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Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain Chapter 3.3 Myrmidons

Chapter 3.3 Myrmidons 

Everyone was taken aback by this sudden deafening sound. Suddenly, the steward rushed into the hall in a panic, crying out, "Terrible news for all!"

"Is Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain now on the summit?" asked Curio.

"Not yet. But worse news than that," replied the steward. "The hawsers

and capstans for operating the basket have been smashed." At this everyone shuddered, each having conflicting opinions on the matter: "How is that possible?" "Is there not a spare hawser somewhere?" "Is there not another way of descending the mountain?"

"I am afraid this is the only hawser on the mountain," said the steward. "I was derelict in my duty to allow the two varlets of Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain to tamper with the stand."

"How did it happen?" demanded Tree angrily.

Steward Yu recounted the incident: "After our brothers lowered the two little devils down the mountain on the rope, we then repaired to our

chambers to rest. Suddenly came a loud thunderous noise. We all rushed out, only to find the capstans and the long hawser blown to smithereens.

Damn those two devils incarnate! They must have planted some explosives in the capstans, then led the fuse all the way down to the foot of the mountain and blasted it." The group assembled were all stunned, fighting to reach the open. Their eyes showed them the capstans and the long hawser in fragments. By a stroke of luck, however, those manning the ropes had left the scene when the device exploded, and thus no one was hurt.

Fortune addressed Tree, "Great Master, what is at the back of the mind of Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain?"

"The answer is as straightforward as can be," Tree answered. "He wants every one of us to perish on the mountain, from starvation."

"There is no seed of enmity between us," responded Fortune. "I do not see why he wishes this to happen."

To this Tree replied, "He may have borne the Master of the eyrie a fathomless grudge. As the iron box is now in your possession, that in itself may create enmity between you and him."

Fortune asked, showing great curiosity, "Does Fox Volant also have designs on this iron casket?"

"Does he not have?" retorted Tree.

The Company assembled reflected on the uncanny martial skills practised by the twins and concluded in concert: "Those twins are already such

accomplished fighters that their Master must be a paragon of a fighter." Thereupon, the group retraced their steps back to the hall in silence, with Tree leading the way.

At this point Orchid moved into the big hall from the inner chamber. She turned to Tree and asked, "Great Master, is Fox Volant of the Snowy

Mountain going to starve us to death up here?" Tree's colour sank, as he replied, "Yes, he is. We are all facing the same fate now, and we must find a way down the mountain."

Orchid said reassuringly, "Do not worry. My father will come up in a few days' time: he certainly can rescue us from this mountain." The others pondered her words. Phoenix Miao's daughter, Orchid, now became a member of the band. The Gilt-faced Buddha could not possibly sit back and not render aid. They felt somewhat relieved thinking thus. Hawk, however, shook his head quietly, finding it inconvenient to share his views with the others.

Tree asked, "Phoenix the Knight-errant is unsurpassedly superior in his martial ability, a fact to be reckoned with. But the snow summit is several hundred feet high: how can he possibly make his way up quickly?"

Orchid answered in a tone full of confidence, "As others could at one time reach the pinnacle to build this eyrie, I see no reason why my father cannot find his way up here."

Tree tried to convince Orchid, "Ascending the mountain in Summer presents no problem as the snow by then has all melted. But it is deep winter now. It will be at least another three months before the snow will melt. Steward, how long can we last out on the provisions in store?"

Steward Yu answered, "The person in charge of provisioning has travelled down the mountain to procure groceries. He is expected to be back the day after tomorrow. The provisions on the mountain could have

stretched another twenty days or so. Now with visitors like you, along with the servants and maids of Miss Miao, I am afraid the food supply can be made to last no more than ten days."

The Company present all changed colour, and seemed to have lost the power of speech. They were all musing in silence upon the devilry of Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain.

Suddenly Curio lit up as if he had an intelligent plan, "We shall glide down the slope, gingerly of course." He immediately checked himself when he realized that what he had said did not quite make sense: the summit was precipitiously steep. One would be thrown off instantaneously after

attempting a mere few yards down the treacherous slope. The remainder all stared at him, thinking, "What a fool!" Curio sensed how the others were reacting and reddened to the tips of his ears. Orchid then posed another question, "If we are all going to starve to death, we then have a need to know why. Great Master, what enmity have we contracted of Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain? What right does he claim to instil such immense fear in the lord of the eyrie? How is the iron casket involved in the matter?"

Orchid's question expressed the gist of the puzzlement that was been bothering everyone. The outlaws would battle relentlessly and recklessly for the iron casket even if it meant sacrificing a few lives. But none was able to come up with an acceptable explanation for this frantic fight other than that a priceless treasure was hidden inside the box. They all directed their gaze at Tree, awaiting his explanation.

Tree said calmly, "As the matter now stands, there is no point in fussing and worrying over details. Let us be open and frank with each other. And putting our heads together, we may perhaps find a way down the mountain. If we harass and fight each other, we will die as sure as if we had marched right into the snare of Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain." The Company assembled applauded their assent, and then sat around in a circle.

By then the mountain was growing increasingly colder. The steward ordered more firewood and coal be brought in for the brazier. Everybody was attentive.

Tree held up his covered tea bowl. He took a sip and exclaimed, "The tea is superb!" Then he continued, "The tale is a very long one. Shall we first find out whether the poniard is still in good condition?" The rest acclaimed this suggestion. Tree passed Curio the iron case, requesting, "Your Honour, as the Grand Master of the Northern Branch of the Dragon Lodge, please undo the casket so all present can look inside."

Curio recalled the scene when Peace darted barbs from the box,

wounding and dispatching several people. He intended to take care, lest

some secret weapons might spring forth. He took the metal container with both hands, but did not dare lift its lid. Tree studied him intently, laughing but withholding his comments.

The outermost part of the metal box was encrusted with rust interspersed with variegated mottled streaks. The metal itself was savagely eroded, giving it a rough and uneven appearance. It had to be over one hundred years old; and there was nothing particularly unusual about the casket itself. Curio thought to himself, "If I do not venture to open the casket, I shall be looked down upon by that knave Peace." Clenching his teeth and reaching out his right hand, Curio attempted to force the top open. He was surprised that, after much manoeuvring, the lid showed no sign of giving

way. He scrutinized the casket and detected no sign of a keyhole, trigger, or catch. Curio wondered why he had failed to open the casket. Thereupon, he doubled the strength in both of his hands. Still the box remained stubbornly closed, yielding not at all, as if the container had been cast from one solid metal block.

Sign stole a glance at Curio who was puffing in anger and red to his roots. Sign was positive that there was some mechanical contrivance about the box. A hero's strength would be wasted in attempting to force it open

and one might end up getting hurt in the end. Thereupon, Sign turned to Radiant, whispering in his ears, "Brother Radiant, why do you not take over?" Radiant looked grave and hesitant. "I ... I do not think I. " he

muttered. Sign took the metal casket from Curio, placed it in Radiant's hands, imploring him thus, "I am sure you can do it."

Radiant looked angrily at her. He laid the box on the teapoy. Then he felt the top of the box. Instead of forcing it open upward, he touched the four

corners in sequence thrice. Pivoting the underside of the box at its centre

with his thumb, Radiant gave it a slight push. Instantly the lid opened with a metallic twang.

Valour and Curio both eyed him angrily, reflecting to themselves, "How come you know how to open the box?" They turned immediately to the

container. Inside was indeed a poniard, sheathed in a scabbard, at the sight of which, Curio let out a cry. It was the same poniard wielded by his Master years before. His late Master had cleft the weapons of countless heroes and adept fighters with this very poniard.

Tree picked it up. Pointing to the rows of inscriptions engraved on the sheath, he cried out, "Come and take a look." The scabbard was encrusted with verdigris. The blade was adorned with a red gemstone. Otherwise, it was no more than a nondescript blade. The inscriptions engraved on the

sheath read:

Killing Any Man Is Like Murdering My Own Father. Debauching Any Woman Is Like Violating My Own Mother.

The meaning of these words was quite straightforward and easy to

comprehend, yet they carried a spirit bold and audacious, vividly portrayed, almost darting from the scabbard.

Tree asked, "Does anybody know the story behind these inscriptions?" All answered in the negative. Tree then proceeded, "This is the military decree handed down from Li Zicheng, the Dashing King. This poniard here is the very weapon wielded by the Dashing King when commanding his millions of troops to create battlefields across the kingdom."

At this point the Company all rose from their seats. They fixed their gaze on the poniard resting now in Tree's uplifted hand, pondering on the validity of Tree's claim. The Dashing King had passed away a hundred or so years before, and yet the outlawry still spoke of him with awe. He could still inspire terror and veneration. Tree then turned the scabbard round and said pompously, "If you still have doubts, please read what is on this side." The inscription "Entrusted by the Heavenly Mandate to Advocate

Righteousness" was engraved on the other side of the sheath. Tree

continued, "The sobriquet of the then Dashing King was Generalissimo of the Heavenly Mandate to Advocate Righteousness." Only after hearing this did the Company assembled seem to be convinced.

Tree then added, "One year bandits on horseback from ninety-eight strongholds and bandit-chiefs from twenty-four stockades pledged an

uprising and Li was elected Generalissimo by popular mandate. Later he proclaimed himself the Dashing King. In the course of battling for ten years or so, Li succeeded in besieging and capturing Peking, ushering in the

Dashun Dynasty. The hereditary Emperor Chongzhen was forced to take his own life, hanging himself on Mount Coal. If Wu Sangui had not been a traitor to the Hans by shepherding in the Manchu army from beyond the Pass, the entire kingdom would certainly have come under the sway of Li.

The Dashing King was the most awe-inspiring of hero bandits and outlaws; none ever surpassed him." Tree continued with a sigh, "It was ill-fated that his hard-wrought deeds were destined to be short-lived. They all vanished in no time. The Dashing King besieged Peking in the third month, of the

seventeenth year of the reign of Emperor Chongzhen. He mobilized his troops to encounter the Manchu army beyond the capital in the fourth month. But his forces were taken in less than a month, forcing his soldiers to flee westwards. Then, the chequered fate of the country passed to the hands of the nomadic Tartars from northwest Manchuria."

Hawk looked in outrage at the old monk, reflecting to himself, "He is really bold, dabbling in seditious sermons."

Tree put the poniard carefully back in the casket, saying, "Later, both the Dashing King and Wu were sorely wounded in a raging battle. Li retreated from Peking, the capital, and fled westward, traversing the Provinces of Shanxi and Shaanxi. Wu and the Manchu army trailed in close pursuit, forcing Li to turn southward, withdrawing to Henan, Hubei, and Hunan, and eventually retiring south to Guangdong and Guangxi. The military leaders

and petty officers eliminated each other in the goriest of fights, while the remaining troops fled to the four corners of the country. Li retreated to

Jiugong Mountain in Tongshan County of Wuchang Prefecture. The

Dashing King was stranded and hemmed in on all sides by his enemies.

After a bold resistance and several weak counter-attacks, Li was routed by the enemies. Alas, the hero's race was run."

"The Dashing King had four myrmidons, all paragons in martial arts,

courageous and daring, who would devote their last drop of blood to their Master. These four henchmen bore the surnames Hu, Miao, Fan and Tian. They were known to the soldiers by these last names."

At the mention of the four surnames Hu, Miao, Fan and Tian, Fortune, Sign and the others immediately realized that the four myrmidons must be connected with the matter at hand. Sign cast Orchid a sidelong glance; she was poking the coal in the brazier gently with a pair of tongs, deep in thought. Her snowy white cheeks were lightly illuminated by the warmth of the blaze.

"Risking their lives for the Dashing King, the four myrmidons had gone beyond the call of duty." Tree continued his tale, lifting up his face and gazing at the roof. "They had undertaken many tasks, both difficult and dark, and many a time had saved Li by a hair's breadth. They were his trusted sentries and the sharers of his secrets. Of these four myrmidons, Hu proved himself the fighter's fighter, whose martial ability outshone the other three. He was also by far the most capable. He was given the sobriquet Lynx of the Sky by the troops of the Dashing King." At this, all present let out a cry.

They listened, rapt with upturned, attentive faces, waiting for Tree to pick up the tale. "The situation was fraught with danger when Li was hemmed in on Jiugong Mountain. Every single soul dispatched down the mountain for reinforcements met the same fate. They were waylaid and executed by the

adversaries. In the end the Dashing King had to resort to charging Miao, Fan and Tian with the mission of obtaining reinforcements. These three myrmidons fought their way out in the dark to bring in support. Hu alone stayed behind to protect the Dashing King. When the three myrmidons marched back with troops for a counter-attack, it was too late: the Dashing King had already been dealt with.

"The three myrmidons wept bitterly. Fan wanted to slit his own throat instantaneously to sacrifice his life for his Master, but was held back by the two others, professing that wreaking vengeance for this blood feud should be their first priority. The three then conducted exhaustive enquiries in the environs of Jiugong Mountain, hoping to shed more light on details

surrounding the circumstances of Li's death, for he had died as a martyr for the country. Hu, the myrmidon, apparently still alive and on the run, was an accomplished fighter, insurmountable under the sky. He was wise and resourceful. The three remaining myrmidons now needed him desperately to take charge of the situation before they could embark on retaliating and

seeking vengeance for their Master. Thus spurred on, they set out in quest of Hu.

"The story among the forefathers of the outlawry had it that from generation to generation this quest brought on towering waves. Miao, Fan and Tian each detailed to their children a meticulous rendition of the scene they witnessed on that memorable day, also laying down rules to be strictly observed by the clansman that the same rendition be handed down to the progeny. Offspring of each succeeding generation of these three families

were to take up the cause of their ancestors."

At this, Tree gave Orchid a serious look, remarking, "This monk is not one of your coterie. I therefore understood only the outline. If Miss Miao would consent to divulge more, I am sure we shall be more enlightened." The group assembled reflected to themselves, "Phoenix the father and Miss Miao the daughter are offspring of Miao the myrmidon." 

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