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Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain Chapter 1.4 Casket

Chapter 1.4 Casket 

They reached the copse, hid behind a huge boulder which jutted out and looked below them. In the valley, swords glistened in the sunlight. Five men were gathered at the end of the valley; three were armed and had posted themselves on three thoroughfares to guard against trespassers. One of the remaining two was digging feverishly under a big tree with a steel hoe,

while the other used an iron spade. The two apparently knew their fierce

enemies were hot on their trail; they were pressed for time and were digging and shovelling with all their might.

"Just as we expected: Tao Senior and Junior of Horse Spring." Fortune lowered his voice. "I wonder who the other three are?"

"They are all three Chieftains of Horse Spring. They fight fiercely and vigorously," whispered Valour.

"Our five against their five. Just about right," added Fortune.

"The three of us, Curio, you and I, will have no problem handling them," said Valour. "But I am worried about Sign and Radiant. Perhaps we should attack one or two of them from behind? The rest can then be easily taken

care of."

Fortune frowned at this suggestion, "If word reaches people moving in our circle that we of the Dragon Lodge make surprise attacks on our

adversaries, would we not be mocked by the heroes of the world?"

"To avenge our Brother Pastoral," answered Valour coldly, "we have to wipe out every single enemy and no one shall escape alive. If we keep this to ourselves, nobody will find out."

Fortune asked, "Do Tao Senior and Junior really fight that fiercely?"

Valour nodded. After a while, he said, "If I were to have a proper match of prowess with my opponent, I would not stand a chance." Fortune knew well that Valour was considered the champion of the Northern Branch after the demise of their Grand Master, Pastoral Tian. When Pastoral lived, even he had shown deference to Valour. In the test of strength on the way uphill a while before, Valour had apparently slowed down on purpose or they would never have come out as equals. Had Valour taxed himself to his utmost, Fortune surely would have been beaten. Considering this, Fortune nodded his consent, "You are the Master. You take overall charge of the matter."

Valour reflected, "So, you want to be known as the hero and me as the devil." No more words were exchanged. By now, Curio had joined them, and in a little while they were joined by Radiant and Sign. Valour lowered

his voice. "Fortune, Curio and I will dispatch poisoned darts to finish off the three on lookout. We shall then form a circle round Tao Senior and Junior.

Sign and Radiant are to support us once we get started. After getting their instructions, the four bent double and stole their way in silence, along the track behind the boulder.

Sign followed behind Valour and whispered to him, "Uncle Valour." He halted and asked, "What now?"

"We are to capture Tao Senior and Junior alive," answered Sign.

Valour rolled his eyes. "You still want to side with that knave Peace?" he hissed.

"I still believe that it is not he," replied Sign.

Valour turned livid with rage. He pulled out the arrow tucked in his girdle, passed it to her and said, "Look at this and then say that. It is the same arrow that the knave shot the goose with a while ago."

Sign took the arrow; one glance at it was enough to set her hands

shaking. Curio was paying more attention to her than to their enemies. Seeing her now in such a troubled state, mixed emotions of vexation and elation assailed him. His spirits rose at the thought that Peace's life would

be in danger; yet he was vexed by her being so totally inclined towards the rogue. Curio had a hot temper and just the thought of it drove him crazy.

Just as he was about to vent his rage on her, Valour tapped him on the

shoulder and directed his attention to the back of the sentinel in the east. Sign and Radiant had bent down and stopped moving. Valour, Fortune,

and Curio were stealing close, each aiming at an enemy and gripping three poisoned darts in their hands. The use of poisoned darts had, for generations, been one of the esoteric killer skills on which the Dragon Lodge prided itself. They flew true and fast and the poison was extremely potent. It could kill its victim within three watches. The outlawry called it the Lethal Dart. "Uncle Valour wants me to attack the fellow in the east," Curio pondered. "I shall first take the life of that knave Peace with the poisoned darts. That way I shall not only revenge a serious wrong for my Branch, but will also rid myself of a rival. If he is captured alive, many things may happen during his captivity. I do not know what strange ideas she may eventually come up with." Having set his mind on this, Curio moved closer until he was no more than fifty paces from his enemy. Presently he bent down and fixed his gaze on the back of Peace who was now creeping stealthily with a wave- like motion. Curio would speed forth his three poisoned darts the minute

Valour signalled with his hand.

Suddenly there came the clatter of metal upon metal. Peace knocked his steel hoe into an iron object buried underground. Valour was just about to signal by lowering his left hand but stopped himself on hearing whizzing

sounds in quick succession. Seven or eight secret weapons sprang from the snowy ground to the side, aimed straight at Peace and his other comrades.

These secret weapons, flying forth so unexpectedly from under the ground, caught everybody by surprise. The whole incident was most mysterious and left everybody in a state of perplexity. The secret weapons had been dispatched from close range, and they came at an incredible

speed. Both Tao Senior and Junior were well advanced in martial arts and reacted quickly to the attack. However, they still had to resort to whirling their hoe and spade to ward off the weapons. One of the three sentinels turned on his back and rolled down a gulley. He narrowly missed the two

sprung barbs, one glancing off his skull and the other grazing his neck. The other two sentinels dropped dead before they could utter a word. They had both been attacked from behind; one had a steel dart through his heart and the other a dirk through his chest. They lay flat and motionless in the snow.

The unexpected attack on the sentinels caught everybody by surprise.

Valour and his company were no less surprised than the others.

"You dastardly coward! How dare you lie in ambush?" snarled Century Tao, Peace's father, known as Commander of the Eastern Border. His words came like a thunderbolt out of the blue; mighty and awe-inspiring.

Presently, flashing blades were visible against the snowy ground to the side, and out leapt four enemies from below the ground.

The four had dug a pit in the snow in anticipation of Century's and Peace's arrival, and had been lying there in waiting for several days. The mouth of the pit was covered with branches and twigs, which in turn were hidden under a blanket of snow, with only a few perforations for ventilation. It was a foolproof scheme.

Tao Senior and Junior dropped their hoe and spade and snatched up the weapons from their sides. Century was wielding a twenty-pound notched steel rod, while Peace flashed his single blade. The one who had rolled down the gulley was Chieftain Ma of Horse Spring. He made a few more

turns down the gulley before springing up fearing that the enemies might be after him next. He had in his hands a pair of chained maces.

One of the enemies was thin and of swarthy complexion. He could be distinguished as Prime Xiong, Chief Escort of the Peking Overland Convoy. He was proficient in the Ground Blade, the art of fencing with a broadsword. Bandits from Horse Spring had once robbed his establishment of merchandise of great worth. He had tried every possible means to recover the lost merchandise, but had never once succeeded. The incident

sowed the seeds of animosity between the two parties. Another assailant

was a female, in her early thirties. She was known to Chieftain Ma as Third Zheng, alias Brandisher of the Twin Knives. Her husband had been an

escort with the Peking Overland Convoy, but had died in a robbery staged by the Chieftains of the Horse Spring Banditry. Of the remaining two, one was a monk, of heavy build, wielding a Buddhist monk's knife. The last was a man whose face was covered with dark hair, plying a pair of iron staves.

They were in league with the Peking Overland Convoy, also adepts in martial ability. They had been invited by the Overland to lay an ambush here to wreak vengeance upon their adversaries.

"So," cried out Century, "It is you, the worthless rogue who once got beaten by an old fellow like me. Prime is the only coward in the Martial Brotherhood capable of undertaking a low trick like this." Though the

words were directed at Prime, when they touched the ears of Fortune, they caused him to flush. Fortune stole a glance at Valour, who, at that particular moment, was found gazing intently at their enemies in the valley. He was not in the least disturbed by the words.

"Chieftain Tao," said Prime in a soft voice, "Please allow me to introduce to you Wisdom the Great Master, of the Confluence Monastery of Shandong Province." "This is Hawk Liu," continued Prime, "Guardsman of the first rank at the Imperial Court in the capital. He is my Brother, we acknowledge the same Master. Please befriend each other and get well acquainted."

Century Tao was a man of strong build and imposing bearing; his voice rang like thunder. Prime was his diametrical opposite. One was tough and harsh; the other gentle and courteous; the two seemed born to fight each other.

"Let us set to, you vermin," growled Century. "We can surely get acquainted through swordplay."

Immediately he displayed the extraordinary strength in his back by turning the steel rod in the air causing it to hum loudly.

Prime stayed calm and said humbly, "I must admit that I was beaten by Chieftain Century. I dare not raise a finger against you. I beg only to offer you this gift."

"What?" Century thundered.

Prime pointed his finger at the pit hollowed by them and answered, "The object is in there."

Century stroked the grey thick beard on his cheeks. Without uttering so much as a word, he lashed the rod in Prime's face. He dodged and missed it narrowly.

"Please halt!" cried Prime.

"What have you got now?" demanded Century.

"I have, for the past three full days, been here to await the arrival of

Chieftain Century," answered Prime. "Were it not for the reverence I bear for you and your son, I would already have taken possession of this article. The object lying here has never belonged to Horse Spring; it has always been in the safe keeping of the Dragon Lodge. I see nothing wrong in its

changing hands now."

To this Peace replied, "Nicely put indeed. These snowy mountains are frozen over for miles and miles. Would you not have already made away with it if only you had known where it was hidden?"

Third had set her mind on avenging the death of her husband. "Stop all this nonsense and let us set to," she shouted. No sooner had her voice faded than she flung three dirks, all aimed in quick succession at Chieftain Ma.

Swinging his two chained maces, he was able to knock two of the weapons off course; but the third one, charged with more power, flew speedily at his chest. The iron chain linking the two maces came down barring the front of his chest, and warding off the third dirk in the nick of time. Chieftain Ma pulled the left mace with a sudden neat jerk and flung the right mace in the face of Third. Being agile and nimble-footed, she ducked the blow.

Practising the Whirlwind while flourishing the twin knives in both hands, she charged straight at him. He swung the left mace out to shield himself against the blows.

While these two were thus engaged, Wisdom whirled his Buddhist monk's knife and rushed at Century. The Commander of the Eastern Border met him head on. Rod and blade clashed; the sparks flew. The monk felt a sudden ache in the arms, and saw that a chip had already been struck out of his blade. Nearby, Peace rushed at Prime, flourishing his sword. The six

were now engaged in feverish battle, each fighting one other and grappling with his opponent on the snowy ground. Hawk looked on, clutching both

staves in his hands, ready to help his party. When he saw that the monk was no match for Century, he cried out, "Move back and let me meet the

Commander of the Eastern Border!" But the monk still fought on. Hawk

strode forward and thrust his upper right arm onto the monk's shoulder. The monk rocked unsteadily on his feet, and staggered three paces before regaining his balance. Suddenly a keen blade came humming down wind,

aimed right at his crown: the monk speedily ducked away from the blow but it set him shivering and sweating. It was Peace who had dealt him the

stroke. Now, spurred on by rage, the monk flashed his knife and joined Prime in battling against Peace.

Hawk was better trained in martial arts than his Brothers; he was able to stave off all the lashing and smiting of Century's rod, stroke for stroke. As he planted his staves upright, there was a clash of iron rod upon iron staff, but Hawk stayed calm. He plunged his right staff forward, in order to hold back the rod of his opponent. He then smote Century's head with his left

staff. After several tricks, Century was convinced that he had at long last met his match. Thereupon, he braced himself for battle and wielded his rod relentlessly in every direction, practising the rod techniques known as the Six Harmonies.

The battle did not rage long before Century began to show signs of defeat. He was beginning to grow weary defending himself against Hawk's attacks. Peace was fighting against two opponents and was gradually being cornered. His only hope lay in Chieftain Ma's speedily disposing of Third and taking over Prime. He would then slay the monk when the time presented itself. Third also could see how the battle would fare. So long as she could withstand her assailant, both Century and Peace would end up dead. Realizing this, she stood only on the defense, shielding herself with her twin knives. Chieftain Ma was now whirling his two maces, raining mighty blows on her, but none of them could touch her. At the end of less than a hundred tricks she began to show signs of weariness and kept

staggering backward. Third, being a woman, could not withstand the battle any longer. Chieftain Ma seized this good opportunity to advance, and

charged at her. She swung her left knife all of a sudden, rendering a sizeable part of herself vulnerable to attack. Encouraged by this, he moved forward one step and showered blows on her. Suddenly, the ground beneath his right foot gave way and he found himself right on top of the hollow which Prime and the others had been using as a hiding place not long before. Over half of the pit was still covered by snow, so he had not noticed it while the battle raged. Third had laid a trap for him. Unable to plant his foot on solid ground, he flung himself forward flat on the ground. It was not his day,

admitted Chieftain Ma to himself. Just as he sprang up again, Third struck him a cruel stroke that bit deep and dislocated his left shoulder.

Chieftain Ma yelled in agony, then lay insensible on the ground. Third smote him again with her right knife and hurled him into the pit. Hearing his cries, Peace sensed that something had gone wrong, but he was so

engaged in his battle with Prime and Wisdom that he could not free himself to assist the others. Third panted heavily several times, trying to regain her breath. She tidied her hair, then drew out a white handkerchief and wrapped it round her head. Flourishing her twin knives, she advanced and joined forces with her comrade against Century.

Had Century been twenty years younger, Hawk would never have been his match. He had always excelled in strength; but now that he was

advanced in age, he had lost much of his former vigour and vitality. Fighting man to man against Hawk had already proved that he was not

Hawk's match. He could not hope to prevail when Third also attacked him. The fight raged fast and furious. Prime whirled both his staves, raining blows by practising the Dragon Prancing and Phoenix Gambolling. Century guarded against the blows by lashing his rod. Third also moved up, her twin knives describing circles. She charged at him with two blades. Unable to parry blows from four weapons with his single rod, Century let out a loud

cry and lashed his left leg out at Third, causing her to make a turn in the air. Her flashing blade slashed across him, cutting a deep gash in the upper left part of his trunk. Blood ran down from the wound, dyeing the snowy ground a dark, rusty red. Yet the old fellow was exceptionally brave and ferocious, and he raged on fearlessly, smiting blows relentlessly with his rod.

The situation was becoming dangerous; Peace felt certain of defeat. He dealt his opponent three cruel strokes. While Wisdom was moving back two paces, Peace also leapt backward and cried out, "Halt! Father and I admit defeat. Now, make your choice: do you want the treasure or do you want our lives?"

Brandishing her knives, Third charged at Century. "Both the treasure and your lives!"

Prime was scheming. The merchandise lost the year before was of

considerable worth. He would rather exact a ransom from Horse Spring than kill both father and son. Musing thus, Prime cried out, "Let us cease. I have something to say."

Hawk had always conducted himself with caution and Third had always been obedient to the Chief Escort. Hearing Prime, they leapt to the side.

Wisdom was a boorish monk and would not dream of halting in the midst of a furious battle. Whirling his knife like a windwill, he charged at Peace.

Prime immediately cried out, "Wisdom the Great Master, Wisdom the Great Master! But the words fell on deaf ears."

Peace threw his sword to the ground, straightened himself and declared, "I challenge you to take my life."

Wisdom was just raising his blade to smite Peace, but was taken aback by his unusual behaviour. He halted, his knife in mid air. "Bald knave!' roared Peace and planted his fist in the monk's face, smashing the bridge of his nose. Caught off guard, the monk swayed and tumbled on his rump. He felt his nose and found his hand soaked in blood; he was furious beyond control and howled. Struggling to his feet again, he rushed at Peace but was pulled back by Prime.

"Halt!" commanded Prime. Instantly Peace jumped into the pit and dug a few times with the steel hoe before flinging it away. Up he jumped, holding a rectangular iron box about two feet in length. Hawk and the others smiled and moved closer towards Peace.

"Brother Fortune," whispered Valour, "you and Curio dispatch the darts at our enemies. I will go and grab that box."

"Which of the two parties should we attack?" asked Fortune in a whisper.

Valour stuck out the thumb and the little finger of his left hand and held back the three fingers in the middle; this was the sign for the numeral six, meaning they should take all six.

"Cruel," Fortune mused, but he nodded his consent and gripped the poisoned darts in his hands. When he looked at Curio out of the corners of his eyes, he found him gazing fixedly at Peace. It occurred to him that

Curio had never once taken his eyes off that man.

Peace, carrying the box in his hands, cried out aloud, "Father and I have been snared. We will certainly present you with the house treasure of our Martial Brotherhood with due respect. I am still puzzled by one thing and hope somebody will throw light on this matter."

Prime narrowed his eyes and said, "May I be of service to the young Master?"

At this Peace continued, "How did you know that the box was buried here? How did you also know that we would be here at this time to get the box?"

"As the young Master would like to have his question answered," replied Prime, "I see no harm in obliging. A banquet was hosted on the day that

Grand Master Pastoral of the Dragon Lodge retired. All kin and comrades were invited to the sword-sealing ceremony. The young Master as his son- in-law-to-be was sure to show up." Peace nodded.

Pointing to Hawk, Prime continued, "This Brother of mine also happened to be one of the honoured guests that day. The young Master had other things on his mind and did not pay much heed to Brother Hawk."

"So," sneered Peace, "my father-in-law invited a traitor to his banquet, whom he had taken to be a friend."

Prime remained calm and went on slowly, "I am afraid that you are

somewhat too nasty with your words. Hawk had heard much talk about your good self and could not help wanting to see the young Master. He could also have been attracted by the famed outlawry of Horse Spring. Hawk recorded every single move of the young Master on that particular day."

"Well done," applauded Peace. "This box should therefore be duly presented to His Eminence Hawk." Thereupon, he proffered the box with both hands.

Hawk took the gift. Suddenly, Peace lifted the upper rim of the box, and out whistled three barbs, aimed straight at Hawk's chest. Hawk was less than three feet away and could not move away from the impending danger. But Hawk pulled Wisdom before him in the nick of time and shielded himself from attacks. A cry of agony pierced the air as two barbs transfixed the throat of the monk, killing him instantly. The third barb shot sideways

and bit deep into the left shoulder of Prime, sorely wounding him.

This sudden turn of events was still more dramatic than the ambush staged earlier by Prime and his party. Sign could not hold back a gasp.

Hearing this behind him, Hawk sprang onto a boulder, sparing both Century and Peace. He made sure that his back was well guarded before turning round to examine the situation further.

"Go!" cried Valour, leaping forward.

Curio lashed out his arm and three poisoned darts whizzed towards Peace in no time. Anticipating this move of his, Sign speedily straightened herself and knocked into Curio's left shoulder just as the darts were dispatched.

Curio faltered and snarled, "What the devil!" All the darts missed their mark and fell point downward in the snow.

Fortune had also intended the poisoned darts for Hawk but Sign's cry had alerted him of the danger. He was nimble-witted and there was no way in

which Fortune could get him. "Property to the rightful owner!" shouted

Valour, as he plunged the five hook-like fingers of his left hand into Peace's eyes, while the five fingers of his right hand took a tight grip on the iron box.

Hawk planted his staves upright and began to battle with Fortune who fenced with a long sword. They had already met at the banquet hosted by Pastoral Tian and had discovered they were each adept in the martial arts. After practising a few tricks, each commanded the other's respect.

Radiant now rushed at Prime, raising his sword. Sign had engaged Third in another battle, thus there was the clashing and clanging of Sign's single blade upon Third's twin knives. Curio whirled his flashing long sword. But instead of attacking Century who remained unengaged nearby, he aimed a terrible stroke at Peace's chest. He was lashing fast and furious, following his sword very closely and practising the Rainbow Piercing the Fireball.

Being unarmed, Peace had to let go of the metal box. He leapt backward and dodged. He crouched to reach for the single sword, then spun around and whipped out his weapon. Valour was holding the box tightly in his left hand; his face darkened as he bellowed with rage, "Sirrah! You murdered your father-in-law simply because you had set eyes on the heirloom of our Dragon Lodge."

"That is a lie!" boomed Peace. "Who says I killed my father- in-law?" He charged on fiercely, slashing ferociously as he wanted to get the box back quickly.

Once the iron box fell into the hands of Valour, the Seven Stars Hand, there was little chance that anybody could grab it from him; Peace did not stand a chance. Valour's brawny palms were enough to scare anybody off, even if Curio were not there fencing with his sword ready to aid him.

"Listen, Valour," cried Century. "The box was handed personally to my son by Pastoral Tian, his father-in-law. It is a fact that you have to accept." He roared and thundered as he whirled his rod and lashed mighty blows on

Valour's skull. Valour bounded a few yards at a leap and landed beside Sign. He raised the box and flourished it at Third. She ducked away from it fearing that barbs might again fly from it. But this time Valour was just trying to frighten her. He passed the box to Sign the moment she had thrown off her opponents.

"Guard the box! Let me take care of the enemies," ordered Valour.

Now that the box had left his hands, Valour spun around and engaged Century. Valour was considered champion of the Northern Branch of the

Dragon Lodge. Century struck mighty and furious strokes with his rod, but was forced to retreat by his weaponless opponent. Prime, who had already been caught in the shoulder by an arrow, was cornered by Radiant fencing with his long sword; Prime could not free himself to extract the arrow. The weapon stayed in the wound and inflicted excruciating pain over half of his body the minute he exerted himself. As for Hawk and Fortune, the battle raged on between them with neither gaining any advantage. Carrying the box in her hands, Sign practised levitational arts and made all speed in a northeasterly direction. Peace raised his blade to rain blows on Curio, but the latter shielded himself with an uplifted sword. Suddenly Peace lowered his blade, spun around and rushed after Sign.

Curio was furious and speedily joined in the pursuit. A few paces on, Third sprang from the brambles on the side, flourishing her twin knives and Curio was waylaid by her. He became careless and only managed to escape a series of deadly moves by a hair's breadth. Though Third was no adept in martial arts, she was thoroughly trained in one whole series of moves for fencing with knives—the Iron Bolt. Practising any of the thirty-six moves in this series, she was able to shield herself against any advancing opponent. Even if her assailant were proficient in martial arts, he still would have difficulty striking her. In his attack, Curio resorted to switching quickly to three different styles of attack with the sword, but failed in all


Sign had covered one third of a mile in her flight. She was pleased to find Peace pursuing her so closely and after skirting a mountainside, she stood

still and addressed Peace, neither angrily nor smilingly. "Why do you chase me?"

"Sister, let us join league against those filthy outlaws." pleaded Peace. "What comes between us can be easily settled."

"Who is your sister?" demanded Sign. "Why did you plot against my father?"

Suddenly Peace fell to his knees on the snowy ground, and pointing towards the open sky, he vowed, "I swear to the God high above: if I, Peace Tao, ever plotted against Pastoral Tian, old Grand Master of the Dragon Lodge, may I be transfixed by millions of arrows and my corpse be cut into slivers."

Hearing him, Sign let out a smile, held him by the arm and said softly, "I long to believe it was not you. I knew it could not have been you. But they

... they ..."

Peace sprang up, held her left hand tight, and said,

"Sister " He got no further than this when the colour suddenly drained

from her face, alerting him that someone was behind him. Quickly, he turned around.

"You two!" bellowed a voice. "What deceitful tricks are you up to?" "What do you mean deceitful tricks? Take care what you say," retorted Sign.

Curio was approaching.

"Brother Curio," cried Peace, "Please do not misunderstand."

Curio rolled his eyes wide and bawled out, "Misunderstand? To the devil with you!" Thereupon, he whirled his blade and struck fiercely in every direction, forcing Peace to parry the blows with his sword.

The two fought several bouts on the snow when Third was heard approaching in full speed.

"Ill-gotten wench!" roared Curio. "All this badgering and pestering!"

He then dealt a backhand blow which she warded off with her left knife while returning a stroke with her right.

"Third," called out Peace, "Let us join league against the boorish fellow, and kill him."

Practising the move known as Moving the Beam and Swapping the Pole, Peace now pretended to raise his left hand, and with his right, he stole the blade to the side and dealt Curio a backhand stroke. Curio was fighting

alone against two but showed no sign of fear; he wanted to show off his

swordsmanship in front of the woman he loved. He attacked from the side and succeeded in forcing his opponent to go on the defensive.

"Marvellous swordplay!" applauded Peace.

Immediately he ducked and practising Advancing to Pull the Trigger, he struck at Curio's loin. Third calculated that Curio would definitely ward off the blow holding up his sword, thereby rendering his upper trunk vulnerable. Seizing this good opportunity, she lashed her twin knives on his shoulders. But she had miscalculated Peace's move. Flourishing his blade, Peace halted halfway and switched suddenly to practising Retreating to Smite the Horse. He twisted his wrist and dealt her a blow on the thigh.

Adepts far more proficient in martial arts than Third would have found it difficult to ward off such a blow. The wound on her thigh caused her

excruciating pain and she staggered and fell back on the ground. Peace

strode one pace and raised his blade to strike, aiming at her neck. Suddenly, Curio's long sword came whizzing, parrying the blow from Peace's single blade.

"Shame on you!" shouted Curio.

"All is fair in war. I meant to help you," replied Peace. Curio was on the point of responding when Hawk, Fortune, Century,

Valour, and the others arrived on the scene. They all wanted the iron box, so when they saw Sign making off with the box, they soon lost interest in dragging on a battle which would prove unrewarding. One by one, they all sneaked away in pursuit the moment their opponents slackened the fight.

"Father," cried out Peace, "the Dragon Lodge are friends of ours. Do not take up arms against Uncle Valour."

Before Century could reply, Curio cried out aloud to Peace, "You plotted against my kind Master. How can we be friends?"

Thereupon, he aimed three whizzing strokes at Peace, two of which were warded off, but he could not manage to parry the third. He dodged quickly to the left, and the keen blade glanced off his right cheek, missing his crown by a mere two inches. All the colour drained from his face.

"Watch out!" cried out Sign suddenly.

A secret weapon darted from the side, whistled past him, humming down wind and wounding Peace in the rump.

What happened was that when Third had fallen to the ground wounded, bitterness and remorse gnawed at her heart. "He of Horse Spring committed the mortal crime of murdering my husband and is known for his cunning tricks. How could I trust his words and not take any precautions?" Therefore when Peace stepped back to parry the blow, she seized the opportunity to launch a surprise attack. Immediately she sprang up and

struck a blow on his crown. But Sign reacted quickly, dispatching darts before Third attempted her move, and catching her on the right shoulder. Consequently, Third dealt a low blow, catching him only in his rump.

Caught by the poisoned dart, Third fell back on the ground. "You fiend!" bellowed Peace.

Lashing his sword, Peace aimed at her chest and lunged hard. The plunge came hard and fast and it was at close range. But just as the blade was about to nail Third to the ground, a whizzing sound came across the open sky. A

secret weapon came flying from afar and hit the blade, knocking it and sending it plunging into the snowy ground next to Third.

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