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Ode to Gallantry Chapter 1

Chapter 1 - The Black Steel Symbol (Xuan Tie Ling)

The man of Zhao wore unadorned robes and a simple tassel, his scimitar was bright as frost and snow.
The silver saddle illuminated the white horse, its wild galloping was like a shooting star.
To kill one man within ten steps,

and not leave a trace within a thousand miles.

To leave with a flick of one's robes after the deed is done, to deeply hide one's body and name.
To drink with the great Lord of Xinling,

to draw one's sword and raise it high. To share one's roasted meat with Zhu Hai,
to hold the wine vessel urging Hou Ying to drink.

After three cups a vow will be taken,

and even if the Five Sacred Mountains will crumble it cannot be unmade.
 
When the eyes blur and the ears go warm,

the heroic spirit will appear like a rainbow.

To save the Zhao Kingdom wielding a golden warhammer, and the city of Handan will first tremble.
The two brave warriors of a thousand epochs, their might grace the City of Daliang.
Even in death their bones remain fragrant, and do not shame the heroes of the realm.
Who can remain under the roof of one's study hall,

and read the Book of Great Mystery until one's hair grows white?"

This ancient poem of Li Bai, "Ode to Gallantry", tells the story of Hou Ying and Zhu Hai, two warriors who assisted Lord Xinling of the Wei Kingdom during the Warring States Period. After a thousand years, one can still feel the vigorous heroic spirit of the past when reading the poem. The city of Daliang which is mentioned, is situated near the Yellow River. Later renamed Bianliang, it is now known as Kaifeng City in Henan Province. Although this city has been the capital of numerous Chinese dynasties, the common social practice has remained plain and simple. The generosity and chivalry which were praised in the ancient tragedies has not ceased in later generations.

- by Laviathan

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There was once a small town called Hou Jian Ji, situated twelve li (about 6km) outside the eastern gate of Kaifeng. The town got its name from Hou Ying, who was once the head of the guards guarding the eastern gate of Da Liang.
 
It was almost dusk on this particular day, with the peasants going about their daily business, when suddenly there came the rumble of hoofbeats from the northeast. The sounds were getting closer and closer, and judging from the noise, there were probably around 200 horses in total coming this way. "It's probably the army", guessed some, while others kept saying "get out of the way - when the army horses come, they'll run you over."

The horses finally arrived, and the hoofbeats slowed down. The whinnying of the horses could be heard in the town centre, and later on the whinnying seemed to come from all over the place, as if the whole town was surrounded. Some people were understandably concerned that these were bandits. "Oh no, it's those damned chaps" groaned one of the peasants. "Not 'chaps'...." cautioned another. "'masters'... but I've never seen this happen in broad daylight, though. How weird."

He suddenly stopped as four of the horsemen slowly approached him. At the head of the riders was a man dressed in white, carrying a large sabre. "Old peasant!" he called. "Everybody stays where they are... if anybody moves don't blame my sabre for being blind." He then galloped down the road in a western direction, and the noise of those hooves trotting over the ground made the hearts of the peasants jump.

As he was riding, another seven horses came galloping in from the west side, this time led by a man in black. He wore a hat low over his face, and he ordered "Don't move and everything will be alright. If anybody wants to taste my "sabre noodles" by all means feel free to step forward.". A peasant chuckled and said "I wonder how "sabre noodles" taste like..." he was joking, but before he had finished his sentence one of the riders lashed out with his whip, caught hold of the peasant and dragged him out onto the road with a thump. He then dragged him across the road, and another rider came across and had his horse trample the peasant to death.

About five or six doors away from all the commotion there stood a vendor hawking fried cakes. The stall had a big wok filled with oil, and a few flour dumplings were simmering in the oil. Hunched over the stall was a white- haired man tending the oil. He rolled up a ball of flour and flattened it into a cake, all the while ignoring the events happening in front of him. Taking
 
some sesame, he scattered it over the top of the cake, and using a pair of tongs, lowered the cake into the wok of boiling oil.

By this time, the horses had stopped galloping around town. The seven to eight hundred peasants all around the streets were petrified and didn't dare make a sound. Even crying children were hushed by their parents, and all that could be heard was the leather footsteps of a man walking in slowly from the western side.

This man took his time walking, and to each peasant, each confident pounding step taken felt as if it was taken on their heads. The sun was setting, and the long shadow cast by the man, walking slowly amidst the silence, was enough to make everybody tremble. Only the cake vendor continued with his business, and the man walked right up to the cake stall, stopped, and started looking at the vendor. He then chuckled coldly.

The vendor looked up, and saw a very tall man with a very fierce look on his face. "Buy a fried cake, sir? Only one coin each." he asked. Using his tongs, he gently selected a cake from the wok and placed it on the wooden tray. "Hand it over!" ordered the tall man, sticking out his hand, and the vendor said "Yes, sir", took the cake from the tray and put it in the hand of the tall man.

The tall man's eyebrows raised up, and he said "At this stage, you still try to deceive me?" He then threw the cake at the vendor, who dodged it calmly and the cake flew past him, landing on the street behind him. The tall man then produced two hooks from his waist and brandished them wickedly before the vendor. ""Even now you refuse to hand it over? You who are surnamed Wu, do you not know when to give up?" The vendor replied "Sir, I think you made a mistake. My surname is Wang. Old man Wang the cake seller - everybody in Hou Jian Ji knows me." "Damn it" replied the tall man. "We've checked this very carefully. You can change your appearance and hide for a year or two, but you cannot hide forever!"

The vendor narrowed his eyes, and calmly said "I heard that Bandit Leader An from the Golden Sabre Bandit Camp was a man who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and most people in the martial arts world when asked would rate him as a "heroic bandit". Why now must he send some
 
underlings to come looking for a humble fried cake seller?" These words were said with confidence and authority, and were spoken slowly and clearly.

"Wu Daotong!" cried the tall man. "So you're not going to hand it over, are you?" The vendor then changed expression, and his muscles started to tense up, exuding an aura of menace himself. "Since you know my name, and yet you continue to address me without manners... don't you think you're being a bit too brave?" "Only now you know how brave I am?!!" shouted the tall man as he raised his left hook, and using the stroke "The hand arrives and grabs" (shou dao qin lai) hacked down towards Wu Daotong's left shoulder.

Wu Daotong moved to his right. The tall man's hook sliced through thin air, but with a pivot of his left wrist, brought the hook slicing across towards Wu Daotong's back. Wu Daotong ducked under the slice, and lashed out with his right foot. Kicking his stall, he sent the whole pile of burning coals flying towards the tall man, and at the same time a wok filled with boiling oil flipped in the air towards the tall man's head. The tall man got a big shock and retreated as fast as he could. He managed to avoid the hot coals, but not the splashing oil. With a horrific sound, the boiling oil splashed on his legs, leaving him screaming in agony.

Wu Daotong braced his legs, leapt into the air and landed on the roof opposite, his hands still holding the tongs which were his tools of trade. Suddenly a flash of green appeared and a single sabre was swinging towards his head. Raising his tongs, Wu Daotong parried the blow. Sparks flew as the blow connected, and Wu Daotong's tongs, although dark and nondescript, were obviously made of a very strong alloy. He fended off the single sabre, and suddenly to his left and right a spear and a pair of twin sabres attacked simultaneously. The enemy had already taken up position on the roof as well. Wu Daotong snorted and yelled out "Shameless, you wish to win by sheer numbers?". He stood up straight, seperated his tongs and parried the spear with his left hand, while the right hand fended off the twin sabres. His tongs had now become a pair of metal brushes - all this while he had concealed his two brushes by using them as tongs.

Using his brushes, Wu Daotong went on the offensive, aiming for his opponents' pressure points. Despite being outnumbered three to one, he was
 
actually gaining the upper hand. With a cry of "Look!", he thrust his brush at the spear-wielding opponent. With a cry of pain, the man's left leg was struck, and he slowly retreated back down the roof.

On a roof on the northwest corner of town stood a short, thin old man, hands on his hips, coldly watching the three men fight. With a sudden flash, the man with the single sabre received a kick from Wu Daotong's right leg, and tumbled down the roof onto the streets below. The remaining man with the twin sabres, seeing that he had lost the advantage, held position with his twin sabres in a snow flower stance, ready to concentrate purely on defence.

The old man slowly approached, and thrust his right index finger at Wu Daotong's left eye. This stroke was lethal, and as Wu Daotong raised a brush to fend off the finger, the finger deftly avoided the brush and switched target to Wu Daotong's throat. Wu Daotong had already committed to his initial stroke and, having no way of changing his stroke to fend off the new attack, took a step back. The old man pressed forward, and thrust his right index finger out again, this time heading for Wu Daotong's stomach. Wu Daotong retaliated by thrusting his right brush at the old man's head. The old man continued forward, and in a flash was within the arms of Wu Daotong, having completely avoided the brush attack. He thrust out two palms, aimed for Wu Daotong's chest. Wu gasped in shock, and immediately stepped back. With a sudden rip the old man had tore off a part of Wu's robe at the chest area. Wu didn't even bother to check if he had actually sustained any injury, but braced himself, and utilising the stroke "Wan Bao Liu He" brought both brushes across in an arc aimed at the old man's temples.

The old man didn't even bother to dodge, but continued to press forward. With a sickening crunch, both his palms had landed solid blows on Wu Daotong's chest. Several ribs were fractured with this blow.. and Wu Daotong fell from the roof.

The tall man was standing on the ground below, both legs burned badly by the boiling oil. He was furious with the embarrasment of the initial encounter, but as his legs were injured, he was unable to leap onto the roof to join in the fight. In addition, the old man who had just attacked was a very proud man, and once he was fighting would not have taken kindly to
 
anybody offering assistance. All he could do was watch the fight from below, but seeing Wu Daotong fall from the roof, he got excited and rushed towards Wu, both hooks drawn and thrusting towards Wu's stomach.

The old man, Zhou Mu, yelled out "Leave a live tongue!" but was too late, and both hooks had sunk deep into Wu's stomach. At the same time the tall man gasped, and staggered back. Embedded in his chest were two steel brushes which penetrated all the way and emerged out his back, blood spraying from all four wounds. With a shudder he fell to the ground - Wu Daotong, with his dying breath, had put everything into this last attack, and the tall man was caught completely unawares. Other members of the Golden Sabre Bandit Camp ran to his side and lifted him up but he was already dead.

Zhou Mu couldn't care less whether then tall man was alive or dead, and murmuring something, picked up Wu Daotong. Seeing that he was no longer breathing, he creased his eyebrows and yelled "Take off his clothes! Search everything!" Four of his men replied "Yes, sir!" and started searching the corpse. All they found was a small bundle concealed in his outer robe. They opened the bundle, only to find a smaller bundle within, all wrapped in oiled cloth. As each bundle was opened, the look of anticipation on Zhou Mu's face got stronger and stronger. In total over ten bundles of oil cloth were removed, and the bundle kept getting smaller and smaller. Eventually he started getting irritated, and the bundle was reduced to a 3-inch by 2-inch bundle. He weighed it with his hands, and screamed "Damn it! What sort of trick is this? Forget this - go in and search the house!"

About ten of the men dressed in black rushed into the house. The cake shop was only about two rooms big, and the ten men went in searching. The sounds of items smashing and breaking rang about as cutlery, furniture and everything else were checked thoroughly. Zhou Mu shouted "Check everything carefully - don't let anything pass you!"

After searching for half a day, it became too dark for them to see anything. They lit a fire, and tore down the entire cake shop, the flour within the building flying everywhere. Amidst the commotion, a little beggar boy darted across the street, and picked up the fried cake that was lying near the
 
drain. This boy, about 12 to 13 years old, had not eaten anything for a few days, and was sitting limply on top of the wall corner. When the tall man threw the fried cake which Wu Daotong had given him, the cake landed near the drain, and the boy's eyes had not stopped staring at the fried cake since. He had wanted to climb down and pick up the cake, but there were too many fierce people around, and he didn't dare move out of fright. In addition, there were those two dead bodies of Wu Daotong and the tall man, and they lay not far from the fried cake.

However, once the sky became dark enough, the light from the torches could not reach the area near the drain, and as such the boy summoned all his courage and grabbed the cake. He was so hungry that he didn't care about the cake being tainted with dirty smelly water, and put the cake in his mouth. He held the cake in his mouth, not even daring to bite or chew, in case the sound of the chewing attracted the attention of the sabre-wielding men around the area. With the cake between his teeth, his stomach felt so much better even though he hadn't swallowed anything.

By this time the men had already demolished the cake shop entirely, even to the extent of ripping up the floor tiles one by one to check. Zhou Mu saw that there was nothing left to search, and as such yelled "Let's go!". A horn sounded, and the sounds of horses galloping started. The Golden Sabre Bandit Camp prepared to leave, and two of the bandits carried the corpse of the tall man, placing his across on of the horse saddles, and were gone in an instant.

It wasn't until the sounds of the hoofbeats had completely faded away, that Hou Jian Ji started to hear the voices of men whispering again. The peasants were afraid that the bandits would return, however, and as such no one dared to raise his voice. The innkeeper and another peasant carried the corpse of the dead peasant into the shop, and immediately bolted the doors, not daring to come out again. The town resonated with the sounds of locks clicking, doors slamming - people were either locking their doors, or at least shutting them tight - and not long after, the streets were abandoned, and not a sound was to be heard.

The little beggar boy saw that Wu Daotong's corpse was still lying unattended on the streets, and he was scared. He took a small bite, and
 
dared to swallow. He was just about to take another bite when he saw Wu Daotong's corpse move. The boy got a fright, and blinked his eyes only to see the corpse sit up. The boy was terrified, his heart beating uncontrollably, as he saw the corpse stand up on its two feet. The boy's teeth started chattering.

The corpse looked around, but luckily the boy was sitting behind the wall corner, and as such the corpse could not see him. Under the cold rays of the moon, however, the boy could see everything clearly. He could see the corpse bleeding profusely, and the two hooked blades were still impaled in the corpse's stomach. The boy kept biting his teeth together, not daring to make a sound.

The corpse then squatted down, and felt the ground. Upon finding a fried cake, the corpse weighed it in its hands, tore it apart and threw it away. It then found another fried cake, tore it open, and threw it again. The boy felt as if his heart was going to leap out of his mouth any moment now, as the corpse continued searching the ground. The corpse didn't bother with anything else it found, but everytime it found a fried cake, it tore it open then threw it away. As it continued feeling the ground, it edged closer and closer to the drain. When he got to the wooden tray lying on the floor with over 20 fried cakes on it, it took them one by one, tore them all open, but didn't eat any of them. All were torn in half, and then thrown away.

The lad saw the corpse approach the wall corner and could only think of fleeing. However, his whole body was numb with fright, and his legs had no way of moving. The corpse moved very slowly, and it took an entire incense burning time to tear open the 20 fried cakes it had found on the tray. It could not find any more fried cakes on the floor, and raised its head, looking around. The boy quickly darted back behind the wall, not daring to look at the corpse anymore, when suddenly he got a fright. Although his body was well hidden behind the wall, the moonlight was shining from behind the wall, and the clear shadow of his head and hair was projected on the ground just beside the legs of the corpse. The boy saw the corpse's legs suddenly move again, and with a shriek tried to flee.

The corpse moaned "Fried cakes... fried cakes.." and chased after the boy.
 
The boy tumbled across the ground as the corpse reached out, trying to grab him. The boy rolled to the side and the corpse lost balance, using its palms to steady itself. The corpse was tall, and its legs were long, and although it stumbled along like a drunkard, it managed to catch up with the boy in just over ten steps. Grabbing the boys neck from behind, it lifted the boy high into the air.

The corpse mumbled "Fried cake... you.... stole.. my... fried... cake?" In his current position, the boy could not even consider lying, and nodded his head. "You.... you ate it?" asked the corpse. The boy nodded again. The corpse then raised its right hand, and with a rip tore open the boy's shirt, revealing his throat and stomach. "I'll... tear.. open .. your.. stomach.. to get.. it.. back...." threatened the corpse. The boy was absolutely terrrified and squeaked "I.. I only took one bite!!!!"

When Wu Daotong was hit by Zhou Mu, and then subsequently stabbed by the tall man, he held his breath and feigned death. After a long while, he woke up. The stomach is a fatal area, but although the wound was very serious he managed to survive. He could only think of one thing, and when he woke up, seeing that the Golden Sabre Bandit Camp had departed, he ignored his injuries, and set out recovering the item which he had hidden in the fried cake.

He had pretended to be a humble cake seller, making his living in Hou Jian Ji. Although he managed to escape undetected for a while, he was unable to find the original owner of the item. When he heard the horns and saw over 200 horses bearing down upon the town, he knew that they were here for him. The situation was dire, and there was no place for him to hide the item, and as such he hid it in one of his fried cakes. When the tall man ordered him to "Hand it over" he decided to take a risk. He placed the item in the hands of the tall man, and as he expected, the tall man lost his temper and threw it away.

When Wu Daotong woke up from his injuries, he had no way of knowing which fried cake was the one in which he had hidden the item. He tore each one open, but none of them had it. At last he saw and caught the little beggar boy, and thinking that since the boy was so hungry, he must have eaten the entire cake with the item within. Immediately he decided that he
 
was going to cut open the boy and retrieve the item, but he could not find a blade nearby. Gritting his teeth, he pulled out one of the hooked blades in his stomach, and turning the blade around, swung it at the boy's stomach.

As soon as the hooked blade was removed from the body, he felt a sharp pain, and blood started pouring out of his wound like a stream. The blade had almost reached the boy's stomach, but all of a sudden his left hand lost all strength, his fingers loosened and he dropped the boy. The hooked blade swung across, slicing through air, and Wu Daotong looked around, wobbled a bit, then his legs gave way and finally he fell to the ground. This time he was really dead.

The boy scrambled away from the corpse in a complete panic. The events which just happened had frightened him so severely that he could only take a few steps, at which point he fainted, his hands still clutching onto that fried cake from which he only taken one bite.

The moonlight shone on Wu Daotong's body, and slowly moved towards the little beggar boy as the sound of hoofbeats came from the southeast. This time the horses were approaching really fast - barely after the first sound of hoofbeats were heard the horses were already nearby. The peasants of Hou Jian Ji were already extremely ruffled, and now hearing these new hoofbeats made them panic even more, fearing the worst. This time, however, there were only two horses, and no horns blaring.

These two horses were extremely peculiar. One was black from its head all the way to its tail, but its four hooves were white - this horse was known as "Black Clouds Covering Snow". The other had black hooves, but the whole body was as white as snow - this species was known as "Black Hooved Jade Hare" - both horses were uncommon in the mainland.

The rider of the white horse was a woman dressed in white, apart from a red flower adorning her hair and a red belt around her waist. Hanging from the belt was a sword in a white scabbard. Riding the black horse was a middle- aged man, dressed completely in black. Hanging from his belt was a sword in a black scabbard.
 
Both riders saw Wu Daotong's dead body with the wreckage around him, and simultaneously let out a sigh. The man lashed out with his whip and caught hold of Wu Daotong's neck, and pulled it up a few feet, allowing the moonlight to shine on his face.

"It's Wu Daotong." said the woman. "It looks like the Golden Sabre Bandit Camp managed to get it." The man retrieved his whip, pulling the body around. "Wu Daotong hasn't been dead long - the blood hasn't even clotted. Let's give chase!" The woman nodded.

The two horses took off towards the west, eight hooves galloping across the ground, the sounds in perfect unison, as if there was only one horse. Both horses synchronised the movement of their front hooves and back hooves together, and looked a magnificent sight. Anybody seeing the horses will know that both were extremely well-trained and without blemish.

Both horses raced past Bianliang, and the road became narrow. The horses were unable to ride side by side, and the woman reined her horse, allowing the man to lead. The man smiled at her, and led on, the woman following close behind.

Both riders had deduced from Wu Daotong's wounds that he was slain by the Golden Sabre Bandit Camp, and that they should have caught up with them by now - but there was no trace of them. The two riders did not know that although Wu Daotong had died recently, the Golden Sabre Bandit Camp left a long time ago and had already gone very far away.

The horses ran non-stop for two hours, after which the riders dismounted for a rest, and carried on until almost dawn, before they saw campfires in the distance. The two riders exchanged smiles, and dismounted. The woman took the reins of the man's horse, and tied both horses to a tree nearby. The two riders then used their qinggong and approached the camp silently.

The camp didn't look that far, but in reality it was a few li away and the two figures raced across the open plains in silence like a wind. As they got closer they could see a large group of people seated around a few campfires, and judging from the sounds, they were having noodles. The two riders had originally intended to get closer to spy, but in the open plains there was
 
nowhere to hide. They then slowed down about ten yards from the camp, and walked towards the group of people.

Somebody within the group cried out "Who is it? What do you want?"

The man walked forward, his hand clasped together in greeting, and answered with a smile "Is Camp Leader An around? Who am I speaking to?"

The short old man Zhou Mu focused his eyes, and by the light of the fire saw a man and a woman, one in black and one in white, both standing straight. Both were middle aged and the man looked dashing while the woman looked cultured, their clothing blowing in the wind and two swords hanging from their belts.

Zhou Mu thought of two people, and stood up and clasped his hands in greeting. "Oh, it's Master and Mrs Shi of Jiangnan's Xuan Su Mansion!" then yelled out "Hey, brothers, all come here and pay your respects! These two are Master and Mrs Shi, famous north and south of the great river!". The whole camp stood up, and bowed. Zhou Mu thought to himself "Shi Qing and Min Rou don't normally have any dealings with our Golden Sabre Bandit Camp. Here they are at this early hour.. I wonder what they want......
could they be here regarding the item?" He immediately glanced around the plains and saw nobody else, and thought "Even though the swordsmanship ability of these two are good, they can't possibly take all of us on at once, so what's there to fear?"

Mrs Shi, whose name was Min Rou, turned to her husband and said "Martial brother, this is Old Master Zhou, Zhou Mu of the Eagle Claw Clan". Although she had lowered her voice, Zhou Mu heard her, and found it curious that she would know him, thinking ""Icy Snow Heaven Sword" knows my background?" and said "You're too kind.. Zhou Mu of the Golden Sabre Bandit Camp greets Master Shi and Mrs Shi." and bowed while addressing them.

Shi Qing looked at the people around him and smiled. "Everybody seems to be having breakfast - I have intruded.. please be seated." and turning to Zhou Mu, added "Friend Zhou is too kind. We husband and wife had met
 
"Flying through the skies" Brother Zhuang, Zhuang Zhen Zhong, from your clan, several times before, and that means we're not really complete strangers."

Zhou Mu replied ""Flying through the skies" is my martial uncle." and secretly thought "You're much younger than I am, and yet you refer to my martial uncle Zhuang as a 'brother' - it's obvious you're treating yourself as my senior." Having thought of this, he guessed that the visitors were probably not as benign as they seemed, and readied himself. In the martial world, the concept of "seniority" was a very important one. Juniors should always respect their seniors, and when seniors issue an order, the juniors will find it hard to disobey otherwise they risk being branded as "disrespectful".

Shi Qing saw the look on Zhou Mu's face, and guessed what he was thinking. He smiled and said "Oh, I'm sorry! When I met Brother Zhuang on Song Shan, he told me about the martial arts of your clan, and both of us were very impressed. I have a small favour to ask, and I hope young brother Zhou will forgive me." Having changed his address to "young brother Zhou" it became even more obvious that he was treating himself as a senior.

Zhou Mu replied "If it's something personal, I'll give face to the two of you, and as long as it's within my power whatever your orders are I'll do what I can. However, if it's something to do with the Bandit Camp, my rank is lowly, and I'm not in a position to make decisions."

Shi Qing thought to himself "This man is cunning - before even hearing what I had to say he has basically avoided all responsibility" and said "Then I'll be frank. I wish to check something with young brother Zhou. We husband and wife are searching for a man, his surname is Wu, his name Daotong. He uses a pair of iron brushes as his weapons, and is fairly tall. We heard that over the past few years he has been disguised as an old man and gone into hiding. He should be living around this area - would young brother Zhou have heard of this person?"

The moment he mentioned Wu Daotong, the entire Golden Sabre Bandit Camp fell silent, and some people put down their bowls of noodles immediately.
 
Zhou Mu thought to himself "You came from the east, so obviously you have seen Wu Daotong's corpse. If I deny anything, it will make me look like I have something to hide." He laughed and said "That's great! Master Shi, Mrs Shi, what a coincidence. Although my kungfu is lowly, I have managed to do you two a service! This Wu Daotong must have offended Master and Mrs Shi - our Golden Sabre Bandit Camp has already killed him." While speaking these words, his eyes were fixed on Shi Qing's face, gauging his reaction and trying to detect any traces of joy or anger.

Shi Qing smiled calmly. "We don't know this Wu Daotong, and actually, he hasn't really offended us in any way. This sounds funny, but the reason we're chasing this man is because of a certain item he has in his possession."

Zhou Mu's face twitched slightly, before he managed to control himself again. "You have done your research well. We have also heard this news. To be honest, I led the Golden Sabre Bandit Camp today mainly for this item as well." he then sighed and continued. "However, I don't know which bastard came up with this rumour. Iron Brush Wu Daotong died for nothing, and our entire journey seems to have been in vain. Even worse, big brother An might be upset with us for not doing a good job. Rumours have always travelled fast in the martial arts world. If everybody assumed that the Golden Sabre Bandit Camp had gotten possession of that item, and all turned their attentions to us, then it would be quite unfair. Brother Zhang, please give Master Shi and Mrs Shi the details of how we killed Wu and searched his entire fried cake shophouse."

A short man said to the couple "That Wu fellow's martial arts was pretty good, and our squad leader Li, Li Da Yuan, perished at his hands. Squad leader Zhou then attacked, and with two palms struck that Wu fellow from the roof. That strike shattered his bones, ruptured his internal organs..." This man was very eloquent, and dramatised and exaggerated certain details. He talked at length about how they searched the shop, tore down the walls, and dragged the tale on, leaving out only the bit about Zhou Mu getting hold of that small bundle.

Shi Qing nodded and thought to himself "From the moment Zhou Mu saw us, he has been uneasy. Xuan Su Mansion and the Golden Sabre Bandit
 
Camp have never had any friction between each other - if he did not have the item in his possession, he would not need to be so defensive." He knew that whether the Camp had gotten the item notwithstanding, if it was with them then it would most definitely be in the hands of Zhou Mu. Looking around, he saw over 200 members of the Golden Sabre Bandit Camp, most of whom were decent fighters, and realised that it was going to be difficult to win this fight. Although Zhou Mu had spoken to them politely, his words contained various concealed motives, and were definitely not words of sincere friendship. Obviously Zhou Mu was secure in the knowledge that he had the advantage of numbers. He smiled and pointed at a small forest a small distance away to the left. "I have something private I wish to discuss with young brother Zhou. Could we adjourn to the forest to speak?"

Zhou Mu obviously wasn't going to, and said "All of us here are brothers and mates, there's nothing that.." the last three words "cannot be said" were not even spoken when his left wrist was suddenly grabbed by Shi Qing, and he could feel his whole body going numb while his right hand had no strength at all. Zhou Mu was furious, but also shocked. From the moment Shi Qing and Min Rou had appeared, he was completely on his guard, and on the lookout for any signs of aggression. He didn't expect Shi Qing to make his move so suddenly, though, and grab his hand just like that. The "Grabbing hand" technique was always the forte of the Eagle Claw Clan, but this time without even a single exchange of strokes he had already fallen prey to it. He tried to resist the effects with his internal energy, but all his strength had disappeared away. He realised that his important nerve points were being held and he could only sweat.

Shi Qing said "Since young brother Zhou is willing to go, that'd be great!" then turned to Min Rou and said "Martial sister, young brother Zhou and I are heading over there for a short chat, and will be back in a moment. Please wait here for us." He then turned towards the forest, and Min Rou said very politely "Martial brother, please go ahead." Although they were husband and wife, they still addressed each other as martial brother and sister.

The Golden Sabre Bandit Camp saw Shi Qing holding Zhou Mu's hand, laughing and talking along the way. His wife was staying behind amidst
 
them, and no suspected anything. No one thought that a man of Zhou Mu's ability could have been captured without so much as a struggle.

Clinging onto Zhou Mu's wrist, Shi Qing kept walking faster and faster, and Zhou Mu was forced to keep up or risk being pulled to the ground. The distance between the campfires and the forest was about a li, and before they knew it they were in the forest.

Shi Qing smiled and released Zhou Mu's wrist. "Young brother Zhou. "
Zhou Mu angrily interrupted "What on earth are you doing?", formed a claw with his right hand and, using the "Capturing Lion Hand", went mercilessly for Shi Qing's throat.

Shi Qing raised his left hand and lightly tapped the approaching claw, deflecting it to the left. With a claw stroke of his own, he managed to grab both of Zhou Mu's wrists and had them pinned behind his back. Zhou Mu was shocked and furious, and raised his right leg to kick behind him.

Shi Qing laughed and said "Young brother Zhou, why are you so angry?". Zhou Mu suddenly felt both his "Fu Tu" (Capture Rabbit) and "Huan Tiao" (Ring Jump) pressure points on his right leg go numb, and his right leg lost all strength to even kick, falling limply back to the ground. At this point, only his left leg was still firmly on the ground, and if he tried to kick backwards again, his entire body would fall forward. His face was flushed with anger and said "You..... you.... you.."

Shi Qing said "Young brother Zhou has got hold of the item which Wu Daotong had. I wish to borrow it and have a look, please bring it out." Zhou Mu replied "We did get the item, but it's not on me. If you want to see it, we'll have to go back there." He wanted to trick Shi Qing to head back to the campfires, then he could issue the order to attack. It wouldn't matter how skilled Shi Qing and his wife were, they'd never be able to win.

"I don't believe you - I need to search young brother Zhou, please forgive me." replied Shi Qing. Zhou Mu angrily replied "You want to search me? What sort of person do you take me for?" Shi Qing didn't answer and took off Zhou Mu's left boot. Zhou Mu gasped and watched as Shi Qing removed a small bundle from the boot - the bundle which was taken from
 
Wu Daotong. Zhou Mu was shocked and angry, and stunned. "How... how did you know? You saw me put it in?" Actually, when Shi Qing mentioned that he was going to search Zhou Mu, he noticed that Zhou Mu's eyes involuntarily glanced at his left boot. He immediately shifted his eyes to somewhere far away, but Shi Qing guessed that the item might be hidden in his boot. He was indeed correct.

Shi Qing thought to himself "When that chap was describing the scene with Wu Daotong and his fried cake shop, it sounded very accurate and must have been the truth. Now that I've found the item on you, it seems you must have hidden it from even them, and wanted to keep it for yourself." Touching the bundle with three fingers from his left hand, his face suddenly changed colour.

Zhou Mu stood there, face flushed, and couldn't make up his mind whether he wanted to yell for help or not. Shi Qing said coldly "You betrayed Camp Leader An, do you really want to let everybody know this and get hacked to pieces as punishment?" Zhou Mu got shocked and involuntarily replied "How... How did you know?" Shi Qing replied "Of course I know." He then released Zhou Mu's wrists, saying "Golden Sabre An is a very intelligent man. You couldn't even hide it from me, what makes you think you can hide it from him?"

At this time, the sound of footsteps lightly approaching was heard, and some people had arrived just outside the forest. A loud hearty voice was laughing loudly, and said "Thank you for Master Shi's kind words!" Once the words had died down, three men entered the forest.

Zhou Mu had a look, and immediately his face went pale. These three men were the Golden Sabre Bandit Camp's Camp Leader An Fengri, Second Camp Leader Feng Zhenwu and Third Camp Leader Taoist Yuan Deng. When Zhou Mu recieved orders to pursue Wu Daotong, Camp Leader An never even mentioned anything about sending people out here to back him up or meet him. For some reason, he had now come here personally. Zhou Mu figured that his plan to keep the item for himself, and his failure to do so was now exposed, and his name was disgraced, perhaps even his life was forfeit. All he could say was "Brother An, he... he stole the item!"
 
An Fengri clasped his hands together respectfully towards Shi Qing, and said "Master Shi's name is famed throught the world. I have long admired you, but never had the chance to meet you. Our camp is nearby - would Master Shi and Mrs Shi be willing to join us at the camp, and let us play host for a while?"

Shi Qing looked at An Fengri, and saw that he had beady eyes, was of a short build and had a rough look, but when he spoke it was with good manners, without even mentioning his taking of the item, and even invited him back to his camp. However, if he did go to the camp, he didn't think he was going to leave the camp that easily, so he put his hands together in greeting, hiding the bundle in his belt and smiled "Thank you to Camp Leader An..."

All of a sudden, a green flash appeared and Taoist Yuan Deng's longsword had left its scabbard. The sword was thrusted towards Shi Qing's wrist, and he yelled "Put down that item first!" This thrust came very fast, but Shi Qing was faster - with a turn of his body he was beside Yuan Deng, taking the bundle from his belt and placing it in Yuan Deng's left hand, saying "For you!". Yuan Deng was excited with glee, didn't have time to think about Shi Qing's motives, and grabbed it. Suddenly his right hand went numb, and his sword fell to the ground.

Shi Qing picked up the sword and thrust it at Yuan Deng's left wrist, yelling "Put down that item first!". Yuan Deng was stunned, and seeing that the sword thrust was barely five inches away from his wrist, and that he had no time to dodge, could only drop the bundle.

Feng Zhenwu said "Good Kungfu!", and without waiting for Shi Qing to pick up the bundle, flashed his single sabre and charged low, hacking towards his leg. Shi Qing's longsword flashed out, this stroke was straightforward but effective - Feng Zhenwu's single sabre hadn't even reached Shi Qing's right leg, and the longsword was already going to pin Feng Zhenwu's brain to the ground.

An Fengri was concerned and shouted "Jian Xia..." (the first half of "Have mercy with the sword") Shi Qing's sword was thrusting straight and pierced his skin. Feng Zhenwu felt his heart grow cold, and closed his eyes waiting
 
for death, but only felt the slight pain. Shi Qing's sword didn't thrust any further, and he did show mercy. The sword point had reached Feng Zhenwu's face, but stopped in time - the strength and direction timed perfectly without error. There was the sound of a slight stab as Shi Qing used the sword to pierce the bundle and retrieve it, before An Fengri's "...Liu Qing" (the second half of "Have mercy with the sword") was heard.

Shi Qing lowered the sword and said "My apologies for the offence" and took two steps back. Feng Zhenwu stood up, retrieved his sword, his face deathly pale. He retreated behind An Fengri, and mumbled a couple of sentences. Whether he was thanking Shi Qing for showing mercy, or scolding him for being too ruthless with his stroke, only he himself knew.

An Fengri unlocked the bronze button on his chest, and from his back, removed a single sabre, unsheathing it. It was already dawn, and the rays of the sun had already started to pierce through the trees. The golden sabre flashed in the sunlight and gleamed around the edges - this was most definitely a very sharp weapon. An Fengri raised his golden sabre and said "Master Shi truly is amazing, and I respect you. I wish to exchange a few strokes with you!"

Shi Qing smiled "Today I feel fortunate to be able to meet a great opponent." He then threw the bundle away. Between the four men, all that was heard was a whistle as Yuan Deng's sword in Shi Qing's hand was thrown. As the bundle hit one of the trees opposite the sword followed and pinned the bundle to the tree, piercing only a small corner and not harming the item within. The speed of the stroke and the smoothness of the execution were not inferior to the two masterful strokes he used to defeat Taoist Yuan Deng and Feng Zhenwu.

As the four men glanced from the tree back to Shi Qing, they noticed that his hands were now holding an ink-black longsword, and they heard him say "Ink sword versus Golden sabre, just a gentlemanly duel. Whoever of us gains a slight advantage in skill shall obtain the bundle - how does that sound?"

An Fengri saw him pin the bundle to the tree, and then offer to settle the ownership of the bundle via a duel, all without any trickery. In his heart he
 
felt a deep respect for Shi Qing and said "Master Shi, after you." He had already heard that the Master of the Xuan Su Mansion, Shi Qing and his wife Min Rou, had exquisite skill with the sword, and having seen him subdue Yuan Deng and Feng Zhenwu, he was left with no doubt. He didn't dare to be overconfident, and swished his sabre three times, ready for action.

Shi Qing, sword tip pointing at the ground, not moving at all, said "Do attack."

An Fengri advanced, his skills still polished and showing no signs of rustiness. Immediately he attacked with his 72 movements of 'Bi Gua Sabre', the most powerful strokes at his disposal. Each stroke concealed a motive, each motive a separate stroke, and had many variations. Shi Qing raised his ink sword, and initially countered each stroke as he saw it coming, defending rigourously. After 30 strokes or so, a sudden whistle of his sword was heard and the offense began - each sword thrust faster than the last. After another 30 strokes or so, An Fengri could no longer see clearly the strokes Shi Qing was using, and with fear in his heart could only concentrate on defending his vital points.

Both men sparred for over 70 strokes, the sword and sabre not quite connecting with each other, but suddenly a 'ding' rang out and the tip of the ink sword was resting on the back of the sabre, and started to slice downwards along the ridge. This stroke 'Going with the flow' was an orthodox stroke used by the sword to defeat the sabre, and if his skill was good enough, An Fengri could have turned the sabre around to face outwards and the sword would have naturally just glanced away harmlessly. However, Shi Qing's sword was moving amazingly quick, and before An Fengri knew it the sword had already reached his index finger. An Fengri gasped in his heart "My fingers are finished!!" and thought of retreating, but he knew he couldn't do it in time. In the blink of an eye, Shi Qing's longsword suddenly stopped. Not only did it no longer advance, it moved back a few inches. An Fengri knew that Shi Qing was showing mercy, and that there was no point in fighting further. He then let go of his sabre.

However, Shi Qing's sword flicked and intercepted the falling sabre, preventing it from falling and said "You and I had a good fight, and failing
 
to get any advantage it seems that we have to call it a draw." and with a gentle push the sabre was raised.

An Fengri felt very grateful. He grabbed hold of his sabre handle, and knew that after defeat Shi Qing was making an effort to salvage his dignity. He sheathed his sabre and respectfully bowed, using the 'Bi Gua Sabre' signature sabre sheathing movement 'South seas pray to the Buddha'.

After using this movement, he felt even more shocked, and his face changed colour. As each movement was used, he realised he had used the entire 72 movements of 'Bi Gua Sabre' but his opponent had faced this, his main skill, without much difficulty. It was on the 71st movement that Shi Qing had managed to pin his sabre down, and if he had continued with his offense, An Fengri didn't know if he had it in him to last another 8 or 10 rounds.

An Fengri was just about say a few words of gratitude, when Shi Qing sheathed his sword and clasped his hands together, saying "As Camp Leader An and I are now friends, we no longer need to continue with our duel. If you ever happen to pass by our mansion, please do drop by and let us entertain you for a few days." An Fengri blushed and said "I will most definitely pay you a visit someday." He then moved towards the tree, and retrieved Yuan Deng's sword. He picked up the bundle, and placing the sword and his sabre on the ground, he held the bundle with two hands and walked up to Shi Qing, saying "Master Shi, please accept this." Although the item was gained and then lost, Shi Qing had salvaged his pride and spared his fingers, and as such he totally acknowledged the favour.

Unexpectedly, Shi Qing clasped his hands together, and said "May we meet again!" before turning around to leave.

An Fengri called after him. "Master Shi, please wait. Master did everything to save my face, how could I not know. I had most definitely lost to you. Please take this item, otherwise An Fengri would be ridiculed as a rude and insolent person." Shi Qing smiled and replied "Camp Leader An, today's duel has yet to produce a winner or loser. Camp Leader An's Green Dragon Sabre, Door-Breaking Sabre and other top-class sabre strokes had not even been used yet, how could you admit defeat? In any case, that bundle does
 
not contain what I'm looking for, and I'm afraid young brother Zhou had fallen for somebody's trickery."

An Fengri was startled "... does not contain what you're looking for?" and opened the bundle hastily. He opened one layer after another, and after the fifth layer he found three bronze coins. He looked at the coins all over, back to front and that was all they were.. three bronze coins. He was shocked and angry, and turned to Zhou Mu. "Brother Zhou.... what... what kind of joke is this?" Zhou Mu stammered "I... I don't know. This bundle was really all we found on Wu Daotong's body."

An Fengri cooled down, and realised that Wu Daotong had either stashed the item in a very safe place, or had given it to another person. This entire operation had not only been a complete waste of time, but had also ridiculed the good name of the Golden Sabre Camp. He threw the bundle onto the ground, and looking at Shi Qing, said "How embarrassing, how did Master Shi know?"

As Shi Qing held onto the bundle just now, he had felt the contents and found three small round items, and although he didn't know they were bronze coins, he already knew that they were not the item he was looking for. He smiled and said "I was just guessing. It seems both of us were tricked and I apologise for the trouble.". He clasped his hands, and turned and showed his respect to Feng Zhenwu, Yuan Deng and Zhou Mu, and left the forest.

Shi Qing walked back to the camp, and said to Min Rou "Martial Sister, let's go." Both of them got on their horses and headed back the way they came.

Judging by the look on her husband's face, Min Rou, without asking, already knew that his little venture had not been successful. She felt a sudden pain in her heart, and her tears started falling drop by drop onto her clothes. Shi Qing said "The Golden Sabre Camp was also fooled. Let's head back to the location of Wu Daotong's corpse and look around. Perhaps our friends in the Golden Sabre Camp had missed something." Min Rou knew that it was hopeless, but didn't want to argue, so gently agreed.
 
The black and white horses were exceptionally fast, and by noon they were back in Hou Jian Ji.

The townsfolk had yet to recover from the fright and as such none of the doors were open. The entire incident was already reported to the officials. The prefect of the area was marshalling his troops, but had not arrived, obviously taking the stand "the later the safer".

Shi Qing and Min Rou dismounted and headed towards Wu Daotong's corpse.They noticed that apart from a 12 to 13-year old child sitting at the wall corner, there was nobody else to be seen. Shi Qing then searched Wu Daotong's corpse carefully, even to the extent of searching his hair, and removing his shoes. Min Rou went to the ruins of the shophouse to have a look.

Both husband and wife sighed at the same time. Min Rou said "Martial brother, it looks like we're not going to be able to take revenge. These few days took a lot out of you. Let's head to the city to relax a while, read some classics and listen to some music." Shi Qing knew that his wife always liked peace and quiet, and did not enjoy music. This proposal to head to the city was entirely for his sake, and so he replied "Sure. Since we're here in Henan, it would be worth heading to the city for a while. I heard that the silversmith there was a master - we could go there to get some jewelry." Min Rou was known in the martial arts world for her beauty, and had always liked to dress herself up. As she was now getting close to being middle-aged, cosmetics and jewelry became all the more important. She smiled and said "Ever since little Jian died 13 years ago, you've given me so much jewelry that I could open a shop of my own."

The moment she said "Ever since little Jian died.." her tears started flowing again. Glancing around, she noticed that little boy sitting in the corner. "Where is your mother? Why are you a beggar?" The little beggar boy replied "My... my mother is missing." Min Rou sighed and took a piece of silver from her belt. She placed it at his feet and said "Go and buy some cakes to eat.". She stood up to leave, then turned around to look at him again. "Little boy, what is your name?"

The little boy replied "My... my name is Mongrel."
 
Min Rou was startled, and thought "Why would he have a name like this?". Shi Qing shook his head and said "It's a mad boy.". Min Rou replied "Yes.. how sad and pitiful." Both of them then got on their horses and turned towards the city.

The boy had fainted after seeing Wu Daotong's corpse, and had only woken up at dawn. This time the fright was too much, and he could only stare at the bloody corpse of Wu Daotong. He didn't even dare to stand up and run, and groggily woke up, slept, and woke again. When Shi Qing arrived, he was already wide awake, and was just about to leave. When he saw Shi Qing searching the corpse, he got another fright and couldn't move again. It was totally unexpected when that beautiful lady gave him a piece of silver, and he thought to himself "Cake? I have one here."

He raised his hand, and held tightly in it was the fried cake which he had already taken a bite of. As the feeling of fright slowly passed, the feeling of hunger became unbearable. He opened his mouth wide and bit down hard. He heard a sound, and his teeth started to hurt badly, as if he had bitten a piece of steel. The little beggar pulled at the cake, and there was something left in his mouth. He spat it out into his left hand and saw that it was a piece of black steel.

The boy looked at the piece of steel, and without even thinking as to why his cake would have a steel symbol within, just gulped down the rest of the cake after cheking that there was nothing else inside. He then scanned the area, looking at Wu Daotong's corpse, and the dozen or so fried cakes littered around the area, thinking "I wonder if food touched by ghosts can still be eaten..."

While he was still pondering, a voice suddenly rang out above him "Surrounded from four faces!!!" The beggar boy was startled, and looked up. Standing on the roof were three men all clothed in white, and as he heard a rustling sound behind him, he turned around to see another four figures all clothed in white coming in from the left and right.

In the distance there was the sound of a horse approaching, and a voice shouted "Are you friends from the Snowy Mountain sect? Having arrived in Henan, please forgive me, An, for not entertaining you." A yellow horse
 
rode up to the boy, bearing a short chubby man who dismounted. The horse then retreated, circled around a few times and finally came to a halt a short distance away.

The three men on the rooftop then jumped down, each of them clutching tightly onto their scabbards. One of them, a man of forty-plus years, said "Is it Camp Leader An from the Golden Sabre Camp? Greetings, greetings..." All the time while speaking, his eyes were signalling to the other white- clothed figures behind An Fengri.

When An Fengri had lost to Shi Qing, he had already agreed to give up. However, he thought "Why is Shi Qing heading back to Hou Jian Ji? Oh, Fourth brother Zhou fell for a trick, and didn't get the item. Shi Qing has returned to Hou Jian Ji to search for the item. If he finds it, then of course I, having already lost to him, will not interfere and will just watch. However, if by some chance he still fails, then surely I can afford to search one more time and try my luck. This item was hidden by Wu Daotong - and if I can't find it after searching ten times, searching an eleventh time won't hurt." He then got on his horse and headed to the village as well.

His horse was nowhere near as fast as the black and white stallions ridden by Shi Qing and Min Rou, and of course he didn't want to follow them too closely. It was only after Shi Qing and Min Rou had finished searching the corpse and the ruins of the shop, and headed towards the city that he had arrived at Hou Jian Ji.

When he arrived, he noticed three men in white standing on the rooftop, swords slung over their backs - they had to be Snowy Mountain Sect disciples. Three of them looked very focused, as if preparing for battle, and An Fengri thought that they were about to ambush Shi Qing and his wife. As he bore goodwill towards Shi Qing, he yelled, and hoped to alert Shi Qing and Min Rou to the situation. As he neared, he couldn't see Shi Qing, but the seven disciples of the Snowy Mountain Sect were surrounding a small beggar boy.

An Fengri was puzzled. The beggar boy was young, and his face scruffy, and didn't look like he knew martial arts. But as he saw the white-clothed warriors staring closely at the boy, he took a second look.
 
This time, he got a shock. He saw that the boy's left hand was clutching a symbol made of dark metal, and looked to be the legendary 'Black Steel Symbol". He then noticed the four white-clothed warriors moving, as if preparing to take the item from the boy. Without much time to think, he unsheathed his sabre from his back, and used his "Eight Direction Concealed Sabre" stroke, turned around and looked around at the boy. His sabre slashed left, then right, front then back. In a flash he had slashed three times in eight directions, twenty-four slashes in all, each slash less than half a foot from the boy, surrounding the boy with sabre strokes.

The boy felt the force generated by the sabre, his whole body shook, he shouted "Waaah" and burst into tears.

At this time, the seven warriors in white each drew their swords, forming a bright net, and ran in a circle around An Fengri and the boy. A bright white circle, with a small golden circle within. Within the smaller golden circle was a small beggar boy's crying, with tears and runny nose.

Suddenly, there was the sound of horses, and a black horse, followed by a white horse, arrived from the west - Shi Qing and Min Rou had turned back from their journey to the city.

As Shi Qing and Min Rou were on the way to the city, they noticed traces of the Snowy Mountain Sect disciples, and after discussing, decided to turn back. As he saw the eight people before him ready to clash, he yelled out "Friends of the Snowy Mountain Sect, Camp Leader An, we are all friends. Let's discuss things cordially, please don't hurt the peace."

The seven white warriors stopped their blades in unison, but kept the swords pointing at An Fengri.

Shi Qing and Min Rou drew closer, and saw the boy holding the steel symbol in his hand. Both sighed in unison, but weren't sure if the item was the item they were looking for, and both of their hearts were beating excitedly. Shi Qing leapt down and approached the boy. "Young lad, what is that item in your hand? May I have a look?" Shi Qing was very calm and collected, and these two sentences were spoken gently. He had already decided that once they boy sticks his hands out he would snatch the item
 
from him. He was sure An Fengri would not interfere, and given his position the Snowy Mountain Sect warriors would not be able to stop him in time.

The white-robed warrior said "Master Shi, we saw him first."

Min Rou dismounted and approached. She said "Brother Geng, please ask the lad as to whether I gave him that piece of silver at his feet?" This sentence was clear, in that as she had given the lad the piece of silver, she had seen the boy well before the Snowy Mountain Sect had.

The warrior's surname was Geng, his name Wanzhong, and was one of the better fighters in the current second generation of the Snow Mountain Sect. He said "Mrs Shi, even if you had seen the lad first, we were the first to see this "Black Steel Symbol"."

The moment they heard the words "Black Steel Symbol", Shi Qing, Min Rou, An Fengri all thought the same thing - "So it is the Black Steel Symbol." The other six members of the Snowy Mountain Sect also showed the similar reaction on their faces. In truth none of the seven actually had a good careful look at the item in the beggar boy's hands, but judging from the reaction of the Shi couple and the Golden Sabre Camp Leader, and how interested they were in the item, it was assumed that this must be the item. On the other hand, the three people Shi, Min and An were thinking the same thing - Geng Wanzhong of the Snowy Mountain Sect was a very respectable character, and as he had shown interest in the item it couldn't be wrong.

Ten people all had the same intention, and all together they stuck out their palms "Little chap, give it to me."

All ten of them were thinking the same thing. None of them dared to use force, as they knew that the first person to use force would be attacked from the sides by the others, and they could all only hope for the boy to give it to them.

This poor little boy had no idea that the thing they all wanted was that metal piece which had hurt his teeth, and by this time had already stopped crying.
 
Utterly confused, however, his eyes started to fill with tears, and look about ready to start crying again.

Suddenly, a low voice echoed around saying "Give it to me instead!"

A shadow slipped through the circle, reached out its hand, and grabbed the steel symbol from the hands of the beggar boy.

Shouts of "Drop it!", "What?!", "How dare you!" and "Damn!" resounded. Nine swords and one golden sabre moved simultaneously towards that one single figure. An Fengri was the closest to the little boy and raised his sabre, utilising the "White worm facing the sun" stroke and slicing towards the figure's head. At the same time the seven Snow Mountain disciples moved in unison, and seven swords thrust at seven different points, closing in from all angles, intending to prevent the figure from defending any single point. Shi Qing and Min Rou, for their part, could not tell clearly as to who the figure was, and as such did not wish to use any stroke which might kill. Both of them moved their swords in a half-circle, cutting off the figure's retreat.

After a few clashing sounds, the figure suddenly out of nowhere managed to grab An Fengri's sabre and the seven Snow Mountain sword within his hands. Shi Qing and Min Rou suddenly felt a numbness in their wrists, and their swords went flying out of their hands towards the back. Shi Qing's face was a white as a sheet, while Min Rou's face flushed red. When the Xuan Su twin swords combine forces, few people could resist them and not face defeat, but to have their swords thrown from their hands with a simple tap on their blades was something that neither of them had ever experienced before.

As they stared at the man, he stood upright with one golden sabre and seven swords held by his side. He wore a green robe, had short hair, and looked about fifty years of age. He had clean features with a slightly greenish complexion about his face and his eyes radiated an inexplicable joy. Shi Qing thought of somebody and said "Would elder be the master of this Black Steel Symbol?"
 
The man laughed. "The Black and White Swords of the Xuan Su Mansion have been touted among the martial arts world for their swordsmanship... that fame is not hollow indeed. I focused one tenths of my attention on handling these eight friends over here, and had to expend nine tenths of my attention on you before I could force you two to unhand your weapons. Ai... my "divine flicking finger" kungfu.... I certainly have a "flicking finger", but how can I claim to be "divine"? Looks like I'll need to practice hard for another decade or so.."

As Shi Qing heard this, he no longer had any doubt. He clasped his hands together and said "We husband and wife have travelled to Henan, and had orginally intended to visit elder in the Skyscraping Cliffs. Although now our plan has come to nothing, at least we managed to meet elder, and hence our trip has not been totally in vain. Our little inadequate swordsmanship would probably not even be worth a laugh in elder's eyes. Today elder has recovered the Black Steel Symbol by yourself - congratulations!"

The Snow Mountain disciples listened to Shi Qing's words, and started to think to themselves "This green-robed man is the Master of the Black Steel Symbol Xie Yanke? He managed to take our weapons with just one stroke - if it wasn't him who else could it be?". The seven of them stood there looking at each other, not daring to say a word.

Although An Fengri's martial arts were not exceptionally good, his experience was way above that of the seven Snow Mountain disciples. He said "Apologies for the offence. I hope Master Xie will forgive us for our ignorance."

The green-robed man was indeed Xie Yanke of the Skyscraping Cliffs. He laughed "According to my normal rules, you people attacked me with weapons, and hence I would most definitely return the favour. You used a Golden Sabre to chop at my left shoulder - of course it would only be fair if I used this same sabre to chop at your left shoulder." As he said this he twirled the Black Steel Symbol within his left hand, and smiled. "However, I'm in a particularly good mood today, so let's just treat this chop as done. You thrust at my throat, you went for my "Ring Leaping" nerve point on my thigh, you aimed at my left waist, you sliced at my calves, ..." As he spoke, his right hand pointed at each individual Snow Mountain disciple.
 
The seven of them listened to his narrative, and it was completely accurate. In that flash of a second, he had seen each individual stroke, and memorised all of it in detail. They then heard him say "All of these will go into an account, and some day when I'm in a bad mood I'll come back and collect!"

A short member of the Snow Mountain sect then shouted out "We're not good enough, and we have lost. What's the point of all this airy talk? What is there to collect? Just kill us now and get it over with - we wouldn't bother remembering such debts in our hearts." This man was Wang Wanren, and he was unarmed. By issuing such words, he was already prepared to surrender his life to his opponent. His martial brothers shouted together to try and stop him, but he had already said all of it in one breath.

Xie Yanke nodded his head and said "Okay..", raised Wang Wanren's longsword and thrust forward. Wang Wanren immediately retreated, trying to dodge, but the sword came too fast and Wang Wanren's body was caught in mid-air, the sword heading straight for his throat. Xie Yanke flicked his wrist, and immediately withdrew the sword.

Wang Wanren's legs touched the ground, and felt a cool breeze around his throat. Looking down, he gasped - there was a hole in his clothes, the size of a teacup, at his throat - Using just a flick of his wrist, Xie Yanke had cut a round circle in his clothes. All three layers of clothing were neatly sliced, exposing the flesh beneath. A slight push from Xie Yanke, and Wang would have been dead.

Wang Wanren's face turned as dark as earth, and was in complete shock. An Fengri watched with utter admiration, and could not stop himself from saying "Great swordplay!"

With regard to the actual placement of the sword strokes, as well as the delicate nature of the act, Shi Qing and Min Rou could also have performed the stroke Xie had just done, but to achieve such speed, such that the opponent knew exactly where you were aiming for but yet not be able to do anything about it.... Shi Qing and Min Rou were nowhere near that class. Both of them exchanged a glance, thinking "This man's martial arts are exquisite, completely beyond our imagination."
 
Xie Yanke laughed, and turned to walk away.

A young lady from the Snow Mountain Sect then called out "Mr Xie, please wait!". Xie Yanke turned around and asked "What is it?" The girl replied "Mr Xie showed mercy, and did not hurt our elder brother Wang. We are grateful for the favour. May I ask, this steel piece you're taking away - is it the Black Steel Symbol?" Xie Yanke was irritated, and replied "What if it is, and what if it isn't?" She replied "If it isn't the Black Steel Symbol, then we will all have to continue our search. However, if it is, then you're not exactly doing the right thing."

Xie Yanke's face flushed green for an instant, and then receded again. Geng Wanzhong shouted "Martial sister Hua, don't say too much!" Everybody knew that Xie Yanke was a cruel man, and that he was neither good or bad, but did everything at his own fancy. Countless members of the forces of light and darkness had fallen before him, and today, it was an out-of-this- world mercy that he had faced ten people in battle and not hurt any of them. However, Hua Wanzi was a very straight person, and not knowing the gravity of the situation, chose to challenge him. The Snow Mountain disciples and the Shi couple both felt a cold sweat as they feared for her safety.

Xie Yanke raised the steel piece in the air and announced "The Black Steel Symbol, any favour will be answered!" He then lowered it, and mumbled "Xie Yanke of the Skyscraping Cliffs..." then said "Black steel is very rare in the world, and neither sword nor sabre can penetrate it." He then raised a longsword, and brought the piece of steel against it. With a clang the sword had snapped into two, the tip flying away while the steel piece remained unscathed. He then raised it again and shouted "Who dares say it isn't mine?"

Hua Wanzi then said "This humble girl heard that some friends in the martial arts world say that Mr Xie had three Black Steel Symbols, each one handed to an old friend who Mr Xie owed a favour to. It was said that as long as anyone had the symbol, and handed it personally to Mr Xie's hands, that person would be able to make a request and no matter how hard it is, Mr Xie will undertake to accomplish it. Is that true?" Xie Yanke replied "Of course. Everybody in the martial arts world knows about this!" and a
 
measure of pride was detected in his tone. Hua Wanzi then added "I also heard that two of the Black Steel Symbols have already been returned to Mr Xie's hands, and since then the martial arts world had experienced two great earth-shaking events - is this also true?"

As Xie Yanke heard her say ".. martial arts world had experienced two great earth-shaking events.." he felt even more proud, and replied "Yes. The friend I gave this symbol to was very good at martial arts, and there wasn't anything which he couldn't accomplish, and as such he never needed it. He also didn't have any children, so when he died the symbol was lost. Over the years many people have been searching for this symbol, hoping to get this chap surnamed Xie to help them acocmplish something big. Heh - unfortunately, today it was so easily recovered by myself. This has probably disappointed quite a few friends in the martial arts world, but at least it also removed a potential danger." He then kicked Wu Daotong's corpse a few yards away. "Take this chap for example, he may have gotten the symbol, but he couldn't find me. Before he could hand me the symbol he had already lost his life. Who doesn't want to kill others for the privilege? Who doesn't want to gain the symbol? Even the cultured Xuan Su Mansion's Shi couple couldn't resist the lure, what more other people? Heh.. heh.." This last phrase contained an unmistakeable mocking tone to it.

As Shi Qing heard the comment, his face flushed red. He had always been very courteous, but his martial arts were good and his name was famous. When he spoke very few people would dare to offend him. As Xie Yanke mocked him, he realised that he had no way of retorting, as he had neither ability nor good reason to do so. He was always a proud man, and now he felt totally humiliated, like he had no place to stand. Min Rou looked at her husband, and if he showed any hint of charging Xie Yanke she would throw everything she had at him. Even if she knew they had no chance of winning, there was no way she would let this insult just pass.

Xie Yanke continued "Mr and Mrs Shi are true heroes, and if you got hold of this symbol, you'd simply request for me to do something difficult - that's fine with me. However, if the symbol fell into the hands of some petty evil miscreants, and they asked this old man to cripple myself, forcing me to not live nor die, or forced me to commit suicide, and if I didn't want to die, then
 
I'd go against the oath "Any favour will be answered". At least my luck was good this time, and got the symbol back so easily.. Ha ha ha ha.." He let out a hearty laugh which shook the roofs.

Hua Wanzi said "I heard that Mr Xie swore an oath that regardless of who it was who gave you the symbol, you would answer his request. In addition, even if it was a rival from seven generations, you undertake that you would not hurt him. You obtained this symbol from this little friend's hands, how do you know that he has no request for you?" Xie Yanke spat on the ground, and said "What is this little beggar? I, Xie Yanke, have to listen to a little beggar? What a joke!" Hua Wanzi then said "Friends, let's listen, Mr Xie says that a little beggar boy is not a person, so he doesn't count." If she was talking about some other person, everybody would have burst out laughing, or at the very least the Snow Mountain party would have given her support, but at the moment the four directions were silent, and even the sound of a needle dropping could probably be heard.

Xie Yanke's face flushed green again, and thought "This brat is challenging me with words, and asking her friends to speak behind my back that I am not a man of my word." then thought further "Aiya... this is bad, perhaps this beggar boy was a delibrate trap set by these people, and since I've taken the symbol from his hands, I cannot go back now." He then smiled coldly and said "There's nothing in this world which can be too difficult for the surnamed Xie. Little beggar, follow me. What you wish of me doesn't concern these other people." He then grabbed the hand of the little boy. He didn't really care about the other people here, but he was afraid that they would issue orders behind the boy's back, and come up with a very difficult request, asking him to cripple his hands, and then he wouldn't know what to do. It was better to bring the boy somewhere safe, and then ask him.

Hua Wanzi stepped forward and said softly "Little friend, you are a good boy. This uncle here loves to kill people. Quickly beg him that from today onwards he will never kill..." but before she could finish, she felt a strong wind before her face, and the last words "another person" were stuck in her stomach, and she could not speak.

Hua Wanzi had known that Xie Yanke was a man of his word, and she had thrust her sword at his face before. He said he would collect some other
 
day, and someday, sometime, she was going to have Xie Yanke thrust his sword at her face. As for her six martial brothers, with the exception of Wang Wanren, each of them still owed Xie Yanke a sword thrust. If this debt was collected, it would mean their deaths. This is why she risked her life, unafraid to incite Xie Yanke's wrath, asking the little beggar to beg that he not kill another person. If the request was made, Xie Yanke would be forced to submit, and she and her other five martial brothers would be saved. Xie Yanke saw through her plan, however, and with a flick of his robes forced her to swallow her sentence. He then shouted "Who needs a brat like you to speak so much?" and waved his robes again. Hua Wanzi couldn't find her balance, and fell to the ground.

Once Hua Wanzi's back fell to the ground, she stood back up immediately, ready to continue, but she saw that Xie Yanke was already very far away, his hands holding on to the little beggar boy's hand. Obviously he didn't want the boy to hear any more from the people over here.

The other people saw Xie Yanke knock Hua Wanzi down just by waving his robes a yard away. Given such power, nobody dared to chase after him.

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