyes, but Shiwu said to him, “We’re in White Dragon Monastery’s basement. There’s no light —— that’s why it’s so dark.”
Shen Qiao opened his mouth, his voice was so hoarse that he almost didn’t recognize it himself, “Did…did anyone…come…?”
His body was so weak that even talking became a difficult and strenuous task for him. He could only force out one word at a time.
“Yes, the Duke of Pencheng’s men came twice, probably seeking revenge for that burger thing that happened the other day. Thankfully, master saw that coming and moved us down here ahead of time. The monastery itself is very shabby and there’s not much for them to smash. They came in and looked around, but they didn’t find anyone so they just left. They probably thought we had run away!”
By the end, he couldn’t stop himself from laughing out loud.
Shen Qiao said, “I’m sorry…”
Shiwu quickly replied, “Mister Shen, please don’t say that!”
He seemed to have perceived Shen Qiao’s confusion and quickly added, “Do you remember giving pancakes to a boy outside Province Xiang City? He then kowtowed to you and said he would set up a longevity tablet for you.”
After another wave of excruciating pain slowly died down, Shen Qiao thought hard about it and vaguely recalled something similar.
Although Shiwu was a little thin, he was a fair and neat boy, and looked completely different from that emaciated and sickly child in Shen Qiao’s memory.
“Yes, that was me. Later, Dad wanted to trade me for other people’s children to eat, but Mom wouldn’t let him. She stopped him by risking her life and said he could sell her instead in order to protect me and my siblings. Dad agreed. However, just a few days after he exchanged Mom for food, both my brother and sister died from a serious illness.” Shiwu was now choking with sobs, “Dad felt I was a burden to him and wanted to eat me. Luckily, I met my master at that time. Master bought me with a bag of pancakes and took me with him. I followed him all the way to White Dragon Monastery and settled here. My original name didn’t sound good, so Master gave me a new name, Shiwu.”
Shiwu wiped away his tears and grabbed Shen Qiao’s hand as if he was going to offer him consolation, but he didn’t dare to use too much power for fear of causing him more pain. “I’ll never forget your kindness. If it wasn’t for the piece of cake you gave me, I might not have lived long enough to meet master. Therefore, please don’t apologize to me. Even if you hadn’t saved my life before, seeing you lying there almost dying, how could I not help?”
Shen Qiao’s hands trembled slightly. Tears seemed to be glistening in his eyes. It was hard to tell whether it was because what Shiwu said or because it triggered some old memories of his.
But Shiwu thought it was caused by pain. He hurriedly aked, “Is it hurting really bad? I’ll go ask master to come over and help you apply some more medicine!”
“What medicine? I just gave him some not long ago. Do you think medicines don’t cost money?” the abbot grumbled. He walked just in time to hear him.
Despite what he said, he still walked over, picked up Shen Qiao’s hand and started taking his pulse.
“All of your meridians have been destroyed, and there’s not a single trance of inner qi left. What the hell did you do to get yourself into such a state?! You can forget about practicing martial arts in the future!” The abbot clicked his tongue.
“Master!”Shiwu shouted anxiously. He was afraid that what his master said would upset Shen Qiao too much.
The abbot rolled his eyes. “Why are you so softhearted? Even he himself hasn’t said anything, yet you’re already pointing fingers at me. It’s not like I’m the one responsible for all of this!”
Sure enough, Shen Qiao said nothing for quite a while.
Shiwu said softly, “Don’t be sad, Mister Shen. My master is a very good doctor…”
“Hey! Why do you always side with outsiders instead of your own master? It’s not like you’re a daughter married into another family. When was I ever a good doctor? I only know a little bit theory, just a little bit! Do you understand?”
Shiwu grabbed onto his robe and said flatteringly, “Master has a sharp tongue but a soft heart. He’s actually a very kind person! And very capable too!”
The abbot taunted, “You little bastard!”
He then turned to Shen Qiao and said, “Your injury is too serious. I’m not an expert in medical practices, and this place doesn’t have all of the medical ingredients you might need. Therefore, I can only try to do my best. As for your marital arts, there’s nothing I can do about it. Your foundation and your meridians are all destroyed. This is not something that’s humanly possible to revert…”
Shen Qiao suddenly asked, “May I ask…if…the poison…is…still…in…me…?”
The abbot was slightly baffled, “Poison? What poison? I didn’t find any poison in you when I took your pulse.”
In order to double check, he once again put three fingers together, pressed them onto Shen Qiao’s wrist, and examined carefully. A moment later, he withdrew his hand and said, “You’re severely injured, but I indeed did not find any signs indicating you were poisoned.”
Ever since Shen Qiao was poisoned with Quietus, the poison had remained inside him. Even Yan Wushi could not find a way to remove it. It rooted and lived inside his blood and bones, fading in and out, significantly impeding the recovery of his martial power, even halving his effort at cultivating inner qi. It also affected his eyes, as they were not fully healed even till today.
However, the abbot was now saying that there wasn’t any poison in him.
In other words, when he tried to bring down Sang Jingxing with him by destroying his own foundation, his desperate action ended up saving himself instead as it also cleared all of the remaining poison in his body.
Could this be considered as a blessing in disguise?
Shen Qiao pulled a bitter smile.
The abbot brought with him a candlestick when he came in. After setting it down to the side, he saw the slight smile on Shen Qiao’s face. He couldn’t help but ask in surprise, “You’re already in such a miserable state. How are you still in the mood to laugh?”
He then turned around and asked Shiwu, “Do you think all the catastrophes happening recently have finally broken him and turned him into an idiot?”
“Master!” Shiwu was almost going to cover the other person’s mouth.
“Nevermind! I’ll say no more! The congee should be ready. I’ll go take a look. Ah, I’m so not used to not having that little bastard Chuyi at my beck and call!”
Clicking his tongue as he walked, he continued, “Huh! I went through so much trouble finding that old ginseng. It’s so precious that I didn’t even use it for myself, and now an outsider gets to have it!”
After he left, Shiwu apologized, “Please don’t take it to heart. Master is a very kind person. He’s just not good at expressing himself. His words may sound harsh, but we really owe him a lot. Without this old man’s help, I wouldn’t even know what to do!”
“I know…and I’m…I’m not crazy either…Is this basement…connected…to the outside…? I think…I see…light.”
He could only utter one word at a time, and even this was a rather overwhelming effort.
Shiwu said, “Yes. Master drilled two holes in here, so some light from the outside can pass through. Can you see now?”
“I can see…a little…but…not very…clear…”
Shiwu said, “Don’t worry. Master said this basement was very hard to find. The Duke of Pengcheng District’s men came over twice, and both times they had to leave at last because they couldn’t find us. Master said that after some time, they would think that we had moved to another place and would eventually stop coming.”
Shiwu laughed, “There’s no need to thank me, just relax and take a good rest. You’ll need that for a speedy recovery. I’ll go boil some water for you to drink.”
The place was dark and shielded from sunlight, but its quietness also made it the perfect place for recuperation. According to Shiwu, the White Dragon Monastery was first built in the final years of Eastern Han Dynasty and had existed for more than three hundred years. Even though the building was able to survive the fire of war, the conflagration had also taken away its popularity and liveliness, leaving nothing but a scarred and neglected monastery. When Shiwu and his master came and settled here, it was already uninhabited. The back of the basement was connected to a tunnel, probably built around the same time as the monastery itself. After being discovered by Shiwu’s master, it became an excellent shelter.
Shen Qiao slept for two more days afterwards. Sometimes he felt awake and sober, but other times his mind was just a total mess. When he woke up from his dreams at night, lying in bed all by himself, he even felt like he was still on Mount Xuandu, and that he would see his master standing out there watching the disciples practicing martial arts if he were to open the door.
But it was only a delusion. The past could not be re-lived, and those who died could never come back to life.
Those glorious and peaceful years were forever gone as if they had remained behind on Mount Xuandu.
What came after was the betrayal, setbacks, predicaments he had experienced, with different countries fighting each other for fame and gain, different sects plotting against one another and stubbornly clinging to their own views. It was the common people struggling and groaning in hell with no way to escape.
All these sufferings were too startling and ghastly to look at. They made Shen Qiao empathize with them as if he had experienced it himself.
The reason you’re able to persist in carefully following your Daoist Heart and refusing to give up your so-called principles is because you still haven’t experienced in your life a situation so desperate that you find it absolutely intolerable, am I right?
Yan Wushi once asked him this.
At this very moment, Shen Qiao once again thought of this sentence, every bit and piece of it, and all the days that they spent together.
The friendship that he once deeply believed in was so fragile in front of the other person’s ridicule and schemes that it could not withstand even a single blow.
But even if he could start all over again…
Even if he starts over…
“Mister Shen, are you feeling better today? I brought you some freshly made Japonica rice congee with ginseng. Master said this would be good for your recovery… Ah! Mister Shen, why are you crying? Are you in too much pain?”
Under the dim light, a glittering drop slowly and slid down the corner of Shen Qiao’s eye and disappeared into his hair without a sound.
Shiwu quickly put down the congee and hurried over. “I’ll go get master!”
“There’s no need.” Shen Qiao struggled to reach out and grabbed his robe.
“Hey!” Shiwu shouted in surprise. There was an unaffected joy in his voice. “You can move now?! Master said all of your meridians were broken and you might not be able to fully recover for the rest of your life. It looks like he’s just trying to scare me!”
Shen Qiao replied with a smile.
When he was awake, every bone of his was screaming in pain. The agony was so much that he wished to die here and now. But he still managed to pull through it as he recited in his head the lines from The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang he had learnt, and this had led to a rather surprising result.
Back then when he was studying The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang, he already had Mount Xuandu’s martial arts as his foundation, so it wasn’t hard for him to pick it up. However, no matter how much he tried, he could only progress at an unhurried pace. Qi Fengge too could not figure out the reason for it. At that time, Tao Hongjing had already passed away, therefore, having no one else to ask, he could only let Shen Qiao explore by himself as he occasionally provided assistance from the side.
But now, when all of his meridians were broken and there was no inner qi left in his body, the force of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang seemed to have taken a totally unexpected effect. The tattered Dantian was recovering little by little with an unbelievable speed, while his damaged meridians, nourished by the inner qi of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang, also started rebuilding themselves.
It might not even take long before all of his injuries were healed.
The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang which had integrated the merits of all Three Schools was truly something beyond comprehension. Even though Shen Qiao only had chance to learn two out of the five books, he could already feel its immense profoundness.
The integrity and righteousness of Confucianism, the softness and profoundness of Daoism, the solemnity and limpidity of Buddhism —— all of them gathered and turned into a stream slowly trickling through his body.
Shen Qiao couldn’t tell if he could count this as finding a way out of desperation through desperate actions, but his body was indeed getting better and better as the days passed. The recovering speed was so fast that it even astonished the abbot who once believed he was going to be like this for the rest of his life.
Shiwu was considerate enough to not ask why he cried, but Shen Qiao actively grabbed him and said, “Shiwu, thank you.”
Shiwu was confused and also somewhat embarrassed. “You’ve thanked me many times already!”
Shen Qiao treated people with kindness, but he never expected the others to return kindness to him with the same mindset. Because no matter if other people repaid him or not, it wouldn’t affect his actions.
He did it only because he wanted to do so. It didn’t matter whether other people understood him or not, agreed with him or not, or mocked him or not.
Looking at it from this perspective, Yan Wushi wasn’t any different from him.
But Shen Qiao was only human after all. His heart was not made of stone, nor was his mind shaped by metal. He too felt tired, downhearted, or even painful.
“This one is different,” he said to Shiwu.
“You’re recovering so fast. Master said it’s time for you to have some meat. He bought a chicken today to make some chicken soup.”
Shen Qiao said apologetically, “You’ve spent so much on me. I’ll go make money as soon as I recover…”
Shiwu smiled, “You don’t have to worry about this. Actually, master has quite a fortune in his secret purse. He just refuses to take it out and pretends to live a rough life…”
“Shiwu! Are you itching for some beating? How dare you badmouth your master in front of other people! How ungrateful! You ungracious bastard!” The abbot walked in just in time to hear what he said.
Shiwu stuck his tongue out, “It’s my fault. Please don’t be mad!”
The abbot said angrily, “Why did I think that you were better behaved than Chuyi?! Each of you is more unworthy than the other! Unworthy disciples!”
Shiwu listened obediently as his master lectured him. After a good amount of coaxing and bowing, he was finally able to calm down the abbot. The latter then went on complaining about his older disciple, “The north market is having a fair today. Chuyi ran out early this morning and still hasn’t come back yet. With a heart as wild as his, he can probably poke a hole in heaven if given a pair of wings!”
Shiwu said, “Maybe Senior Brother found something delicious and was going to bring some back for us.”
“Bullshit! He’s only got a few copper coins on him. It’s not even enough to buy snacks for himself!”
Suddenly, the bell in the basement rang.
It was a tiny bell, its sound faint as well. But because the abbot was standing right next to it, he could hear it immediately.
It was a simple mechanism. The bell was attached to a string whose other end was tied somewhere on the gate. If people came in from outside, the string would be pulled slightly, and the people in the basement would notice it at once.
Shiwu said cheerfully, “It must be Senior Brother!”
Just as he was about to go out, the abbot suddenly grabbed him by the arm. “Wait! Something’s not right!”
Right after he said it, they heard Chuyi’s lively voice, “Master! Shiwu! I’m back… Umm, who are you?”
The abbot’s face changed. This is bad!