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Ode to Gallantry Chapter 4

Chapter 4 - The Leader of the Clan of Eternal Happiness

Xie Yanke wanted to test the extent of the internal strength that he had diligently practised and cultivated over the years, so he kept on exercising his energy and causing the pine needles to move with increasing speed. Then, he enlarged the circle of needles by moving its outer edges further and further apart. As the circle grew in size, the internal strength needed to maintain it became somewhat insufficient. Finally, the pine needles in the outermost edges of the circle began falling to the ground.

Xie Yanke took a breath. When he exhaled, he did so with a burst of internal strength. Hence, the number of falling pine needles began to decrease. Thoroughly delighted, Xie Yanke exercised his energy again, and felt an indescribable sense of comfort when he raised his arms and feet. He became so excited that he soon forgot the distinction between object and man.

A long time passed and the accummulated energy in his body began to wane. If he forced himself to go on, his health would be affected, so he began holding his energy back in a gentle manner. The pine needles soon drifted down to the ground, forming a circle of green around him.

Xie Yanke looked up and smiled in great satisfaction. Suddenly, the expression of his face changed, for there were now people standing in front of and behind him, as well as on his left and right. Totalling nine altogether, they looked at him without uttering a single word.
 
A man with Xie Yanke's level of pugilistic accomplishment would have not missed people standing a li or two (0.5-1.0km) away, much less anyone who tried to approach him at close quarters. Yet, he had been so completely focused on exercising his internal strength and testing the 'Green Needles Clean-Palm Technique' (Bi4 Zhen1 Qing1 Zhang3) that he had reached the point of looking without seeing and listening without hearing. Hence, the mountain could have collapsed and the ocean could have roared, yet he might not have heard the noise.

Outsiders had never come to the Skyscraping Cliff before, so Xie Yanke knew that the sudden appearance of these men had nothing benevolent about it. As he looked closely at them, he recognised the skinny man, the Taoist and the ugly man who had attacked and killed the Benevolent Elder in the outskirts of Bianliang years ago. These were members of the Clan of Eternal Happiness.

A million thoughts went through his mind at once: Regardless of who they are, it is clear that they despise me by showing up on the Skyscraping Cliff without a single sound. They are also not hesitant about taking me as an enemy, yet I have never had any connections with the Clan of Eternal Happiness. So why have they come in such a large group? Could it be that they want to coerce me into joining their clan through the use of force, just as they had done to the Benevolent Elder? Then, he had another thought: I have seen the pugilistic abilities of three of these men. Going by the prowess that they had displayed years ago, I can fight them into a draw. So there is nothing to be concerned about in that respect. But what about the abilities of the other six?

These six were more than forty years old each, and at least two of them seemed to possess a considerably rich level of internal strength.

Xie Yanke smiled. "Are you all friends from the Clan of Eternal Happiness?" he asked coldly. "Your visit to the Skyscraping Cliff is quite unexpected, so I have missed the opportunity to greet you from afar. May I know the advice that you have for me?" As he spoke, he raised his clasped fists in a slight salute.
 
The nine men returned his greeting in unison with clasped fists of their own. They had seen the shocking level of internal strength that he displayed while practising the Green Needles Clean-Palm Technique earlier, but they did not realise that he had been engrossed enough to miss their appearance. Instead, they thought that he was overconfidence and conceited about his high level of accomplishment in martial arts, and thus, totally unbothered by their presence. When they saw him raising his clasped fists in greeting, they were so afraid that he would harm them with his internal strength that they silently used their own energies to protected the vital acupoints in their bodies. In doing so, the Taiyang acupoints in the temples of two of the men swelled up at once, while the robes of of a third man floated around him.

They did not know that Xie Yanke did not gather any internal strength in his fists when he raised them in greeting. They did not even know that he had gone all out during the testing of the Green Needles Clean-Palm Technique. Now, his condition was just like that of a top-notch pugilist after a great battle, with nine-tenths of his internal strength gone.

An old man dressed in yellow said, "My brothers and I came in boldness. Having committed this breach of etiquette, we hope that Mr Xie would pardon our offence."

Xie Yanke saw that the man's face was pale. His voice, though audible, had no power in it. He seemed to be suffering from a serious illness. Suddenly, Xie Yanke remembered a particular person and blurted out a question: "Are you the 'Touch that Brings Back Life' (Zhao2 Shou3 Hui2 Chun1), the Physician Bei?"

The man was indeed the 'Touch that Brings Back Life' Bei Haishi himself. He could not help but feel a tinge of pride, for Xie Yanke knew of him and his reputation. Coughing twice, he said, "I do not deserve this, for my humble name is unworthy of mention by your honoured self. The nickname 'Touch that Brings Back Life' falls short of the reality, and causes much laughter among experts."

"As far as I know, the Physician Bei has always come and gone alone," said Xie Yanke. "When did you enter into an alliance with the Clan of Eternal
 
Happiness?"

"The strength of a man is rather limited," answered Bei Haishi. "The brothers in my clan pool their wisdom and efforts, so when they come together to work on a task, it becomes easier. *Cough cough* Mr Xie, we have indeed acted rashly in visiting you. As a man of generosity, please do not take offence at our invasion of your mountain! *Cough cough* A man never goes to the temple for no reason. We have some matters that require an audience with the leader of our clan, so we would like to trouble you, Mr Xie, with the task of presenting us to him."

Xie Yanke was puzzled. "Who is your clan-leader?" he asked. "I seldom set foot in the realm of the rivers and lakes, so I am quite ignorant and ill- informed. Do pardon my lack of manners, but since I do not know the great name of your leader, how am I supposed to present you to him?"

As soon as these words came out of his mouth, the nine visitors became indignant and displeased.

Bei Haishi placed his left hand over the short moustache above his lip and coughed a few times. "Mr Xie," he said, "since our Clan-Leader Shi has befriended you and walked hand-in-hand with you, it is only natural for all our members to honour you as if you are our distinguished guest.   We do not dare to be rude, regardless of how slight that may be. As subordinates, we do not have the audacity to question the whereabouts of our Clan- Leader Shi. However, he has left our headquarters for far too long. There are many things that he needs to see to, especially two great matters that are extremely pressing at the moment. *Cough cough* Thus, as soon as we heard that Clan-Leader Shi is on the peak of the Skyscraping Cliff, we hurriedly made our way here. We should have presented our calling card first and obtained your approval before coming up, but due to the urgency of the matter, we have been lacking in this respect. Please do forgive us." He ended his speech with a deep bow.

Xie Yanke found him rather sincere. Although the nine visitors had weapons with them, they did not seem to harbour any ill intentions. So it is just a misunderstanding, he thought. Hence, he smiled and said, "There are no tables and chairs on the peak of the Skyscraping Cliff, so I am afraid that
 
I am a poor host to my honoured guests. Please sit down anywhere you wish. Physician Bei, from whom did you hear that I have travelled with Clan-Leader Shi before? Your clan has such an abundance of capable people that it can be considered a complete gathering of the heroic and the virtuous. Thus, it is natural that Clan-Leader Shi is an amazing hero himself. As for me, I am but a wild crane among the drifting clouds. I live in seclusion on this barren cliff, so how could I have been deserving of a friendship that comes from Clan-Leader Shi's humble lowering of himself?
*Hei hei* This is funny, very funny indeed!"

Bei Haishi raised his right hand and said, "Brothers, we will sit down and talk." It was clear that he was the leader of the group, for the remaining eight men sat down at once. Some of them sat on rocks, while others sat on tree branches that grew in a horizontal manner.   Bei Haishi found a seat on a mound of earth. Yet, as they sat, the nine maintained their positions around Xie Yanke, enclosing him in a circle.

Anger rose in Xie Yanke: You are extremely rude to treat me in this way. I do not know where your Clan-Leader 'Shi' (rock) or Clan-Leader 'Wa' (tile) is, but even if I do, I will not tell you regardless of any intentions to do so earlier. Thus, he smiled coldly and looked up at the sun on the top of his head in outright disregard of the men around him.

Bei Haishi thought: With my reputation and status in the martial arts circle, you have indeed gone too far with your arrogance towards me!   But as far as I know, this man is highly skilled in martial arts. He is also cruel and ruthless, so it is unnecessary for the Clan of Eternal Happiness to incur his hatred. With due respect to our Clan-Leader, I will just yield to him. So he said politely: "Mr Xie, this should actually be an internal matter of our clan, hence I apologise for bringing trouble unto your respected self. Please present us to our Clan-Leader, Mr Xie. After that, the brothers will offer you their apologies again."

At this point, his eight companions thought: Physician Bei is being very courteous to that man. This is a seldom-seen occurrence indeed. Regardless of how highly-skilled in martial arts Xie Yanke is, what is there to fear if the nine of us attack him simultaneously? But since he is a friend of our Clan-Leader, we cannot offend him just like that.
 
Xie Yanke spoke up in a cold voice: "Physician Bei, you are an exceptional man with an established name in the jianghu. The words that you speak are like a horse whipped -- they can never go backwards. So you are quite an outstanding character, are you not?"

Detecting a considerable amount of anger in Xie Yanke's words, Bei Haishi went silently on alert and replied, "I am flattered."

Xie Yanke went on: "When you speak, Physician Bei, your utterances are the words of man, but when I speak, are my utterances simply the sound of breaking wind? I said that I have never seen your Clan-Leader Shi, but you certainly do not believe me. Are you the only man of noble and sincere character, thus putting me as a lowly fellow who speaks nothing but lies?"

"Mr Xie, you have made an overstatement," answered Bei Haishi after a series of coughs.   "The brothers have always admired you greatly, so there is no one from our entire clan who does not respect you for the mountain- like steadfastness of your word. How would they dare to have the slightest bit of contempt towards you? When we saw you in the midst of cultivating your supernatural skill in internal strength, we thought that you did not have the time to present us to our Clan-Leader. Thus compelled by this lack of alternatives, we decided to split up and looked around. Do not take offence, Mr Xie."

Xie Yanke's face turned green at once. "Physician Bei, not only do you doubt my words," he said, "do you even want to act in wanton disregard and recklessness on the Skyscraping Cliff?"

"I would not dare, I would not dare," answered Bei Haishi, shaking his head. "Now that you have mentioned it, we are actually quite ashamed. Having lost our Clan-Leader, the Clan of Eternal Happiness now needs an outsider to present its members to him. If word of this gets out, everyone in the jianghu will have a laugh at our expense. We only wish to have a look- around, so do not be so sensitive about it, Mr Xie. The peak is high and the forest is dense on the Skyscraping Cliff.   It is a good place, so it is likely that our Clan-Leader Shi found his way here by accident. Since you are living in quietness and training in peace, you may have not noticed him."
 
However, in his heart, he thought: He does not allow us to meet with our Clan-Leader, so he must be harbouring some evil designs.

Xie Yanke had thoughts of his own as well: How can their horseshit clan- leader be on my Skyscraping Cliff! These people are simply rude and unreasonable! It is obvious that the search for their clan-leader is an excuse, for what good could they be up to, coming in such an imposing manner? Going by my reputation, the Clan of Eternal Happiness must have had some preparations made before accosting me with such flippancy and impudence.

He knew that the situation had become very dangerous. Bei Haishi's 'Palm Technique of the Five Elements and the Six Directions' (Wu3 Xing1 Liu4 He2 Zhang3) was well-known in the martial arts circle, but he (Xie) was not bothered if the opponent consisted of Bei alone. However, with the addition of the eight highly skilled pugilists, things would be more difficult. Furthermore, the actual number of highly skilled pugilists who had arrived on the Skyscraping Cliff was unknown, for they were probably hiding in the vicinity and waiting for an opportunity to strike. Then, in a flash of inspiration, Xie Yanke suddenly looked towards the north-east and uttered a soft "yi" of surprise.

The nine visitors followed his gaze and looked towards the north-east as well, prompting Xie Yanke to spring up, move towards Incense-Master Mi and reach for the sword at the latter's waist.

When Incense-Master Mi realised that there was nothing unusual in the north-east and heard the ensuing sound of wind and movement, the enemy was already beside him. His right hand shot out as fast as lightning, but Xie Yanke was faster. Moving ahead, the old man's hand touched the hilt of the sword. A *zip* sounded and the sword slid out of its sheath. A greenish light flashed before Incense-Master Mi's eyes as the area below his ribs became slightly numb. Then, a burst of acute pain shot through the middle of his back, for Xie Yanke had struck him on an acupoint with the index finger of his left hand before grabbing him on one of the shoulder blades with the five fingers of his right hand.
 
As it turned out, Xie Yanke's looking towards the north-east was only a ploy to distract the enemy; so was the act of seizing the sword. In his focused attempt to reach the hilt of the sword first, Incense-Master Mi had left his ribs and back unguarded. If not for that, he would not have been restrained in a single move, regardless of how lacking his pugilistic abilities were. Years ago, Xie Yanke saw in detail how Incense-Master Mi fought the Benevolent Elder and used the demon-hilted sabre to slice away the long hair on the boy's head; so he knew the man's swordplay techniques very well.   Since most pugilists were likely to pay less attention to defence during swift and sudden moves of offence, Xie Yanke had taken a risk and put the theory to the test. Consequently, the risk had paid off.

"Incense-Master Mi, I have offended you," said Xie Yanke with a wan smile, as his victim's face quivered with anger. However, Mi could not move his body at all.

Bei Haishi was stunned. "Mr Xie, what do you want?" he asked. "Are you really going to stop us from looking for our Clan-Leader?"

"I am afraid that killing me will not be easy," answered Xie Yanke in an awe-inspiring manner.   "At the very least, you would have to accompany the act with a few lives of your own."

Bei Haishi laughed bitterly in response. "We do not have any conflicts or grievances with you, Mr Xie, so how can we harbour thoughts of harming you?" he replied. "Furthermore, we would only be bringing trouble upon ourselves if we decide to harm someone with amazing and astonishing pugilistic accomplishments such as yours. We are all good friends, so please release Brother Mi." He found himself admiring Xie Yanke's skills after seeing how the latter had Incense-Master Mi seized in a single move.

"All of you must leave my Skyscraping Cliff at once," said Xie Yanke. "I will release Incense-Master Mi after that, of course." With his right hand holding on to the Da Zhui acupoint in the middle of Mi's back, all he had to do was to send forth a burst of energy through the palm and have his victim's Heart Channel(1) shattered immediately.
 
"What is so difficult about that?" asked Bei Haishi in retort. "We may be leaving during the Wu period (between 11am and 1pm)(2) but we will be back by the Shen period (3pm-5pm)."

Xie Yanke's face darkened at once. "Physician Bei," he said, "what exactly are you looking for, following me around like a departed spirit that refuses to go away?"

"What am I looking for?" asked Bei Haishi in return. "Brothers, what are we looking for?"

The other seven visitors, who had not opened their mouths to speak, replied in unison: "We want to seek an audience with our Clan-Leader, and escort him respectfully back to our headquarters."

Xie Yanke became angry: "So despite the repeated statements on the matter, you still suspect that I have hidden your Clan-Leader away, do you not?"

"None of us dares to make any absurd inferences about the undivulged circumstances of the matter before we see our Clan-Leader," said Bei Haishi. Then, he turned to a big and tall middle-aged man and added: "Incense-Master Yun, go and look around with the other brothers. Inform me as soon as you see the grand presence of our Clan-Leader."

Incense-Master Yun, who had a pair of short worn-out silver halberds in his right hand, nodded and said, "Yes!" Then, he made an announcement in a loud voice: "Gentlemen, Mr Bei has a command. Let us go and call upon our Clan-Leader."

"Yes!" answered the remaining six visitors in unison, before all seven of them took a few steps backwards, turned around and left the forest.

Although Xie Yanke had a member of the enemy in his hands, he could see that the people from the Clan of Eternal Happiness were not bothered about Incense-Master Mi's safety at all. These people actually went ahead and did as they wished, without even half a fen (about 5%) of hesitation about pelting a rat in the midst of the dishes. They did not hold back from taking action despite the possibility of Incense-Master Mi getting harmed. The
 
only person who remained was Bei Haishi, who was clearly keeping an eye on Xie Yanke instead of finding a way to rescue Mi. Hence, Xie Yanke thought: The news of that young man handing me the Black Steel Symbol has taken the realm of the rivers and lakes by storm. So these fellows from the Clan of Eternal Happiness are just using their search for their clan- leader as a pretext for their real intention: to kidnap the young man. Now that I have lost my first chance, the young man will certainly fall into their grasp. Then, the Clan of Eternal Happiness will have a strong advantage over me. Hmmph, who is Xie Yanke, that he would be bullied right on his doorstep?

With seven of the visitors gone, he now had a good opportunity to do some killing. So he placed his left palm on the back of Incense-Master Mi's waist and sent forth a rapid burst of internal strength. This move, known as the 'Civilian Assistant and the Military Officer' (Wen2 Cheng2 Wu3 Wei4), utilised Incense-Master Mi's body as a weapon with which to attack Bei Haishi.

Xie Yanke knew that Bei Haishi had reached a consummate level in internal strength cultivation, but because of an internal injury in middle-age that left three-tenths of his body racked with illness, Bei's pugilistic abilities were greatly reduced. The prolonged illness made a physician of Bei Haishi and earned him the title 'Physician Bei', but he was actually not a genuine doctor. As for his martial arts skills, these were still unusually formidable.

Nine years earlier, the 'Three Evils of Central Hebei' (Ji4 Zhong1 San1 Sha4)(3) were killed by Bei Haishi in a single night, despite being located in three different places that were more than two hundred li (100km) apart from one another. This feat became a major incident in the martial arts circle, shocking people everywhere whenever it was mentioned. Thus, despite Bei's repeated coughs and apparent lack of vital energy, Xie Yanke did not dare to be negligent at all in his actions, using the most sinister, damaging and ruthless moves right from the start.

When Bei Haishi saw Xie's unexpected attack, he coughed and said, "Mr Xie ... but *cough cough* but why must the amiable relationship between us be harmed?" Reaching out with both palms, he pushed off towards Incense-Master Mi's chest. Suddenly, his left knee went forward and struck
 
Incense-Master Mi on the abdomen, causing the latter to fly up and over Bei's own head. As a result, Bei's palms were now headed for Xie Yanke's chest.

This move was so amazing and strange in its variations that Xie Yanke was unable to put a name to it despite his extensive knowledge in martial arts. Thus startled, he followed through by putting his own palms out in an attempt to meet the opponent's attack head on. Suddenly, the tips of the fingers on both his palms felt as if they were being pricked by thousands upon ten thousands of sharp needles. Xie Yanke quickly exercised his internal strength with the intention of deflectng the enemy's energy ... only to find emptiness in his chest and abdomen. All the strength in his entire body had disappeared without a trace!

A thought flashed through his mind: Oh no! I had exercised my strength so much just now that eight- to nine-tenths of it had been spent without my realising it. How can I go all out against him now with my strength?

Thus, he lowered his palms at once and struck out against Bei Haishi's abdomen. Bei Haishi responded by pressing down with his right palm and blocking his opponent's move. In turn, Xie Yanke's sleeves swept out, dusting across Bei's face and torso with the 'Iron-Sleeve Skill' (Tie3 Xiu4 Gong1).

Bei Haishi thought: Although the oncoming force of the sleeve is vicious, it also reveals a measure of exhaustion. He is trying to lead me on. Hence, he dodged to the side and moved out of the way.

The name of the 'Skyscraping Resident' was not a trivial matter in the martial arts circle. When Bei Haishi saw Xie Yanke practising the 'Green Needles Clean-Palm Technique' earlier, he could tell from the exquisite movements of the palms and the richness of the internal strength that his own abilities were simply too far behind. However, due to the necessity of finding the missing Clan-Leader, he was nevertheless forced to engage Xie in a fight. Although he had subsequently discovered the ordinariness of his opponent's internal strength, he thought that it was just a ploy for deceiving him. Thus, he did not dare to show the slightest bit of neglect in his responses.
 
Xie Yanke withdrew both his sleeves. Uttering a *hu* in exhalation, he used the momentum created by the moving sleeves to propel himself backwards by more than a zhang (10/3 metres). At the same time, he turned his body around and raised his fists in a clasp. "If you will excuse me, we will meet again some day," he said. Although he continued to retreat urgently as he spoke, his movements remained more than natural and unrestrained in appearance. There was not the slightest hint of anxiety- driven speed at all.

Having attacked thrice without success, Xie Yanke knew that luck was not on his side that day. A formidable opponent had appeared just when he had exhausted his internal strength. So he had to pull himself away in a hasty retreat. However, this could not be considered him having lost to Bei Haishi. Although he had been forced to leave the Skyscraping Cliff, he had been able to restrain the highly-skilled Incense-Master Mi from his unfavourable position within the nine-man seige. This act alone had greatly deflated the arrogance of the Clan of Eternal Happiness. Thus, as he leapt from cliff to cliff in his descent, he had more to be happy than upset about.

Suddenly, Xie Yanke thought about the young man falling into the hands of the enemy. Since this would invariably lead to an endless array of consequences, he became very worried at once.   Then, he thought: When my internal strength returns, I will go and pick on the Clan of Eternal Happiness. So long as I do not see that Gouzazhong's face, there is nothing that they can do. But if that Gouzazhong has been threatened or persuaded, he may see me and say: 'I beg you to chop off one of your own arms.' That would be terrible! When a man of noble character seeks revenge, a ten-year wait is not too late. The good thing is, that boy is about to complete his training in the eight 'yin' and the eight 'yang' channels.   Since he is not going to live much longer, I will just wait until he is dead before presenting the Clan of Eternal Happiness with some bad luck. This matter cannot be rushed, for it must be planned soundly.

Meanwhile, Bei Haishi was greatly bewildered by Xie Yanke's sudden retreat: Since he has a good relationship with Clan-Leader Shi, why did he use a life-threatening move against Incense-Master Mi? These odd factors really make things difficult to explain. Could he have ... could he have
 
uncovered our scheme? Has he told Clan-Leader Shi about it? In the twinkle of an eye, Bei Haishi had become laden with anxiety.

After a moment's thought, he shook his head and turned towards Incense- Master Mi. Holding Mi upright, he placed his palms on the Hun Men and Po Hu acupoints in the middle of the man's back, and sent forth a stream of internal strength. Within moments, Incense-Master Mi opened his eyes a little and said in a soft voice: "Thank you very much, Mr Bei, for the favour of saving my life."

"Please lie down and rest, Brother Mi," said Bei Haishi. "You must not exercise your internal strength at will."

The move 'Civilian Assistant and Military Officer' that was used by Xie Yanke earlier was meant to condemn Incense-Master Mi to death, as well as to launch a fatal attack against Bei Haishi. If Bei had deflected the move by pushing off against Mi's body with his palms, Mi would have died between the two opposing bursts of internal strength. However, Bei had actually used his left knee to strike Mi in the abdomen and send him behind his own body. At the same time, the move had enabled him to disperse more than half of the force that came from Xie. Fortunately, Xie had been down to only a tenth of his internal strength, or Mi would not have survived despite Bei's utilisation of the exquisite move.

Bei Haishi laid Incense-Master Mi gently on the ground as he continued to massage the latter's chest and abdomen with his internal strength. Suddenly, loud and happy shouts were heard: "The Clan-Leader is over here, the Clan-Leader is over here!"

Delighted, Bei Haishi said, "Brother Mi, since you are already out of danger, I will go and see our Clan-Leader." Running quickly towards the happy shouts, he thought: Thank the Heaven and the Earth.   If we are unable to find our Clan-Leader, I am afraid the clan will disband like clouds that are blown by the wind. Who then will stand before us in the face of the great misfortune that has reached our brows?

Less than a li (500 metres) later, he came upon a figure seated on a large boulder. Looking at the figure's profile, he became awed, for the latter was
 
the leader of the clan, Shi Potian.

Incense-Master Yun and his six companions stood respectfully in front of the boulder, their hands by their sides.

Bei Haishi rushed forward. At the time, the sun was shining down directly on the top of his head, so he could clearly see the facial features of the figure on the boulder. With thick eyebrows, bigs eyes and an angular face, who could it be other than Clan-Leader Shi? Hence, Bei called out in delight: "Clan-Leader, are you well?"

As soon as the greeting came out of his mouth, he saw Clan-Leader Shi's face contorting in extraordinary pain. The left side of Shi's face glowed green, while the right side was totally red, as if he had drunk alcohol. As a man of rich internal strength who had developed a physician's skills due to prolonged illness, Bei Haishi could see that something was not right. Shocked, he thought: What ... what mischief is he up to? Could he be practising an advanced technique in cultivating internal strength? This is strange indeed! Hmm, Xie Yanke must have been teaching him. Oh no! We disturbed him when we gate-crashed our way up the cliff earlier. This is not good.

Suddenly, the doubts and suspicions in his heart dissipated: Our Clan- Leader has been missing for half a year, and we could not find him anywhere. As it turned out, he has been hiding quietly here and practising advanced martial arts. The higher his skills become, the more benefits he will bring to the clan, so this is a very good development indeed.   Xie Yanke knew that our Clan-Leader has reached a crucial juncture in his training, of course, and any disturbances from outsiders would only serve to distract him. Thus, Xie refused to present us to him regardless of what we said or did. He had good intentions, yet we offended him. Now, I feel really apologetic for doing it. But he could have simply given us an explanation, for would we not have understood the situation? Xie Yanke has always been known as a proud and vicious man, so our sudden presence on the cliff must have made him very unhappy. That was why he fell out with us and started to kill. Looking at the condition of our Clan-Leader, the twin energies of 'yin' and 'yang' are battling each other in his body. If the dragon and the tiger cannot come together, the slightest misstep will result
 
in overpractising and an infatuation with power. That will be very dangerous indeed.

Without further ado, Bei Haishi gestured to his companions, indicating that they all should back away. After retreating for several tens of zhang (1 zhang = 10/3 metres), he explained the situation in a low voice. Once they understood, the men were both shocked and delighted. "Our Clan-Leader will not overpractise and develop an infatuation with power, will he?" they asked. Some of them were began to feel bad as well: "We rushed blindly up the cliff and disturbed our Clan-Leader while he was hard at work. The mess that we have created is not small indeed."

Bei Haishi said, "Incense-Master Mi has been wounded by Xie Yanke. Would one of the brothers go and look after him? I will keep watch by our Clan-Leader's side. Perhaps I may be able to lend him a hand at the critical moments. The others will stand guard here as well, but remember not shout or make any noise. If an enemy appears, get rid of him quietly. Our Clan- Leader must not be alarmed at all."

All experts in the study of martial arts, the men knew that being mentally harassed by the appearance of enemies was one of the most dangerous things that could happen during the cultivation of internal strength. Hence, they voiced their agreement and went off quickly to position themselves at key locations on the Skyscraping Cliff. There, they stood guard.

Meanwhile, Bei Haishi went quietly back to Clan-Leader Shi. Standing in front of the man, he saw the flesh on the man's face twisting. His body twitched and his mouth was opened wide, as if in a shout, but not a single sound came out. It was obvious that the energy in his body had taken a wrong turn and his life was now in danger. Greatly shocked, Bei Haishi wanted to go to the man's rescue, but he did not know the type of internal strength that the latter was cultivating. There was not even the slightest room for error in such matters of the yin and the yang, lest the struggling practitioner be sent to a faster death.

By then, Clan-Leader Shi had already torn the clothes on his body to shreds and left numerous bloody scratches on his skin.   Whitish wisps of steam rose from the top of his head and hung in a cloud-like clump just above it.
 
Bei Haishi thought: His martial arts skills are quite ordinary, and his internal strength is weak. But by the clump of steam above his head, his internal strength seems to have been cultivated to an extremely high level. How could he have made such progress within half a year?

Suddenly, a burnt smell entered Bei Haishi's nostrils. White smoke was coming out of the clothes on Clan-Leader Shi's right shoulder. This was a sign of overpractising and an indicator that death would follow in a mere twinkling of the eye.

Startled, Bei Haishi reached out and pressed the Qing Leng Yuan acupoint on Clan-Leader Shi's right elbow in an attempt to bring a temporary moment of calmness to the energy in latter's body. To his surprise, the elbow felt so icy-cold that Bei could not help but shiver involuntarily. He did not dare to exercise his own internal strength in resistance, so he withdrew his hand at once, thinking: What sort of strange internal strength technique is that? Why is half of his body chilled down to the bone, while the other is as hot as burning coal?

Thus distracted for a moment, he suddenly noticed the clan-leader curling up and rolling off the boulder. Then, the man convulsed several times before ceasing to move.

"Clan-Leader, Clan-Leader!" shouted Bei Haishi in alarm as he reached out to check if the man was still breathing. To his relief, he was, but the breathing was so shallow that it could stop at any time. With a furrowed brow and a loud whistle, Bei Haishi lifted Clan-Leader Shi and placed him upright against the boulder. Since the situation had become extremely critical, Bei sat cross-legged beside his leader and placed his left and right palms on the latter's chest and back respectively. Then, he exercised his internal strength and sent forth a stream of protective energy towards the man's Heart Channel.

Shortly after that, the other seven members of the clan appeared.   When they saw their clan-leader's body shaking, as well as his complexion alternating between the reddish glow of alcoholic intoxication and the greenish pall of being frozen stiff, colour drained from their faces. Their eyes were filled with misgivings as they turned to Bei Haishi for answers.
 
Yet, all they saw in return were Bei's trembling body and beads of perspiration the size of soyabeans on his forehead, an obvious indication that he was putting all he had into assisting their clan-leader.

A long time passed before Bei Haishi put his hands down slowly and got to his feet. "Apparently, our Clan-Leader has been cultivating an exquisite form of internal strength," he said. "As to whether he has overpractised, I am unable to make such a diagnosis at the moment. Although I have been fortunate enough to help him overcome a difficult juncture in the training process, I cannot tell how things will be in the future. This is no small matter, so brothers, please think it over and come up with a collective plan."

The men looked at one another and thought: If you, the Physician Bei, have run out of ideas, what can we come up with? Thus, no one had anything to say.

By and by, Incense-Master Mi appeared, with someone supporting him as he walked.   Leaning against a cypress tree, he said in a soft voice: "Mr ... Mr Bei, we will do as you say. Your ... your ideas are always more brilliant than ours."

Bei Haishi glanced at Clan-Leader Shi and replied: "The Four Great Clans of the Northeast (Guan1 Dong1 Si4 Da4 Men2 Pai4) have made an appointment to visit the headquarters of our clan during the Chongyang Festival(4), so we do not have much time left. Brothers, you are all well aware that the visit is crucial to the existence and honour, as well as the extinction and disgrace, of our clan. We have already obtained a clear picture of the background of the Four Great Clans of the Northeast -- a flexible whip, an iron halberd, a demon-hilted sabre and a few dozen flying daggers are insufficient to put the Clan of Eternal Happiness into a tight spot. The case of Clan-Leader Situ is an internal issue, so why would we need their involvement in it? However, it is very inappropriate for the matter to be widely known in the realm of the rivers and lakes. *cough cough* ... The real and major concern, as you all know, relates to the 'Commands of Rewards and Punishments' from the Isle of Heroes. Our Clan-Leader must accept the commands in person, or ... or we will not escape the great calamity that is upon us."
 
"Mr Bei is right," said Incense-Master Yun. "We know the ways of the Clan of Eternal Happiness. Our brothers are forthright men who dislike being hypocrites. If people want to come and give us a 'Reward', there is really nothing that is worth rewarding. But when we talk about 'Punishments', the task of accounting for everything will be very difficult indeed. If we do not have a leader to take charge of the situation, I am afraid ... sigh ..."

"We must not lose any more time," said Bei Haishi. "In my opinion, we must take our Clan-Leader back to our headquarters as quickly as possible. As for his current ... current illness, I am afraid that it is not light.   If Heaven stands by the good man and he recovers within the next ten days or half a month, that will be best.   If not, the presence of our Clan-Leader at the headquarters will still give us a measure of confidence when we stand against our enemies. That ... that is true, is that not?"

"Mr Bei's words are very true indeed," answered the men as they nodded their heads.

"In that case, we will make some stretchers and escort both our Clan-Leader and Incense-Master Mi back to our headquarters," said Bei Haishi.

The men set to work at once, cutting down branches and twisting bark into ropes. After making two stretchers, the men had Clan-Leader Shi and Incense-Master Mi strapped securely into them, lest they slid off during the descent.   Then, the eight men left the Skyscraping Cliff, taking turns to carry the stretchers among them.

+ + +

That day, the young man had cultivated his internal strength according to the techniques that Xie Yanke had taught him. As noon approached, heated energy began to fill the six yang channels in his body: the Hand Yangming Channel of the Colon, the Foot Yangming Channel of the Stomach, the Hand Taiyang Channel of the Small Intestine, the Foot Taiyang Channel of the Urinary Bladder, the Hand Shaoyang Channel of the Three Visceral Cavities and the Foot Shaoyang Channel of the Gall Bladder. The energy stream was unexpectedly difficult to control. Then, the various Taiyin, Shaoyin and Jueyin Channels suddenly became as cold as ice. The heated
 
energy stream was terribly hot, while the icy energy stream was terribly cold. Neither could harmonise with the other.

Having practised diligently for a number of years, the young man had made great progress in the cultivation of internal strength. With the exception of the Chong Channel and the Dai Channel, the energy streams in the eight yin and eight yang channels in his body had suddenly collided among themselves at noon that day. He endured it for less than half a shichen (about one hour) before losing consciousness. Subsequently, he had been in a hazy daze. Sometimes, he felt as if his body was being roasted in a stove, for he perspired profusely until his mouth was dry and lips were parched. Other times, he felt as if he had fallen into a pit of ice, for the blood in his entire body seemed to freeze over.

As he endured the alternating bouts of heat and coldness, he often saw vague human figures of various shapes and sizes before his eyes. A continuous stream of men and women -- sometimes ugly, sometimes handsome -- dropped by. They spoke incessantly to him, but he was unable to hear a single word. He wanted to shout out loud, but he could not make even half a sound.

Sometimes, there was a bright light before his eyes. Other times, there was only darkness. Someone seemed to feed him regularly with soup and alcohol. These liquids alternated between being sweet and delicious, and spicy and pungent, so he did not know what sort of drinks they were.

He passed an indeterminate amount of time in this confused state.

One day, he felt a slight chill on his forehead and smelt a vague fragrance with his nose. He opened his eyes slowly and saw a red candle with a flame that flickered a little. Then, he heard a clear and gentle voice whispering: "Tian- ge(5), you have regained consciousness at last!" The tone was one that was full of joy.

The young man's eyes turned towards the voice and saw that the speaker was a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old girl in a pale green shirt. She had a delicate and beautiful face that was shaped like the melon-seed. Gazing at
 
him with a pair of clear eyes, she smiled with the corner of her mouth and asked softly, "Do you feel any discomfort anywhere?"

The young man's mind was blank. He could only remember sitting on a boulder and practising his skills before his body suddenly became icy-cold on one side and terribly hot on the other. He had been so shocked by the condition that he passed out. How then did this girl appear? He began to mutter: "I ... I ..." Then, he realised that he was lying on a soft bed with a blanket over his body. He tried to sit up at once, but the movement caused him to feel as if ten thousand needles were pricking him simultaneously in all of his limbs and bones. The pain was so unbearable that he could not help but call out: "Ah!"

"You have just regained consciousness," said the girl, "so you must not move. Thank the Heaven and the Earth, for your little life has chosen to return." Lowering her head, she gave him a light kiss on the cheek. When she stood up again, her face had turned entirely red.

The young man did not understand that she had reacted in coyness; he only felt that she had become even more good-looking than before, so much so that there were no other words to describe her. He smiled and spoke haltingly: "Where ... where am I?"

The girl responded with a sweet smile, but before she could answer his question, footsteps were heard outside the door. Putting her left forefinger quickly against her lips in a gesture of silence, she whispered: "Someone is coming. I have to go." With a shake of her body, she somersaulted out of the room through a window.

The young man's vision blurred and the girl was gone. All he was left with were only light footsteps on the roof that went further and further away at a rapid pace. He was stumped: Who is she?   Will she come and see me again?

Just then, the footsteps arrived at the door. Two coughs followed before the door opened with a creak, allowing two men to enter the room. One of the men was an elderly fellow with a sickly-looking appearance, while the
 
other was a skinny fellow who looked rather familiar. It was as if the young man had seen him somewhere before.

When the elderly man saw the young man looking at him with his eyes wide open, the expression on his face turned immediatelty into delight. Rushing forward, he said, "Clan-Leader, how do you feel? You look much better today."

"What ... what did you call me?" asked the young man. "Where ... where am I?"

Worry flashed across the elderly man's face before the full expression of delight returned. "Clan-Leader, you have been seriously ill for seven or eight days," he answered with a smile. "Now that you have regained consciousness, we would like to express our joy and offer you our congratulations. Please lie back and rest, so as to attain mental tranquility. We, your subordinates, will return tomorrow and pay you our respects." As he spoke, he placed his fingers momentarily on one of the young man's wrists, followed by another momentarily touch on the other. Then, nodding his head, he smiled and added: "Clan-Leader, your pulse is steady and rich, without any hint of danger at all.   Heaven has indeed stood by the good man, bringing prosperity to everyone in our clan."

The young man was stunned. "I ... I ... am called 'Gouzazhong', not 'Clan- Leader'," he said.

The statement stumped the elderly man and his skinny companion for a moment. Then, after exchanging a glance, they said in a quiet voice: "Please rest, Clan-Leader." They took a few steps backwards, turned around and left the room.

The elderly man was none other than the 'Touch that Brings Back Life' Bei Haishi, while his skinny companion was Incense-Master Mi, Mi Hengye.

+ + +

Although Mi Hengye had been wounded by Xie Yanke's internal strength on the Skyscraping Cliff, he had been fortunate that Xie did not have much
 
energy left at that time. With Bei Haishi's timely rescue and assistance, as well as several days of recuperation at the headquarters of the Clan of Eternal Happiness, Mi had eventually made a full recovery. However, he could not help feeling considerably depressed about the fact that he, despite his heroic reputation, had been captured by Xie in a single move.

Bei Haishi decided to give him some advice: "Brother Mi, when we think about it, it was all our fault for acting in impetuousness. On hindsight, I wished that Xie Yanke had had all nine of us restrained. Then, we would not have gotten into our Clan-Leader's way and caused him to overpractise and become infatuated with power. Since then, our Clan-Leader has been unconscious. I really cannot tell if he would ever make a full recovery. Even if his body returns to health, he will no longer be able to complete his training in this strange and amazing set of internal strength cultivation techniques that allows for the collision of the yin and the yang. If anything unfortunate happens to him, sigh, Brother Mi, you will bear the least guilt among the nine of us, for although you had gone up to the Skyscraping Cliff with us, you had made a slip even before meeting our Clan-Leader."

"What difference does that make?" asked Mi Hengye. "If anything untoward happens to our Clan-Leader, all of us will suffer in the impending disaster. There is no difference between greater or lesser guilt in that respect."

Little did the duo know that when they visited their clan-leader in his room on the evening of the eighth day, they would find him opening his eyes to look around and opening his mouth to speak. Thus, they were comforted beyond words.

When Bei Haishi took their clan-leader's pulse, he was delighted to find it steady and rich. Hence, he did not expect the latter to make a sudden and inexplicable statement that he was not the clan-leader, but someone called 'Gouzazhong' (Bastard).

Colour drained from the faces of Bei and Mi as they gasped in astonishment. Then, they backed out of the room without daring to utter another word.
 
+ + +

Outside the room, Mi Hengye asked in a low voice: "What now?"

After a moment's thought, Bei Haishi replied: "Our Clan-Leader is not totally lucid at the moment, but this condition is already a victory over him being unconscious. I will do my best to provide him with treatment. Given time, he will certainly recover." He paused before adding: "The only thing is, that matter has come without warning, appearing and disappearing as it pleases; but we do not know when our Clan-Leader will recover completely from his illness."

A lengthier pause followed before Bei Haishi went on: "So long as our Clan-Leader is here, there will be someone to bear the burden even if the sky collapses to the ground." Then, patting Mi Hengye lightly on the shoulder, he smiled and said, "Brother Mi, do not worry. I will take care of everything and make the appropriate arrangements."

Meanwhile, a different scene was taking place inside the room. The young man had waited until the two visitors had left before taking in his surroundings in a hazy daze. He found himself lying on an enormous bed that was fronted by a red-lacquered desk. Two chairs stood beside the table, with brocade pads on the seats. Looking further, he found a luxurious multi-coloured display of bouquets of flowers and piles of silk, as well as embroidered blankets and curtains that exuded a musky aroma. He felt as if he was in a soft and fragrant cave-dwelling that belonged to a supernatural being, for he could not recognise a single object in the dazzling array before him.

Heaving a long breath, he thought: I must be dreaming.

Then, he remembered the girl in green and her delightfully soft-spoken and bashful ways. He could even recall her delicate eyebrows and the lush hair by her temples. When she leapt out of the window earlier, she had left it partly open, so that did not seem to be a dream.

He stretched out his right hand in an attempt to touch his head, but as soon as he lifted the hand, his whole body felt as if it was being stabbed by
 
needles. The pain was so bad that he could not help but call out: "Ayo!"

To his surprise, he heard someone yawning somewhere in the corner of the room. Then, a voice spoke: "Young Master, you are awake ..." The voice belonged to a girl and sounded as if she had just been aroused from sleep. Suddenly, the girl cried out in alarm: "Ah, you ... you are awake?"

A figure in a yellow shirt jumped out from the corner of the room and rushed towards the bed.

The young man thought that the girl who had leapt out of the window earlier had returned. Delighted, he focused his attention on the approaching figure, only to see that this particular girl was dressed in a short goose- yellow coat. Not only were her clothes different from the earlier visitor, her facial features were different as well. This girl had a rather round face and a pair of eyes that were opened wide. Although she was not a clear beauty like the girl in green, she seemed to have a gentler disposition that made her lovely and delightful as well.

This was the first time in the young man's entire life that he had ever spoken face-to-face with girls around his age, so it was only natural that he was unable to identify the tiny details that differentiated one girl from the other.

Then, he heard the girl say, "Young Master, you are already awake?" She sounded startled and delighted at the same time.

"I am," answered the young man. "I ... I am not dreaming, am I?"

The girl giggled and replied, "I am afraid that you may still be dreaming." The look of amusement on her face vanished immediately after that, replaced by a stern expression that did not encourage any agitation at all. "Young Master, what orders do you have?" she asked.

"What did you call me?" asked the young man in surprise. "What Young ... Young Master?"

A hint of irritation appeared on the girl's brow. "I have told you this long ago," she said. "We are lowly people, so besides 'Young Master', what else
 
can we address you as?"

The young man began muttering to himself: "One calls me 'Clan-Leader' ... but another calls me 'Young Master'. Who exactly am I? Why am I here?"

Softening a little, the girl answered: "Young Master, your body has not recovered, so let us not talk about these things. Do you want to eat some birds' nest?"

"Birds' nest?" asked the young man. He did not know what birds' nest was, but since he was very hungry, anything would do. Hence, he nodded in agreement.

The girl went over to the room next door and soon reappeared with a tray in her hands. On the tray was a steaming hot blue-and-white porcelain bowl that exuded a sweet fragrance. When the young man caught a whiff of the aroma, his mouth began to water. At the same time, his stomach started to growl.

The girl smiled and said, "You have had only ginseng soup for sustenance in the past seven or eight days, so you must really be hungry." Then, she brought the tray over to him.

Squinting in the candle-light, the young man saw a bowl of snow-white porridge that somehow did not look like porridge at all. Several dried rose petals floated on the surface of the 'porridge', giving out a light and refreshing fragrance.

"Is this good thing for me to eat?" asked the young man.

"Yes," answered the girl with a smile. "Why are you still acting like a polite guest?"

The young man thought: This is such a good thing ... but I do not know how much it costs. I do not have any silver, so I had better make things clear first. So he said, "I do not have any money with me, so ... so I do not have anything to pay you with."
 
The girl was startled. Then, she broke into a little giggle and said, "You have been gravely ill, yet your character has not changed a bit. You have only begun to speak again, but you are already so garrulous and sharp- tongued. Since you are hungry, you had better eat up fast." She moved the tray a little closer to him.

Delighted, the young man asked, "So I do not have to pay after eating?"

By then, the girl had become rather exasperated with the young man's jokes. "You do not have to pay anything," she replied with a stern face. "Are you eating it or not?"

"I am, I am!" said the young man quickly.   He reached for the spoon, only to feel a stinging pain all over his body as soon as his right hand was lifted. Snorting twice, he gritted his teeth and raised his hand slowly, only to have the hand tremble without stop.

The girl's expression became cold. "Young Master, are you really in pain, or are you just pretending?" she asked.

"I am really in pain, of course," answered the young man in surprise. "Why should I pretend?"

"All right," said the girl. "Since you have been ill enough to be half-dead and barely alive, I will make an exception and feed you one more time. If you take the opportunity to go all touchy-feely in a questionable and disreputable way, I will not pay any attention to you again."

"What is 'touchy-feeling in a questionable and disreputable way'?" asked the young man.

The girl turned slightly red, glared at him out of the corner of her eye and snorted. Then, she took up the spoon, scooped some birds' nest from the bowl and sent the spoon towards the his mouth. The young man was stunned, for he did not expect that such a good person existed in the world. He opened his mouth and ate the birds' nest offered. It was sweet, fragrant and thoroughly enjoyable. The girl fed him three more spoonfuls without uttering a single word, while standing as far away from the side of the bed
 
as she could manage and stretching her arm. She was afraid that he might suddenly attempt to violate her.

Meanwhile, the young man smacked and licked his lips as he ate. "Tasty, very tasty indeed!" he said again and again. "Sigh, I must really thank you for this."

"You had better not try to deceive me with any tricks!" the girl replied with a sneer. "Birds' nest is birds' nest. You have eaten several thousand bowls of it before, but when have you praised it as 'tasty'?"

The young man was stumped: When did I eat this kind of thing? Hence, he asked: "Is ... is this birds' nest?"

The girl replied with a snort of disgust: "So you can really act dumb." As she spoke, she took a step backwards. The expression on her face changed as she became alert and guarded.

Looking at her again, the young man noticed the short goose-yellow coat and matching trousers that she wore, as well as the two buns on her head. She had just woken up, so her hair was somewhat messy. She had not managed to put on her socks, so she stood with her bare feet in a pair of embroidered slippers. The young man had never seen a sight as beautiful as the snowy-white skin on the girl's feet, for his mother had always worn socks and never allowed him into her room. Hence, he expressed his appreciation at once: "Your ... your feet are really beautiful!"

The girl's face turned slightly red before anger took over. Putting the porcelain bowl down on the desk, she turned around, picked up the mat, blanket and pillow in the corner of the room, and walked towards the door.

The young man panicked at once: "Where ... where are you going? Are you ignoring me?" He sounded somewhat pitiful, for he seemed to be entreating her to stay.

"You were ill enough to be half-dead and barely alive," answered the girl, "but as soon as you make a small recovery, you begin talking nonsense all over again. Where do you think I can go to? You are the master, so how
 
can lowly people like us even talk about ignoring you?" Then, she walked out of the room.

Although she appeared to have left in anger, the young man did not know how he had offended her. He thought: One girl jumped out of the window, while the other walked out of the door.   I do not understand any of the things that they have talked about at all. Sigh, I really do not know what is happening.

As he sat lost in his thoughts and staring blankly into space, he heard a series of faint footsteps. The girl had returned to the room, but she still looked angry. There was a basin in her hands.

His heart responding in delight, the young man watched as she put the basin on the desk.   Then, she took a steaming hot towel out of the basin and wrung it dry. Finally, she handed the towel to the young man and said in a cold voice: "Wipe your face!"

"Yes, yes!" answered the young man. He quickly reached for the towel, but as soon as his hands moved, his body was racked with a piercing pain. Undaunted, he gritted his teeth and took the towel into his hands. When he was about to wipe his face, his hands began to tremble. The towel was still a chi (33.33 centimetres) away from his face, but it refused to move nearer regardless of what the young man did.

The girl was only half-convinced. "You pretend very well," she said in a sceptical voice. Then, taking the towel away, she added, "I can wipe your face if you want me to. But if you stretch out your hands in mischief and touch a single hair on my head, I will never enter this room again."

"I do not dare," answered the young man. " Guniang(6), you do not have to wipe my face. This piece of cloth is snowy-white, but my face is very dirty. You had better not soil the cloth."

The girl found his voice rather low. His articulation was also different from what it used to be. Furthermore, the words he spoke did not seem to match the circumstances that he was in. Hence, she could not help but become suspicious: Could this bout of illness have damaged his brain? According
 
to the discussions of Mr Bei and the others, he had overpractised and suffered an infatuation with power while cultivating his internal strength. Consequently, he had suffered injuries to the internal organs in his body. Mr Bei could not even tell if he would eventually escape with his life. If not, why would he speak in such an incoherent way?

Thus, she asked: "Young Master, do you remember my name?"

"You have never told me what it is," answered the young man. "So I do not know what you are called." He smiled in amusement before continuing: "I am not called 'Young Master'. I am Gouzazhong; that is what my mother calls me. Elderly Uncle says that it is an unpleasant term that is used to scold people. What are you called?"

The more the girl heard, the deeper her frown became. She thought: From the way he speaks, he does not seem to be making any frivolous jokes. He must really be confused. She cold not help but feel sad. "Young Master," she asked, "do you really not recognise me? Do you really not recognise Shijian?"

"You are called Shijian?" asked the young man in return. "All right, from now on I will call you Shijian ... no, Elder Sister Shijian. My mother says that I should address older women as 'Grandma' and 'Aunt'. For those who are about my age, I should call them 'Elder Sister'."

Shijian lowered her head, only to burst suddenly into tears. "Young Master," she cried, "you ... you are not deceiving me in pretense, are you? Have you really forgotten me?"

"I do not understand what you are saying," replied the young man, shaking his head. "Elder Sister Shijian, why are you crying? Why are you unhappy? Did I offend you? When my mother is unhappy, she will hit me and scold me. You had better hit me and scold me too."

Shijian became even more upset. She picked the towel up slowly and started to wipe his face. "I am your maidservant," she said in a quiet voice. "How can I hit you and scold you? Young Master, may the Heavens bring
 
you quick recovery. If you have really forgotten everything, what will we do?"

When she was done wiping his face, the young man saw that the snowy- white towel did not become dirty at all. He started to thank Shijian repeatedly. He did not know that she had wiped his face several times a day when he was unconscious.

Shijian spoke quietly again: "Young Master, you forgot my name, but you must still remember the other things, do you not? Like, what clan are you leading?"

The young man shook his head and replied: "I am not a clan-leader. Elderly Uncle taught me to practise martial arts. Suddenly, half my body became boiling hot, while the other hald became unbearably cold. I ... I ... could not endure it any longer, so I fainted. Elder Sister Shijian, how did I get here? Did you bring me here?"

Shijian's heart ached again: In that case, he ... he really does not remember anything anymore.

"Where is Elderly Uncle?" asked the young man. "He taught me to practise martial arts according to the lines on the bodies of the clay figurines, so I want to ask him why my body became boiling hot and icy cold."

When Shijian heard him mention the 'clay figurines', she remembered something that had happened seven days earlier.   At that time, a wooden box had fallen out of his shirt while she was changing his clothes. She had opened the box out of curiosity, only to find eighteen naked male figurines that were made of clay inside. She had turned red at once, for she had known her young master to be an incorrigible lecher. Hence, the unclothed figurines could not be anything good. Subsequently, she had closed the box and kept it away in a drawer. Now, she thought: Let me show him the figurines. Perhaps they will help him to remember the things that had happened before he overpractised and suffered an infatuation with power.

She opened the drawer and retrieved the box. "Are these the clay figurines?" she asked.
 
"Yes," answered the young man in delight. "The figurines are here, but where is Elderly Uncle? Where has Elderly Uncle gone?"

"Which elderly uncle?" asked Shijian.

"Elderly Uncle is Elderly Uncle," said the young man. "His name is called the Skyscraping Resident."

Shijian knew very little about the established figures of the martial arts circle, so she had never heard of the Skyscraping Resident Xie Yanke. "It is good that you have regained consciousness," she said. "It does not matter if you do not remember anything in the past.   Dawn has not broken, so you can sleep for a while more. Sigh, perhaps it is better that you do not remember anything in the past." After gathering his blankets, she picked up the tray and began making her way out of the room.

"Elder Sister Shijian, why is it better that I do not remember anything in the past?" asked the young man.

"The things you did in the past ...," Shijian began, only to stop abruptly and hurry out of the room.

The young man was stumped. There seemed to be no answers to all the things that were happening around him. Just then, he heard the *du du* sound of the bamboo clapper, followed by three *dang dang dang* of the gong outside the room. He did not know that it was just the watchman sounding the night-watches(7). Instead, he thought: There are actually people playing with bamboo clappers and gongs in the middle of the night.

Suddenly, the Shang Yang acupoint on the index finger of his right hand became hot. Then, a heated stream of energy began travelling up his finger, through his wrist and along his arm.

"Oh no!" said the startled young man to himself.

Then, the Yong Quan acupoint in the middle of his left sole became terribly cold. Having suffered the collision of these hot and cold energy streams many times before, he knew that each attack was very painful. When the
 
pain reached the point of unbearability, he would simply collapse. In the past, the attacks had come when he was in a daze, but now that it had struck when he was lucid, he was profoundly disturbed.

Just then, a stream of heated energy began moving upwards on the left side of his body. At the same time, a stream of cold energy began moving downwards on the right side. Both streams were headed slowly towards his heart and lungs.

I will surely die this time! he thought.

In the past, the energy streams had either met in the abdomen or the back. But now, they were about to meet in the vital organs of the heart and the lungs. How was he going to withstand their onslaught?

Aware of the gravity of the situation, he forced himself into a sitting position as quickly as he could. He wanted to sit cross-legged, but his legs simply refused to bend themselves. After much struggling, he thought: When Elderly Uncle learnt this skill years ago, did he suffer like this as well? Come to think of it, being able to put two sparrows on my open palm without them flying away is not really a fun thing to do. If I had known this earlier, I would not have taken up the skill.

Suddenly, a man spoke in a low voice outside his window: "Clan-Leader, your subordinate from the Hall of the Victorious Leopard (Bao4 Jie2 Tang2), Zhan Fei, has a great secret to report."

Unable to make even half a sound, the young man watched as the window opened slowly and a shadowy figure flashed across it. A man in a mottled robe had leapt into the room. Dashing forward, the visitor found the young man sitting up in bed. The sight shocked him greatly, for he had not expected to see it at all. Thus, he quickly took two steps backwards.

By then, the hot and cold streams of energy were already surging around the young man's heart and lungs.   His heart was thumping so quickly that he felt it would stop at any time and cause him to die. Yet, despite the extreme pain, he was unusually lucid. He heard the man in the mottled robe announcing his name as 'Zhan Fei from the Hall of the Victorious Leopard',
 
and saw him jump into the room through the window. He did not know what the man wanted to do, so he simply opened his eyes wide and stared at him.

When Zhan Fei realised that the young man was not reacting to his presence, he spoke in a soft voice: "Clan-Leader, I heard that you overpractised while training in martial arts. You have not been well, but now, you must be much better."

The young man's body trembled several times, but he was still unable to speak.

Zhan Fei's expression turned into delight.   "Clan-Leader," he said, "you have not recovered, so you cannot to move, can you?"

Although he had been speaking softly, the unexpected noise created by his presence had already been heard by Shijian from the room next door. Walking in, the girl noticed the wicked and savage look on Zhan Fei's face at once. "What are you doing?" she asked in surprise. "You have entered the room of the Clan-Leader without his summons. Do you want to defy your superior and start a rebellion?"

With a sudden shake of his body, Zhan Fei dashed over to Shijian and struck her on the waist with his right elbow. Then, he added another strike to her shoudler with the fingers of his right hand. Shijian sank into a chair, unable to move after her acupoints were sealed. Zhan Fei practised a form of external martial arts, so he could only restrain a person's arms and legs when he blocked their acupoints. Since he could not stop a person from speaking with his skills, he took out a handkerchief and stuffed it into Shijian's mouth. Panic gripped the girl at once, for she knew that he intended to do the clan-leader harm. Yet, she could not call out for help.

On his part, Zhan Fei remained very wary of his clan-leader.   Gesturing with his palm, he said in a quiet voice: "I think it will not be difficult to kill your little maidservant with a stroke of my Iron-Sand Palm Technique (Tie3 Sha1 Zhang3)!" Then, he sent his palm towards the top of Shijian's head, thinking: If the brat has not lost his martial arts abilities, he will definitely come to her rescue.
 
However, when his palm was less than half a chi (1 chi = 33.33 centimetres) from Shijian's head, Zhan Fei noticed that his clan-leader remained seated and still. Delighted, he withdrew his palm at once. Turning to the young man, he grinned hideously and said, "Little thieving lecher, you have done all kinds of evil throughout your life, yet today, you will die in my hands." Then, he took two steps towards the bed and continued in a softer voice: "You do not have any strength to resist me right now, so if I kill you, I will not be acting in accordance to the ways of heroic men. But my grudge against you is as deep as the ocean, so the rules of the jianghu are no longer applicable. If you understand the code of brotherhood that is used in the realm of the rivers and lakes, you will not seduce my wife!"

Although the young man and Shijian could not move, they could hear the man's words clearly.

Why does he hold a grudge against me that is as deep as the ocean? the young man asked himself. And what does 'seduce his wife' mean?

On the other hand, Shijian thought: Young Master does not know how much he has accummulated in terms of debts of evil passion. Today, retribution has finally come upon him. Sigh, this man is really going to kill Young Master. The thought brought Shijian so much anxiety that she struggled with all her strength to regain mobility. However, her aching arms and legs were so limp that she fell almost immediately to the ground with a thud.

Meanwhile, Zhan Fei growled ferociously at his clan-leader: "My wife lost her chastity to you. Hmmph! Do you really think that I had my eyes closed? That I was a cuckold who did not have the slightest knowledge of what was going on? Although I knew, I could not do anything against you, so I swallowed the insult and submitted to the humiliation like the mute who eats the rhizome of the Chinese goldthread (huang2 lian2) without being able to speak up about its bitterness. Little did I realise that the Heavens have eyes, for you, the little thieving lecher who has done all sorts of evil, have finally fallen into my hands." As he spoke, he positioned his feet firmly according to the Riding Stance (ma3 bu4) and took a deep breath. Then, he exercised his strength until his right arm started to creak, before sending a palm out with a *hu* towards the young man's chest.
 
Zhan Fei was the Incense-Master of the Hall of the Victorious Leopard, one of the five outer halls of the Clan of Eternal Happiness. He had more than twenty years of practice in the Iron-Sand Palm Technique, so the depth of power that could be produced was not something to be trifled with. He had used all his strength in striking the young man, hitting the latter right between the nipples on the Shan Zhong acupoint.

A loud crack was heard. Zhan Fei's right arm broke. He flew backwards, crashed through the window and landed outside the room. The energy channels in his body were sealed off at once, knocking him out cold.

There was a flower garden right outside the room, where members of the Clan of Eternal Happiness went on patrol. That night, the Hall of the Victorious Leopard was in charge of the patrols, so Zhan Fei could enter the private quarters of the clan-leader.

After Zhan Fei crashed through the window, he fell into a bed of rose bushes, snapping many of the plants with his weight. The noise alerted the patrolling clan-members at once. Someone soon appeared with a flaming torch in his hand and found Zhan Fei lying completely still on the ground. Not knowing if Zhan was dead or alive, he quickly deduced that a formidable enemy had invaded the room of the clan-leader. Greatly shocked, he blew his bamboo whistle to alert his colleagues. At the same time, he pulled his sabre out and stuck his head through the broken window for a look.

The room was pitch-dark, without even so much as half a sound to be heard.   The man raised the torch in his left hand so that the light would shine into the room, while waving the sabre in his right hand protectively in front of his chest. Peering through the gaps that were created by the movements of the sabre, he saw the clan-leader sitting cross-legged on the bed. A girl, who appeared to be his maidservant, was slumped on the floor in front of him. There was no one else in the room.

Just then, the clan-members who had been alerted by the whistle appeared.

Qiu Shanfeng, the Incense-Master of the Hall of the Ferocious Tiger, brandished his iron mace and asked in a loud voice: "Clan-Leader, are you
 
safe and well?"   Lifting the door-curtain, he stepped into the room and found the clan-leader shaking from head to toe.

Suddenly, a loud *wa* was heard. The clan-leader opened his mouth and threw up so much purplish blood that several bowls would have been needed to contain it.   As Qiu Shanfeng dodged to the side and avoided being hit by the stinking vomit, he was both surprised and bewildered to see that the clan-leader had already left the bed and begun helping the maidservant up from the floor.

"Elder Sister Shijian, did he ... he hurt you?" asked the clan-leader, pulling out the handkerchief that had been stuffed into her mouth earlier.

Shijian took a breath as quickly as she could. "Young Master," she said, "you ... you have been hit. How ... how do you feel?" She was so alarmed by the incident that she could not speak coherently.

The young man smiled. "He struck me with his palm," he answered, "but I feel extremely comfortable."

Footsteps sounded outside the room. Moments later, many more people arrived. Bei Haishi, Mi Hengye and a few others hurried into the room, while those who were positioned lower on the clan hierarchy waited outside the door.

"Clan-Leader, did the assassin startle you?" asked Bei Haishi as he rushed up to the bed.

"What assassin?" asked the young man, totally stumped.   "I did not see any."

By then, Zhan Fei had already regained consciousness, having been given aid by one of the skilled pugilists in the clan. As he was brought into the room, he recalled the rules that the clan had laid down regarding traitors who defied their superiors and started rebellions. The punishment for individuals who engaged in such acts was the harshest of the lot, for it entailed having the perpetrators stripped naked and tied to the 'Platform of Punishment' (Xing2 Tai2 Shi2) in the backyard so that the ants and insects
 
of the ground, as well as the bald eagles of the air, would bite and peck them at will. This would usually translate into eight or nine days of sheer torture before death could occur.

Despite using all his strength earlier, Zhan Fei had failed to kill the clan- leader. Instead, he had been thrown out of the room by a pure and rich stream of internal strength. His right arm broken and his body racked with internal injuries, he had hoped for a quick death. However, he soon found himself being taken into the clan-leader's room. Now, he listened to the goings-on with bated breath. As soon as the clan-leader uttered the words "send him to the Platform of Punishment, so that he may receive the Divine Punishment of Eternal Happiness (Chang2 Le4 Tian1 Xing2)", he would lift his head and run it into the wall at once.

"Did the assassin enter the room through the window?" asked Bei Haishi.

"I was in a hazy daze," answered the young man. "My body felt terribly uncomfortable and my heart beat so quickly that I thought I would die from it. I do not think that anyone came in."

Zhan Fei was surprised: Could he really have been so confused that he did not know I had hit him? But the girl knows that I was the one who did it, so she will eventually reveal the truth.

Sure enough, Bei Haishi reached over and pinched Shijian several times on the waist and the shoulder, using his internal strength to unblock her acupoints. "Who sealed your acupoints?" he asked.

"He did!" answered Shijian, pointing to Zhan Fei. Bei Haishi looked at Zhan Fei and frowned.
Zhan Fei sneered in return. Just as he was about to let out a few curses before death came upon him, he suddenly heard the clan-leader say: "It was I ... I who asked him to do do."

Shijian and Zhan Fei could hardly believe their ears. They stared blankly at the young man, wondering what his words meant.
 
+ + +

Although the young man did not understand all the things that had occurred and were still occurring around him, he could sense that the situation had taken a very serious turn. Since the people treated him with an immense amount of respect, they would certainly deal unfavourably with Zhan Fei if they knew that he (Zhan) had restrained Shijian and struck him (the clan- leader) with the palm.   Therefore, the young man told the lie in an attempt to help Zhan.

As for the reason behind his concealing the truth on behalf of Zhan, he was in fact unable to articulate even half of it. All he could sense was the extreme discontent and indignation that pushed the older man into hitting him. It was really something that the man could not control at all.

Furthermore, the hot and cold streams of energy in the young man's body had been surging in conflicting directions at that time and causing him terrible discomfort. When Zhan Fei struck, his palm had landed right on the Shan Zhong acupoint of the young man, the very centre of energy in the human body. The extraordinary power of that strike, as well as the sheer coincidence in its timing, had somehow caused the disparate yin-yang energies that had resulted from training in the eight yin and the eight yang channels to merge into one. With water and milk blended, there was no longer any separation between the cold and the hot streams of energy. Consequently, the young man's internal strength had seen an unexpected increase in power. Yet, he had absolutely no idea that this energy had thrown Zhan Fei out of the window. All he knew was that the bone-chilling cold in his body had become refreshingly cool, while the roasting heat had become pleasantly warm. There was an indescribable comfort in his limbs and bones. Then, the coolness and the warmth faded away, leaving his entire body filled with so much pure energy that he could not help but call out loud.

When the Incense-Master of the Hall of the Ferocious Tiger Qiu Shanfeng entered the room, the young man had thrown up all the blood that had formed clots inside his body. Almost at once, his spirit had been lifted. Not only his body had become stronger and more vitalised, his mind had become more alert as well.
 
+ + +

Noticing Shijian's untidy clothes and hair, as well as the panicky expression on her face, Bei Haishi and the others soon guessed what was going on. They knew that their clan-leader had always been very fond of women and given to lust, so they were certain that he had had the evil thought of violating Shijian as soon as his illness took a turn for the better. Thus when Zhan Fei passed by on patrol, the clan-leader simply called him into the room and ordered him to seal Shijian's acupoints. However, Bei Haishi and the others were unable to figure out how Zhan Fei had offended the clan- leader to the point of being thrown out of the window.

By and by, they guessed that Zhan Fei had probably reacted with a little hesitation when ordered to strip Shijian naked. However, Zhan Fei's accomplishment in martial arts was way beyond that of the clan-leader, so "being thrown out of the window" was probably just Zhan Fei's way of appeasing the clan-leader's anger. After all, there was an eight or a nine to ten chance that he (Zhan) had thrown himself out by his own will.

The men could tell that Zhan Fei's injuries were not light. In addition, the thorns on the rose bushes left bloody scratches all over his head, face and arms. The men were somewhat saddened by the sight, but no one dared to comfort Zhan Fei or ask after him, for fear of incurring the clan-leader's wrath.

Everyone saw the situation before them in this way, so no one dared to mention the assassin again.

When Incense-Master Qiu Shanfeng of the Hall of the Ferocious Tiger recalled how he had just put a damper on the clan-leader's affairs, he began wondering if the clan-leader would turn against him in accusation then and there. After all, Zhan Fei's case was an example of what the clan-leader could do to those whom he was dissatisfied with. Since it was always better to be tactful, Qiu bowed and said, "Clan-Leader, please rest. Your subordinate takes his leave."

The other men followed, leaving the room one after another.
 
Bei Haishi found the expression on the clan-leader's face quite unusual, so he reached a hand out in concern and said, "I will take your pulse again."

The young man offered his hand in response, allowing Bei to check his pulse.

When Bei placed two of his fingers on the young man's wrist, he suddenly felt a massive tremor running up his own arm. Half of his body went numb, while the remaining three fingers on his hand became limp. Bei's initial shock quickly gave way to delight. "Congratulations, Clan-Leader!" he declared in a loud voice. "This is a joyous occasion indeed, for you have finally mastered the divine skill that surpasses all!"

The young man was baffled. "What ... what divine skill that surpasses all?" he asked.

Thinking that the young man was unwilling to share the information, Bei Haishi did not dare to mention it again. Instead, he said, "Yes, yes ... your subordinate was uttering sheer nonsense. Clan-Leader, please do not take offence." He gave a slight bow and left the room.

With all the men gone within moments of one another, only Zhan Fei and Shijian remained.

Although Zhan Fei was seriously wounded, the men had left him in the room because no one knew how the clan-leader was going to deal with him. The clan-leader had not issued any commands, so no one had dared to take Zhan away for treatment.

The broken arm caused Zhan Fei so much pain that his forehead was dotted with cold sweat. When his hearing told him that his colleagues were already far away, he ground his teeth in anger and said, "If you want to torture me, get on with it quickly. He who is surnamed Zhan is not a true man if he begs even once for mercy."

"Why would I want to torture you?" asked the young man in surprise. "Hmm, your arm is broken, so it must be set. Once, when A'Huang fell into a hole and broke a leg, I was the one who had it set." The young man
 
had lived with his mother on an isolated and barren hill, so he had to do everything himself. Although he was very young then, he could grow vegetables, hunt, cook and repair the house in an orderly way. When the dog, A'Huang, broke its leg, he had it bound up with a wooden stick as a splint. More than ten days later, he had been surprised to find the leg completely healed. Thus, when he finished speaking, he began looking to the left and the right, seeking a wooden stick that he could use as a splint for Zhan Fei's arm.

"Young Master, what you are looking for?" asked Shijian.

"I am looking for a wooden stick," answered the young man.

Suddenly, Shijian took two steps forward and fell to her knees. "Young Master," she said, "I beg you to have mercy on him. You ... you deceived his wife, so he cannot be blamed for being resentful. Besides, he did not injure you. Young Master, if you really want to kill him, just do it with a stab of the sabre. Please, I beg you, do not torture him." She felt that being beaten to death with a wooden stick was a lot more painful than being killed with a single stab of the sabre, so she could not bear to see it happen.

"What do you mean 'deceived his wife'? asked the young man.   "Why should I kill him? Are you saying that I am about to kill someone? How can a person be killed?" Realising that there were no wooden sticks in the room, he picked up a chair and pulled hard at one of its legs. By then, the proverbial water and fire had come together; the yin and the yang had harmonised. With the mastery of this particular set of internal strength cultivation techniques, came an amazingly high level of physical strength. The young man was completely unaware of the limits in exerting his strength, so the moment he pulled at the chair, a loud crack was heard. The leg of the chair was broken. Yet, the young man did not know that he had become stronger than before. "This chair is not firm," he muttered. "Would a person who sits on it not have a great fall? Elder Sister Shijian, what are you kneeling?  Get up quickly."

Then, he walked up to Zhan Fei and said, "Do not move!"
 
Although Zhan Fei had spoken his stand in a tough and stubborn manner, the sight of the young man breaking the chair with one pull told him with the latter's internal strength was indeed rich and vigorous beyond compare, just like the earlier incident when his arm was broken and his body was sent flying out of the window with one shake. Hence, Zhan Fei could not help but tremble involuntarily as he eyed the chair-leg in the young man's hand and thought: He will not hit me with the chair-leg, of course. A-yo! He must be thinking of pushing it into my mouth, down my throat and all the way to the stomach, so that I will neither die nor live!

The Clan of Eternal Happiness had many cruel forms of torture, one of which did indeed entail the pushing of a wooden stick into the offender's mouth, down his throat and all the way to the stomach. This unbearably painful punishment, which did not cause immediate death, was called 'Opening the Mouth to Laugh' (Kai1 Kou3 Xiao4).

When Zhan Fei thought about this particular type of torture, he became frightened out of his wits. Thus, when he saw the clan-leader approaching, he raised his left palm and sent it suddenly towards the latter.

Yet, the young man did not know that Zhan intended to hurt him. "Do not move, do not move!" he said, stretching out a hand to grab the man's left wrist.

Almost immediately, a tingling numbness ran through half of Zhan Fei's body and rendered him immobile.

The young man placed the chair-leg beside Zhan's broken arm. Then, he turned to the maidservant and said, "Elder Sister Shijian, do you have a belt(8) or something? Bind him up!"

"Are you really setting the bone for him?" asked Shijian, greatly surprised.

"Bone-setting is bone-setting," answered the young man with a smile. "Could there really be anything 'real' or 'false' about it? Look at how pained his expression is. How can it still be a joke?"
 
Although Shijian believed only half of what he said, she went off and found a belt. Returning to the two men, she glanced at the younger one before binding Zhan Fei's broken arm up in anxiety and fear.

"Wonderful!" said the young man with a smile. "You bound him up very well, much better than what I did with A'Huang's broken leg."

Zhan Fei thought: This thieving clan-leader is excessively ruthless and sinister.   I do not know what strange and new ways he will use to torture me. When he heard 'A'Huang's broken leg' being mentioned again, he could not help but ask: "Who is A'Huang?"

"A'Huang is my pet dog," answered the young man. "It is a pity that he is missing."

Zhan Fei erupted in anger at once. "A true man can be killed but not humiliated!" he roared. "Kill me if you want. Why take me as a beast?"

"No, no!" said the young man quickly. "I was just making a mention. Big Brother, do not be angry. I made a mistake, so let me apologise." He clasped his fists and raised them as he spoke.

Zhan Fei knew that the young man had a formidable level of internal strength, so he thought that the latter's apology was only a pretext for doing him harm with another energy attack. After all, the young man had always been arrogant and rude. It was already extremely rare for him to talk to his subordinates in a kind and friendly manner, so how could he be expected to offer any apologies?

Hence, Zhan Fei moved sideways to avoid the young man's clasped fists, his eyes glaring at the latter to see what vicious schemes he had up his sleeve.

"Big Brother, you are surnamed Zhan, are you not?" asked the young man. "Big Brother Zhan, please return to your quarters and rest. I, Gouzazhong, am not good with words. Do not take heart if I have offended you."
 
Zhan Fei was shocked: What ... what does he mean by 'I, the bastard'? Is that a new roundabout way of heaping verbal abuse on others?

As for Shijian, she thought: Young Master's mind was clear for a while, but it has become muddled again in the twinkling of an eye. Yet, she could see the young man's eyes looking straight ahead with his brows were furrowed in deep thought. Then, she threw glances at Zhan Fei in a bid to get him to leave quickly while he could.

"Young Shi, I do not need you to play up to me," said Zhan Fei in a loud voice. "So, you want to have me killed. I cannot escape anyway. Since I have already accepted my fate a long time ago, I do not wish to live any longer. Why are you not having me killed quickly?"

"Your muddle-headedness is really funny," said the young man in amazement. "Why do I want to have you killed? When my mother told me stories, she would always say, 'Only bad people will kill others. Good people do not kill.' I am certainly not a bad person. Although you have broken your arm, you are still a big-sized man. How can I even succeed in killing you?"

By then, Shijian could no longer stop herself from interrupting the conversation. "Incense-Master Zhan, the Clan-Leader has already shown mercy to you," she said. "Why are you still not leaving?"

Zhan Fei lifted his left hand and rubbed his head: Is this little thief muddle- headed, or am I confused?

"Hurry, go!" said Shijian again, stamping her foot.   "Go quickly!" Then, she pushed Zhan Fei out of the room.

The young man burst into laughter. "This man is quite interesting," he said. "He was actually convinced that I was going to have him killed, as if I was a terribly evil fellow who enjoyed killing people most."

This was the first time since serving the clan-leader that Shijian had seen him showing sudden kindness and pardoning a subordinate who offended him. Furthermore, the benefactor of his mercy was Zhan Fei, who had
 
defied him and made an attempt at assassination -- offences that really could not be pardoned. Hence, Shijian could not help but react in delight. "You are a good man, of course," she said with a smile. "A very great and good man indeed. Only a good man would rob another of his wife and break the couple up ..." At this point, there was a tinge of bitterness in her voice. Yet, she was still not bold enough to speak without restraint before someone as impressive and powerful as her clan-leader. So, she simply clammed up.

"Are you saying that I have robbed another man of his wife?" asked the young man in surprise. "How was the robbery done? Whatever did I do it for?"

Shijian became angry and snapped: "If you are a good man, why are you still talking about such obscene things? You cannot pretend to be prim and proper even for a moment, for the tail of the fox has been revealed in the twinkling of an eye. I say, dear Young Master, if you want to pretend to be a good man, I would appreciate it if you can do it for a while longer."

The young man did not understand her words at all. "What ... what did you say?" he asked. "I really do not understand why I robbed the man of his wife. Do teach me!" By then, he felt as if his entire body had an infinite amount of energy to give out, for his eyes were filled with a greatly- energised glow.

Shijian found his comments increasingly outrageous, so she soon became very frightened. She started stepping backwards until she reached the entrance of the room. If the clan-leader pounced on her, she would be able to run away. Yet, in reality, she knew that if he had really wanted to violate her, how could she have escaped from his clutches of evil? When such instances of danger came up in the past, she had relied entirely on the threat of suicide and the resolute refusal to accede to his demands before the chastity of her body could be preserved.

Now, seeing the violent and beast-like glow in his eyes, she did not dare to utter another word of sarcasm. As her heart thumped wildly, she spoke in a trembling voice: "Young Master, your body has not ... has not recovered in full. It is better to rest a while more."
 
"So I will rest a while more," said the young man. "When my body has recovered in full, what will happen then?"

Shijian's face turned totally red. As her left foot stepped through the doorway, she heard him muttering to himself: "I really do not understand anything that is happening. Sigh, you look as if you are terrified of me."

The young man grabbed the back of a chair with his hands and exerted a slight amount of pressure on it. The chair was made of red sandalwood (zi3 tan2 mu4), a very strong and hard kind of timber. Thus, no one had expected the back of the chair to snap with a loud *ke-chi* as soon as it came into contact with his internal strength.

"The things here seem to be made from flour!" said the young man in amazement.

+ + +

Xie Yanke had harboured evil intentions when he taught the young man that set of high-level internal strength techniques in a disordered sequence. He had hoped that the yin and the yang energies in the young man's body would collide with each other at the point of mastery and cause the young man to die an incomparably cruel and miserable death. Then, he would not have been considered to 'place the strength of a finger' on him.

As for the young man, he had practised the techniques for several years until that day, when the yin and the yang energies began colliding with each other. He should have died without a doubt, but as luck would have it, Bei Haishi had appeared. The Physician Bei was skilled in the ways of healing. Coupled with his rich and profound level of internal strength, he had been able to protect the young man's Heart Channel on his behalf. Consequently, the young man's breathing had been temporarily sustained for a period of time.

After arriving at the headquarters of the Clan of Eternal Happiness, someone had visited the young man every night and fed him with doses of the stolen 'Liquor of Dark Ice and Blue Flame' (Xuan2 Bing1 Bi4 Huo3 Jiu3). Amazingly rare and valuable in the martial arts circle, the drink had
 
suppressed the collision of the yin and yang energies in the young man's body. However, the strong and volatile properties of the herbs in the liquor had inadvertantly increased the level of the energy itself. When Zhan Fei struck the young man on the Shan Zhong acupoint, he had forced the opposing energies to harmonise, in the way that the dragon and the tiger had came together as one.   At the same time, the young man was forced to throw up the poisoned blood that had accummulated in his abdomen. With water and fire blended, the two streams of pure yin and pure yang energies could no longer harm the young man's body. Instead, they had become a strange and unprecedented type of internal strength.

No one had ever dared to think of such a dangerous course in the practice of martial arts and the cultivation of internal strength. Even if Xie Yanke had a sudden change of heart in regret, or if Bei Haishi had wanted to save the young man's life with all his heart, none of them would have been bold enough to hit his chest with a hard and powerful strike of the palm.

Since this strange type of internal strength had developed through a series of accidents and misadventures that did not follow any coherent line of reasoning, it had not reached the point of complete fusion yet. Thus, there would still be occasions when it would rush through the young man's body without direction, and force his blood to toss and turn in his veins. Consequently, there were times when he felt like vomitting and others when he simply wanted to jump around in anxiety.

Yet, the young man knew absolutely nothing about the reasons behind these manifestations. He had already been so confused in the first place, as if everything was just a dream. Now, he felt as if he was in a dream within a dream. He could no longer discern whether the happenings were real or simply hallucinations.

+ + +

Finally, Shijian spoke again. "Since you have pardoned Incense-Master Zhan, spared his life and set his bones," she said in a quiet voice, "why do you bother to curse him and call him a beast?   Now that you have done it, he will once again hate you to the bone." Then, noticing the odd expression on the young man's face, the strange way in which his glowing eyes
 
watched her, as well as the slight jumpy movements in his arms and legs, she left the room.   She did not dare to remain there any longer, for the young man's body language were clear and obvious indications that he was about to pounce on her.




Definitions and/or words left (mostly) in their original form:

1.Heart Channel = short for the 'Hand Shaoyin Channel of the Heart'; see "Medicines, Medical Treatments and Bodily Matters" in Facts and Figures.

2.Period (shi2) = the 24-hour day is divided into 12 two-hour time periods in ancient times. Each period is given a separate name, after the Twelve Earthly Branches (di4 zhi4). See "Culture and Lifestyle" in Facts and Figures for more information.

3.'Three Evils of Central Hebei' (Ji4 Zhong1 San1 Sha4) = Ji4 is another name for the Province of Hebei.

4.Chongyang Festival (Chong2 Yang2 Jie2) = A festival celebrated on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month; also known as the Double-Ninth Festival. See "Culture and Lifestyle" in Facts and Figures for more information.

5.Tian- ge = 'Ge' literally means 'elder brother'. In this context, it is used as a term of endearment and/or affection for the person named Tian.

6.Guniang (gu1 niang) = Literally means 'girl'. It is usually used as a form of address for unmarried girls and women.

7.Sounding the night-watches (qiao1 geng1 or da3 geng1) = A way of keeping time during the night. See "Culture and Lifestyle" in Facts and Figures for more information.

8.Belt (dai4 zi3) = In those days, the most common belts were simply long and narrow strips of fabric.

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