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Phantoms’ Mountain Manor Chapter 11


Chapter 11 – Operation Thunder

These were the four stages of the Operation Thunder:

— Stage One: personnel assignment and mission statement of each person.

— Stage Two: assume disguises and go down the mountain in batches.

— Stage Three: assemble at the appointed place and prepare to strike.

— Stage Four: the actual operation.

The meeting today was only the first stage, and it already made people trembling with fear.

Now that the heavy and tense atmosphere in the hall had reached its peak, Old Sabre Honcho stood up.

“In this world, there are a lot of people who should be dead long ago, yet no one dared to take any action to punish them. There are a lot of matters that should be dealt with long ago, yet no one dared to take any action to do it. And now we are going to deal with exactly these people, to deal with exactly these matters.”

Lu Xiaofeng suddenly discovered that this man was a born leader; not only he was calm, cool-headed, and well-planned, he was extremely eloquence as well. In just a few words he was able to lay down the objective of the operation very clearly.

“Our operation will be like thunderbolt from the sky, hence it is called the Operation Thunder.”

In that vast hall, the only thing that could be heard was the sound of breathing and the heartbeat of these people; everybody was waiting for him to continue.

Old Sabre Honcho paused his speech for a very long time, just like the short period of silence a moment before the storm; but it also seemed that he was giving the audience the chance to prepare their hearts to hear the earth-shattering sound of the thunderbolt.

“There are seven people that we have to deal with first.” He paused again before revealing the names of these seven people, “Shi Yan of Wudang, Tie Jian [lit. iron shoulder] of Shaolin, Wang Shidai [lit. ten-pouch king, or Wang The Ten-pouch; not sure if this is his name or simply a title] of Beggar Clan, Shuishang Fei [Flying-Over-The-Water] of Yangtze [River], Gao Xingkong [lit. skywalker] of Yandang [mountains, southeast Zhejiang], Priest Xiao Gu of Bashan [mountain, eastern Sichuan], and Yingyan Laoqi [lit. Hawk Eye the seventh] of the Twelve-Dock Alliance [see also Book 6].”

The hall, which was originally very quiet, grew even quieter, almost like inside a tomb, even the sound of breathing and heartbeat had stopped.

Although Lu Xiaofeng already knew that the matter he wanted to accomplish was a big matter, yet as he heard each name mentioned, he could not help but was shocked.

After a long time, some people started to wipe their sweats, some started to drink, and several people quietly ducked down underneath the table to throw up.

But Old Sabre Honcho’s voice was even calmer, “If this operation is successful, not only it will create a bigger sensation than today, the Jianghu will be shaken, and it will be beneficial for everyone.”

He paused again, “I have planned every detail of this operation well, it should have had a hundred percent chance of success; too bad that in every step of the way, it was difficult to avoid the unexpected. Therefore, there will be unavoidable dangers in this operation, so I won’t force anybody to participate.”

His blade-like gaze, from under the bamboo rain hat, swept past everybody’s face in the hall. “Those who do not wish to participate may stand up now, I will definitely not force you.”

Once again a hush blanketed the hall. Old Sabre Honcho slowly sat down, and to everybody’s surprise, he poured another half a goblet of wine.

Lu Xiaofeng could not help picking up his cup as well, and found out that his palm was sweaty.

Up to this time, still no one stood up. But suddenly someone asked, “Those who do not wish to go, can they still stay in this place?”

“Yes,” Old Sabre Honcho’s answer was very sure, “You may stay as long as you wish.”

The man who asked the question hesitated for a moment, but in the end he slowly stood up, followed by his big, protruding belly.

Lu Xiaofeng suddenly remembered this man. Twenty years ago, there were four freaks in Jianghu, one was extremely fat, one extremely thin, one extremely tall, and one was extremely short. The one who was as fat as a pig was called Zhu Fei, which read backward became ‘fat pig’ [fei zhu, different characters].

But those who knew him knew that not only he was not a pig, but he was absolutely capable; those who had fought him knew even better that he was definitely not a pig, because not only his movements were very fast, he was ruthless as well. His ‘Eighty-one Styles of Blooming Flowers Filling the Earth’ from Ditang Saber Technique was a consummate skill that was rarely seen in Wulin.

Lu Xiaofeng knew for sure that this man must be Zhu Fei, but he had never expected that he would be the first person to stand up.

Zhu Fei was not a coward who was afraid of death.

“I can’t go,” he reasoned, “Because I am too fat, my appearance is too obvious; no matter what kind of disguise I am going to take, people will recognize me immediately.”

It was a very good reason. So much so that Old Sabre Honcho had no choice but to admit it, yet he could not help sighing in regret.

Zhu Fei’s Ditang skill has been unmatched in Jianghu until today; clearly Old Sabre Honcho could use talents like this.

But he only sighed quietly without saying anything. Therefore, other people also found the guts to stand up.

— If there is the first, it was only natural that there will also be the second, the third, and so on.

All along Old Sabre Honcho only looked on coldly, not even batting an eyelid; until the thirteenth person stood up, and then he was visibly emotionally moved.

This man had a plain appearance with wooden expression, he looked totally unremarkable.

But if a man could emotionally move Old Sabre Honcho, he was definitely not an ordinary character.

“You are not going either?” Old Sabre Honcho asked.

This man’s face was completely emotionless. “You said those who don’t want to go to stand up, so I stood up,” he said indifferently.

“Why don’t you go?” Old Sabre Honcho asked.

The man replied, “Because my wetsuit and harpoon went missing.”

As soon as he said those words, Lu Xiaofeng could not help being shaken as well. He really never expected that this unremarkable man with wooden expression could be one of the six island masters of the South Sea Swords of the past, whose reputation was second only to the Master of the White Cloud Castle.

This man was unexpectedly the ‘Flying Fish Island Master’ Yu Huan!

On land, the Master of the White Cloud Castle was a swordsman whose name shook the heavens. On water, he was definitely could not be compared to Yu Huan.

In the operation this time, Old Sabre Honcho definitely could use someone with ultimate water skill like him.

With a loud ‘crash’, the wine cup in his hand was suddenly crushed and shattered.

Almost simultaneously, there was a miserable cry. The person sitting right next to Du Tiexin had just stood up, but he fell down again right on the table, crushing a row of wine cups so that wine spilled everywhere.

And then everybody could see blood flowing along the wine, dying the tablecloth red.

The pair of chopsticks in Du Tiexin’s hand had already turned red; obviously it was also dyed red by the blood.

Yu Huan quickly turned around and asked, “Did you kill him?”

Du Tiexin admitted, “This is the first time I am using chopsticks to kill.”

“Why did you kill him?” Yu Huan asked.

Du Tiexin replied, “Because he knew too many secrets. If he was alive, all of us might die instead.”

Using the chopsticks stained with blood, he picked up a piece of scallop, which he then chewed slowly. He did not even blink his eyes. The ‘Ruthless Pungent Hand’ Du Tiexin was indeed able to kill without blinking an eye; a ruthless character.

Yu Huan stared at him; he said slowly, “He knew a lot of secrets, and I do too. Are you going to kill me as well?”

“That’s right,” Du Tiexin coldly replied. Still without blinking his eyes he added, “Those who don’t go, don’t even think that any one of you will walk away from this room alive.”

Yu Huan’s countenance changed; before he could say anything, someone else said, “If that was Old Sabre Honcho who said it, I would accept misfortunes as decreed by fate, but you …”

He could not finish, because a chopstick was flying from the side, it pierced his left ear, and came out of his right.

The toothless old granny had only one chopstick left in her hand; she sighed while mumbling, “Double-log bridge is easy to cross, a single-log bridge is hard to pass; it looks like I will have to eat with my hands.”

She really grabbed a piece of pork ribs with her hand and gnawed it with gusto with her two only teeth.

‘Crash!’ the person whose ears were pierced by the chopstick fell down right on top of bowls and cups on the table.

From the people who already stood up, some tried to stealthily sit back down. Du Tiexin coldly said, “Those who already stand up are not allowed to sit down.”

Zhu Fei could not refrain from asking, “And whose idea is it?”

“It’s our collective idea,” Du Tiexin replied.

Zhu Fei hesitated. In the end he forced a laugh and said, “The fact is, it’s not that I don’t want to go, it’s just that I am too fat. If you want me to go, you must roll me like noodle and make me a bit thinner.”

“Alright,” Du Tiexin said, “Roll him!”

The dwarf with round face and big head suddenly jumped up and shouted, “I’ll do it!”

His head was as big as a bucket, but his body was thin and small. When he stood up, he looked like a round persimmon stuck onto a half-length chopstick or a pen; he looked really funny.

But Zhu Fei did not laugh, instead, his countenance changed. The man standing in front of him looked like a kid, but he was terribly frightened by this man.

Looking at the horror on his face, and then looking at the man’s head, Lu Xiaofeng’s countenance also changed. Could it be that this man was one of the Western Top Ghost Bunch, the one with the blackest heart and pungent hand, the ‘Big Head Ghost King’ Sikong Dou [‘dou’ means bucket]?

He was not mistaken, because Zhu Fei really shouted the name, “Sikong Dou, this has nothing to do with you, what do you want?”

“I want to roll you,” Sikong Dou said. He also had a pair of chopsticks, which he then pressed between his palms, as if he was rubbing Zhu Fei in between his hands. He exerted his strength and rolled the chopsticks. Suddenly a cloud of powder fell down like snow.

When he opened his hands, the chopsticks had disappeared. Unexpectedly his child-like hands were able to turn the pair of chopsticks, which could be used to kill just like a pair of sharp swords, into a pile of dust.

Zhu Fei’s face twisted, it was as if his entire body had turned soft as he collapsed into a chair. But when Sikong Dou was ready to pounce, he suddenly dropped down to hide under the table. Exerting his strength onto his knees, he crawled across seven, eight tables; his movement was unbelievably nimble.

Too bad the tables were not joined together into a loop. Sikong Dou already leaped out with ten fingers spread out like claws; as soon as Zhu Fei appeared from under the table, he leaped down to strike.

Who would have thought that Zhu Fei’s movement was even faster? With his right elbow he pushed, and immediately he disappeared underneath the table on the opposite side. ‘Pop!’ Sikong Dou’s ten fingers were embedded onto the tabletop. And when he pulled his hands, ten holes appeared on the table.

Zhu Fei hid under the table and refused to come out. Using his right arm Sikong Dou swept the table, sending bowls, cups, and chopsticks crashing to the floor; soup, dishes and wine splashed onto someone, the quiet, silent old man in black.

Sikong Dou turned his hands over, he was going to tear the table apart, but suddenly someone said, “Wait a moment.”

A pair of chopsticks stretched out with the sharp pointy tips facing up, aiming the major artery on Sikong Dou’s hand. If he continued moving his hand, he could forget about using this hand ever again.

Fortunately his reaction was very quick, instantly he pulled back his strength and stopped the momentum of his palm. The four old men dressed in black were still sitting quietly in their respective chairs, staring at him with cold eyes.

Sikong Dou seemed to have noticed them only now; drawing back the corners of his mouth he smiled widely and said, “I was wondering if the four gentlemen would let me kick the fat pig out of under your table?”

The old man, who was splashed by the soup and wine, coldly said, “Would not.”

“Are you going to protect him?” Sikong Dou asked.

The old man in black said, “People don’t cross me, I don’t cross people.”

“Who crossed you?” Sikong Dou asked.

“You,” the old man in black replied.

Sikong Dou no longer smiled, “What if I crossed you?” he said.

The old man in black said, “If someone crosses me, then he is not a person.”

“Who’s not a person?” Sikong Dou asked.

“You,” the old man in black replied.

“I am indeed not a person,” Sikong Dou said, “I am a ghost.”

The old man in black said, “You are not a ghost either, you are a domestic animal …” He then added coldly, “I don’t kill people, I kill animals. Killing one or two animals cannot be considered I am breaking my vow not to kill.”

Sikong Dou clenched his hands into fists, the joints in his entire body were cracking, his round pot-like face turned into metal blue.

Old Sabre Honcho suddenly said, “This man is useful to me, could Mr. Wu let him go this time?”

The old man in black hesitated for a moment; finally he nodded, “Very well, I only want one of his hands.”

Sikong Dou laughed; he roared in laughter, but his laughter sounded like a crying ghost.

His left hand was trained in White Bone Claw, his right hand was trained in Black Devil Claw; he had spent painstaking effort for more than twenty years on either one on his hands, asking for one of his hands was equal to asking half of his life.

The old man in black said, “I want your left hand.”

“Alright,” Sikong Dou said, “I’ll give it to you!”

As soon as the word ‘you’ came out of his mouth, both claws moved together, one hand became snowy white, the other turned pitch-black.

He was unleashing the full power of the entire twenty-year of training. Anything touched by his fingertips, even a rock, would have ten more holes on it.

The old man in black was still sitting motionless; he merely sighed while sending out his sleeve, rolling out like a cloud.

There was a crisp ‘crack!’ like the sound of breaking radish, followed by miserable scream. Sikong Dou flew out and hit the wall.

By the time his body slid down to the floor, he could no longer move; both of his hands were drenched with blood, all his ten fingers were broken.

The old man in black sighed. “I only wanted one of his hands,” he said.

Another white-haired old man coldly said, “If you only wanted one hand, you did not need to use 70% of your strength.”

The old man in black replied, “I have not made my move in many years, I did not know the limit of my power; plus I overestimated him a bit.”

The white-haired old man said, “Therefore, you were wrong; even domestic animal has life, you have violated your vow against killing living beings.”

“Yes,” the old man in black said, “I was wrong. Buddha have mercy.”

Four men put their palms together, while reciting the name of Buddha. They slowly stood up and faced Old Sabre Honcho, “We are asking to be excused, to face the wall and ponder about our misdeeds for three days, as a token of our gratitude to the Master of the Mansion.”

Unexpectedly Old Sabre Honcho also stood up and said, “It was he who followed the path to his own doom, why did Mister blame yourself?”

The old man in black said, “If Master of the Mansion has any errands for us, we will definitely come to receive your order.”

Old Sabre Honcho seemed to be relieved; he immediately cupped his fist and said, “Please.”

“Please,” the old man in black replied.

The four of them walked out of the room, slowly and peacefully. When they reached Lu Xiaofeng, they suddenly stopped in front of him.

The white-haired old man suddenly asked, “Lu Gongzi [young master], have you seen Master Bitter Gourd lately?”

“I saw him several times last year,” Lu Xiaofeng replied.

The white-haired old man said, “Master’s culinary skill is amazing, his vegetarian dish is number one under the heavens, presumably Lu Gongzi’s luck in eating fine dishes is not shallow.”

Lu Xiaofeng laughed. “That’s right,” he said.

“In that case,” the white-haired old man said, “Presumably he is as strong as before.”

“That’s right,” Lu Xiaofeng replied.

The white-haired old man put his palms together and said, “Buddha have mercy, the Heaven blesses those who do good deeds …”

The four of them recited the name of Buddha together, and then walked out slowly, their steps were still peaceful and smooth; but Lu Xiaofeng’s hands and feet turned ice-cold. He finally figured out the background of these four old men.

Looking at how respectful Old Sabre Honcho was to them, looking at the power behind the ‘floating cloud flying sleeve’, looking at their devotion to Buddha, he remembered.

At first he could not figure it out; because they grew hairs and shed their Buddhist robes, he did not think that they were monks who had left their homes. Even more, he would not have thought that they were Shaolin Temple’s Five Arhats [luohan].

Five Arhats were originally siblings, who shaved their heads together to become monks and entered Shaolin. Right now there were only four of them, because the oldest brother, Wu Long [lit. no dragon] Arhat had died.

In their youth, these five brothers ran amuck in Jianghu, killing people unscrupulously, and were known as ‘Dragon, Tiger, Lion, Elephant and Panther’, the Five Ferocious Beasts. Each one of them had hands that were reeking with blood.

But then they laid down the butcher’s knife and became Buddha on the spot. Henceforth the notorious Five Ferocious Beasts became Shaolin Temple’s Five Arhats: Wu Long, Wu Hu, Wu Shi, Wu Xiang, Wu Bao [no dragon, no tiger, no lion, no elephant, no panther, respectively], with the heart of Buddha.

Wu Long was in charge of the Scripture Depository Pavilion, plus he was promoted to be an elder Protector of the Law. Nobody knew what happened, but one night he was really drunk and toppled a candlestick, and nearly burned the Scripture Depository Pavilion, which was located in the middle to Shaolin Temple complex, to the ground.

In his rage, Head Abbott punished him with ten years of sitting against the wall in meditation, plus twenty flogging. Wu Long was humiliated, he died of hatred. His brothers [orig. hands and feet] joined their hearts, the surviving four Arhats changed from being devoted to Buddha into filled with murderous intent; unexpectedly they did not hesitate to violate the law of Heaven and went as far as attempting to assassinate the Head Abbott.

Jianghu people all knew that their assassination attempt was not successful, but nobody knew their whereabouts, even whether they were dead or alive. Even more baffling was that Arhat Wu Long has already washed his heart and renewed his face early on, why did he suddenly become very drunk?

This matter has become one of the mysteries of the Wulin world, just like nobody knew why Shi He was suddenly expelled from Wudang.

But now Lu Xiaofeng knew that Wu Long’s drunkenness must have something to do with Monk Bitter Gourd – eating Monk Bitter Gourd’s unparalleled-throughout-the-world vegetarian dishes, one would inevitably drink several cups of wine.

Just now they were inquiring about Monk Bitter Gourd’s well-being; presumably they were hoping that he was still alive, so that they could personally extract revenge on him.

Just now Wu Bao suddenly made his move, which caused a man had his bones broken and died a violent death, it was clear that the hatred and malicious intent in his heart ran very, very deep.

The one they hated the most was not Monk Bitter Gourd, but Shaolin. Precisely like Shi He hated Wudang, and Gao Tao hated Phoenix Tail Clan.

Mount Ba has abundant mineral resources; not only that, rumor has it that there was gold sand over there. Naturally Gu Feiyun wanted to take over the business of Gu Family Taoist Monastery from his [paternal] cousin, Priest Xiao Gu [lit. little Gu, the same surname as Gu Feiyun].

Hai Qikuo had established his business on the sea; naturally he wanted seize control of the monopoly on Yangtze River from Shuishang Fei.

Du Tiexin’s hatred toward the Beggar Clan was as deep as the sea. Most likely the purple-faced, long-bearded man was the ‘Hundred Victory Saber King’ Guan Tianwu, who in the past struggled over the leadership of Yandang Sect against Gao Xingkong.

In his operation this time, Old Sabre Honcho was trying to catch all their enemies in one net; naturally they were willing to make an all-out effort.

But most of these ‘targets’ were people of sect-leadership status, under normal circumstances, it would be very difficult to see them, plus their headquarters were far apart from each other; how could they catch everybody in a single operation?

Old Sabre Honcho was ready with an explanation, “The thirteenth of the fourth month is the anniversary of Wudang’s Mei Zhenren’s death; it is also the tenth anniversary of Shi Yan taking control of the sect leadership. I hear he wanted to appoint the Sect Leader Disciple to succeed him in unifying Wudang on that very same day.”

He let out a cold laugh and then continued, “On that day, naturally there will be dignitaries converging on Mount Wudang, the mountain will be bustling with noise and excitement, Tie Jian and Wang Shidai, those people will most likely be among the distinguished guests.”

“Are we going to make our move on that day?” Actually Lu Xiaofeng wanted to ask this question, but Du Tiexin has preceded him.

Old Sabre Honcho nodded. “That’s the reason we must hurry to Mount Wudang before the twelfth of the fourth month,” he said.

But if all these people made their moves together and arrived at the mountain area on the same day, it would definitely create quite a sensation in the Wulin world. This operation must be executed in absolute secrecy, they must not beat the grass to scare the snake.

“Therefore, not only we must go in batches, everybody must be in disguise.”

This matter was also part of Old Sabre Honcho’s well-planned program.

Housekeeper said, “The details of this operation have been arranged, gentlemen and ladies need not worry.”

Old Sabre Honcho said, “I can assure you that the person in charge of your disguise is an expert that is absolutely without equal throughout the world. Although he cannot make you shedding your mortal body and exchanging your bones [idiom, turn over a new leaf (in Taoist principle)], and turn you into somebody else, but he can definitely change you so that others will not be able to see your true identity.”

Right now there was only one question left, “How are we going to bring our weapons up the mountain?”

No one allowed to bring any weapon up Mount Wudang, all weapons must be left by the Shedding-sword Rock by the bank of Shedding-sword Pond.

Old Sabre Honcho said, “But I can assure you that on the eve of the D-Day, everybody can go to Hidden Snow to get hold of a weapon that you can use.”

Old Lady Lou has just finished nibbling on a piece of chicken drumstick, she interrupted him by asking, “Where is that Hidden Snow?”

Old Sabre Honcho laughed and said, “Hidden Snow is actually a hidden place, i.e. the lavatory.”

“If it is the lavatory, why did they call it Hidden Snow?” Old Lady Lou asked.

“That is the term that outsiders use,” Old Sabre Honcho replied, “There are two versions of the origin of that name.”

— ‘Snow’ is the Dhyana Master Ming Jiao [lit. clear/bright feeling] of the Xuedou [lit. snow hole/aperture] Mountain, ‘Hidden’ is the Ling Yin [Hidden Spirit] Temple of Hangzhou. Because one time Xuedou was in charge of the lavatory at the Ling Yin Temple, the people at the monastery called it the Xue Yin [hidden snow] Lavatory.

— Because Fuzhou’s Divine Monk obtained Five Awareness while cleaning the hidden place while living at the snowy peak, hence the name ‘Hidden Snow’.

Old Lady Lou did not wish to ask further. Housekeeper already served her a dish of roast chicken, so that she could stuff her mouth with chicken drumstick.

How could they stuff Yu Huan and the others’ mouth? The secrets they knew were indeed too many!

These people’s faces were already completely devoid of any color, because they themselves knew that there is usually only one way to deal with this kind of thing!

Only dead men tell no tales.

To seek a way to live in the midst of death, there is usually only one way as well, “You want to kill me to shut my mouth, I will kill you first!”

Yu Huan suddenly leaped up, just like a flying fish leaping out of the water.

Originally he had five pairs of Flying Fish Harpoons, Ye Ling stole four pairs. The remaining one pair was kept in his sleeves, right now these harpoons have turned into a pair of lightning about to strike Old Sabre Honcho.

Old Sabre Honcho did not move; but Shi He, who was standing behind him, did. The sword inside the Seven-Star leather sheathe turned into a rainbow.

The rainbow met the lightning. ‘Ding, ding!’ the lightning suddenly broke, two pieces of copper tips fell from the air, the rainbow also vanished, the sword ray already penetrated Yu Huan’s chest.

He looked at the remaining Flying Fish Harpoons in his hands, he looked at the sword blade penetrating his chest, and then he looked up to see the man without a sword standing in front of him, as if he still could not believe that it was really happening.

Shi He was also looking at him with cold eyes. Suddenly he asked, “How’s my sword compared to Ye Gucheng’s Immortal Flying to the Outer Heaven ?”

Yu Huan gritted his teeth without even said a word, the corner of the mouth on his twisted face seemed to reveal a mocking smile, as if he was saying, “Ye Gucheng is dead, so what if you are better than him?”

Shi He understood his meaning, suddenly he twisted his hand, which was grasping the sword hilt, from the wrist, hence turning the blade as well. Yu Huan’s face twisted even more. Suddenly he roared and pounced forward. Blood splashed from his chest as the sword went through his body to the other end.

Lu Xiaofeng could not bear to watch. There are still several people who were standing up, he could not watch them die one by one in front of his eyes.

He quietly got up and quietly went out.

The fog was wet and cold. He took a very deep breath, filling his chest with the cold mist. He must calm down.

“You don’t like killing?”

It was Old Sabre Honcho’s voice. Old Sabre Honcho was following him out, he was also sucking the cold and wet foggy air.

Lu Xiaofeng indifferently said, “I like drinking, but watching other people drink is another matter altogether.”

He did not turn around to look at Old Sabre Honcho, but he could hear the smile in Old Sabre Honcho’s voice; obviously Old Sabre Honcho was very pleased with his answer.

“I don’t like watching either,” Old Sabre Honcho said, “It doesn’t matter what, doing it ourselves is always more interesting than watching.”

Lu Xiaofeng was silent for a moment. Suddenly he laughed and said, “There are things that you don’t seem to like doing it yourself.”

“Oh?” Old Sabre Honcho said.

Lu Xiaofeng said, “You knew Ye Ling stole Yu Huan’s wetsuit and flying fish harpoon, you also knew what she was doing, yet you did not stop her.”

“Indeed I did not,” Old Sabre Honcho admitted.

Lu Xiaofeng continued, “You did not let me rescue Ye Xue, but you did not go either; why did you let her go?”

Old Sabre Honcho said, “Because I know Ye Lingfeng can’t possibly hurt her.”

“You’re sure about that?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

Old Sabre Honcho nodded; his voice suddenly became hoarse, “Because she is the real daughter of Ye Lingfeng!”

Lu Xiaofeng sucked a mouthful of air again, as if he was completely oblivious of the pain and hatred in Old Sabre Honcho’s voice, “There is one more thing that you did not want to do yourself.”

Old Sabre Honcho waited for him to continue.

Lu Xiaofeng said, “Is it true that you want Shi He to deal with Wudang’s Shi Yan; Tiger, Panther and his brothers to deal with Shaolin’s Tie Jian?”

“That is their own enmity,” Old Sabre Honcho replied, “They are the ones who wanted to personally resolve the matter.”

Lu Xiaofeng continued, “Can Du Tiexin deal with Wang Shidai?”

Old Sabre Honcho said, “Over the years, his martial art has improved tremendously, besides, there will be Old Lady Lou as his backup.”

Lu Xiaofeng said, “Priest Xiao Gu shouldn’t be Cousin’s match, Shuishang Fei against Hai Qikuo, which one would you bet will win?”

Old Sabre Honcho said, “Yangtze River is a fertile ground, Shuishang Fei is already so fat that he can’t fly anymore [reminder: Shuishang Fei means ‘flying-over-the-water’]. Whether it is on land or in the water, I will bet with ten-to-one handicap that Hai Qikuo will win.”

Lu Xiaofeng said, “But Guan Tianwu has been defeated by Gao Xingkong three times.”

Old Sabre Honcho said, “Those three times, there was someone lending a helping hand to Gao Xingkong in secret.”

“Who?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

With a cold laugh Old Sabre Honcho said, “You should have heard, Gao Xingkong criss-crossing Yangtze River unhindered and Wudang Sect Leader’s death have nothing to do with each other, why did he have to rush over immediately? Could it be that Wudang disciple do the deed in secret? The strife over Yandang Sect’s leadership, why would Wudang disciple want to meddle in other people’s business?”

Lu Xiaofeng did not want to ask too many questions; he said, “In that case, there is only one left, Yingyan Laoqi. Even if Housekeeper cannot keep him in check, with the addition of Hua Kui, it should be more than enough.”

“Hua Kui has other task,” Old Sabre Honcho said, “Gao Tao has no use for assistant either.”

Lu Xiaofeng said, “In that case, the seven main targets are being taken care of; not only that, their success rate is over ninety percent.”

“Over ninety percent,” Old Sabre Honcho echoed.

Lu Xiaofeng chuckled, and then said, “So, what do you want me to do? To deal with those Taoist priests who sweep the floor, wash the dishes and fetch the firewood?”

“What I want you to do is the key to this operation’s success or failure,” Old Sabre Honcho replied.

“What is it?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

Old Sabre Honcho also chuckled, and then said, “Right now what you know is already too much, I will tell you the rest the night of the twelfth of the fourth month.”

He patted Lu Xiaofeng’s shoulder and said, “So tonight there is no harm in you relaxing, I can even say that you may want to get drunk, because tomorrow you may sleep the whole day.”

“You want me to wait until the day after tomorrow to go down the mountain?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

“You will belong to the last batch going down the mountain,” Old Sabre Honcho replied.

“Who else is in my group?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

“Housekeeper, Old Lady Lou, Cousin, Hook, and Liu Qingqing,” Old Sabre Honcho replied.

He laughed again and said, “In all good plays, the best act is always saved for the last; naturally you want to be the last to enter the stage.”

“Besides,” Lu Xiaofeng added matter-of-factly, “With them following me into the stage, at least there won’t be any possibility I will die half-way in somebody else’s hands.”

Old Sabre Honcho’s laughter was even more cheerful, “Don’t worry,” he said, “Even if you meet Ximen Chuixue along the way, he can’t possibly recognize you.”

“Because the person in charge of my disguise is an expert that is absolutely without equal throughout the world,” Lu Xiaofeng said.

Old Sabre Honcho laughed and said, “If someone is able to disguise himself as a dog, do you have any reason to worry?”

He was talking about Canine Master.

Canine Master’s responsibility was precisely to alter everybody’s appearance so that nobody could recognize them. But what would happen after he finished his job?

— I just want you to take me along when you go.

Finally Lu Xiaofeng understood what he meant; he was certainly able to see the crisis he was in.

Old Sabre Honcho looked up to the sky, he took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly. The plowing and weeding time was over, now he was just waiting for the harvest. He seemed to catch sight of the fruits already sprouting from the branches.

Each fruit represented one human head.

Lu Xiaofeng suddenly turned around to look at him and asked, “What about you? Everything has been taken care of, what are you going to do?”

Old Sabre Honcho said, “I am the creditor, I am just going to wait for you to pay me back the investment I spend on you.”

Lu Xiaofeng said, “Wudang has a debt toward Shi He, Shaolin has a debt toward Tiger, Panther and his brothers, who has a debt toward you?”

“Everybody has a debt toward me,” Old Sabre Honcho said.

He patted Lu Xiaofeng’s shoulder again, and said with a smile, “Didn’t you also owe me a bit?”

Lu Xiaofeng also exhaled the air from his lungs, but it seemed like the cold and damp fog remained in his chest.

He knew that whoever owed Old Sabre Honcho anything, sooner or later he would have to pay him back double.

And he could not afford it. Yet.

Canine Master was lying on the bed, staring blankly at the ceiling.

He really wanted to get some sleep, he had already closed his eyes many times before, yet sleep seemed to elude him.

When the rabbit has been caught, the hunting dog will be boiled.

Right now he felt like he was already in the pot, and very soon the soup inside the pot would be boiling; how could he fall asleep?

In the dead of the night, the window suddenly creaked, someone flew in as if swept-in by the wind. It was Lu Xiaofeng.

Canine Master has not even made any noise, Lu Xiaofeng already covered his mouth, “Are you the only one in this house?” he whispered.

He was the only one. Because nobody wanted to live in a house where dog skin and human skin were hanging everywhere. Nobody could stand the foul odor of cooking glue and leather emitted by the copper pot on the stove.

The art of disguise is not as effortless and pleasant as people imagined it to be. To make a perfect human skin mask, not only it required a pair of steady and skillful hands, it needed tremendous patience as well.

Lu Xiaofeng already knitted his brows from the stench of the smoke emitted from the pot; he could not help asking, “What are you cooking?”

“Cowhide glue,” Canine Master replied, “Human skin mask must be affixed using cowhide glue, otherwise it will fall off.”

“Human skin mask?” Lu Xiaofeng asked, “You really use human skin to make masks?”

Canine Master said, “Only real human skin masks can completely change someone’s facial features, plus every single mask must be fixed in accordance with that person’s original face first.”

Suddenly he smiled to Lu Xiaofeng and said, “I already made one to fit the shape of your face as well.”

With a wry smile Lu Xiaofeng asked, “Also made of human skin?”

“Genuine goods at fair prices,” Canine Master replied.

“How many masks did you make in total?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

“Thirty one masks,” Canine Master replied.

And then he added, “Other than Old Sabre Honcho, everybody gets one.”

Why didn’t Old Sabre Honcho need any disguise? Could it be that he was going to Wudang still wearing that deep-basket like bamboo rain hat?

Lu Xiaofeng asked, “After these people wear the disguise, will there be any special mark on their faces?”

“Not the least bit,” Canine Master replied.

“If everybody does not recognize anybody, won’t it be difficult to avoid killing the wrong person?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

“Absolutely not,” Canine Master replied.

“How come?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

Canine Master said, “Because each group of people going down the mountain will have different task from each other. Some will deal with Wudang’s Taoist priests, some will deal with Shaolin’s monks. As long as this particular group of people can remember what the other people look like after they are wearing the disguise, they won’t kill the people in their own group by mistake.”

Lu Xiaofeng was deep in thought for a moment. Suddenly he lowered his voice, “Can you leave a special mark on each group of people? For example, a pockmark, or perhaps a mole?”

Canine Master stared at him with some kind of strange expression in his eyes; after a very long time he asked quietly, “Do you have confidence that you will be able to take me along when you leave?”

“I am sure of it,” Lu Xiaofeng replied.

Canine Master exhaled. He said, “You promised me, of course I also promise you.”

“How are you going to do it?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

Canine Master winked; he said, “Right now I don’t have any idea yet, but by the time we are leaving together, I will tell you.”

It seems like the people in this place were just like the Old Sabre Honcho, other than self, nobody trusted anybody else.

Sometimes they did not even trust themselves.

Canine Master suddenly asked, “Isn’t Widow Hua in your group and you are going to leave together?”

“Most probably yes,” Lu Xiaofeng replied.

“How do you want me to disguise her?” Canine Master asked, “Do you want me to make her old and ugly, or young and beautiful?”

“The older the better, the uglier the better,” Lu Xiaofeng replied.

“And why is that?” Canine Master asked.

Lu Xiaofeng said, “Because no one will believe that Lu Xiaofeng is with an old an ugly woman, therefore, no one will believe that I am Lu Xiaofeng.”

“Hence the older and the uglier she is, the more you will feel safe,” Canine Master said, “Not only others will not recognize you, you yourself will not be tempted.”

He winked and laughed, “These days you really have to preserve your strength,” he said, “Being with a young and beautiful widow, preserving your strength is indeed not an easy thing to do.”

Lu Xiaofeng stared at him; he said coldly, “Do you know what your problem is?”

Canine Master shook his head.

Lu Xiaofeng said, “Your problem is that you talk too much.”

Canine Master smiled sheepishly and said, “As long as you take me out of here, I promise that I won’t even say a word along the way.”

Lu Xiaofeng said, “Even if you wanted to talk, I have a way to shut your mouth.”

Canine Master could not refrain himself from asking, “What is it?”

Lu Xiaofeng said, “I am a government official from the Capital who’s ‘announcing old age and returning home’ [i.e. to retire from public life]; not only I bring along a few attendants and followers, I also bring along a dog.”

He smiled before continuing, “And you are that dog. Naturally a dog cannot speak human words.”

Canine Master stared at him for half a day; finally he let out a bitter laugh and said, “That’s right, I am that dog. I just ask you to never forget that this particular dog only eats meat, I cannot gnaw on bones.”

Lu Xiaofeng laughed and said, “But you must also never forget that a disobedient dog will not only have to gnaw on bones, it will also have to eat sh1t.”

He roared in laughter as he walked out of the room. Suddenly he turned his head around and asked, “Ye Xue and Ye Ling are supposed to be in which group?”

“I don’t know either,” Canine Master replied, “In the list that Old Sabre Honcho gave me, both sisters’ names are not listed.”

The night grew even deeper.

Lu Xiaofeng sat down in the cold fog, there was a war going on in his heart.

— Should he go to the swamp to look for those sisters? Or should he drink and get really drunk?

His choice was to get really drunk.

Even if he could not find them, he did not have to be drunk; yet he was drunk, as drunk as mud.

Why did he have to be drunk?

Could it be that he had a painful problem in his heart that cannot be divulged to anybody else?

The third day of the fourth month, afternoon. The sky was clear, but the air was foggy.

By the time Lu Xiaofeng woke up, his head ached so much that he felt it was about to burst open; his mouth felt like sawdust, and his mood was a total washout, just like the feeling he had when he was seriously ill.

He woke up for a long time before he finally opened his eyes, and as soon as he opened his eyes, he almost jumped in fright.

How could Old Lady Lou sit on his bedside? How long has she been staring at him?

He rubbed his eyes, and was finally able to see that the old granny sitting on his bedside, nibbling on some fava beans was not Old Lady Lou at all, yet she couldn’t be a lot younger than Old Lady Lou.

“Who are you?”

He couldn’t resist asking, but the old granny’s answer shocked him.

“I am your wife,” the old granny’s cracked dry lips seemed to be drawn back into a cold laugh, “I have been married to you for fifty years, so if you don’t want to recognize me now, you can’t.”

Lu Xiaofeng stared at her in disbelief. Suddenly he roared into loud laughter, he laughed so hard that he rolled about on his bed.

The old granny was Liu Qingqing, he recognized her voice.

“How did you turn into something like this?”

“Because that b@stard has seen a ghost in a clear day light; I want to be a bit younger, but he did not let me.”

Liu Qingqing crushed a fava bean with her teeth, and said with hatred in her voice, “And now I look like this; are you happy?”

Lu Xiaofeng deliberately blinked his eyes and said, “Why would I be happy?”

Liu Qingqing said, “Because you were wishing that I would be the older the better, the uglier the better. Because all along you wanted to avoid me, as if you are afraid that I would swallow you alive.”

Lu Xiaofeng still pretended he did not understand, “Why would I want to avoid you?”

Liu Qingqing said, “If you are not avoiding me, why did you drink every day like a dead man?”

She laughed coldly and said, “Actually, I am aware that you do not dare to touch me, but I am a bit curious; you are supposed to sleep with an old granny like me every night, how can you stand it?”

Lu Xiaofeng sat up on his bed, “Why would I want to sleep with you every night?” he asked.

“Because you are a government official from the Capital who’s ‘announcing old age and returning home’, and I am your wife,” Liu Qingqing said, “Moreover, the wife is a notorious vinegar jar [i.e. person of a jealous nature].”

Lu Xiaofeng was speechless.

Liu Qingqing continued, “I also have good news for you, our son is coming along with us.”

Lu Xiaofeng was shocked again, “Who is our son?” he asked.

“Cousin,” Liu Qingqing replied.

Lu Xiaofeng suddenly fell flat on his back on the bed, and stayed really still.

Liu Qingqing roared in laughter; suddenly she pounced on him and said with a giggle, “Although my body is old, my heart is not, I still want to do it every day, you can’t even play dead on me.”

With a bitter laugh Lu Xiaofeng said, “I am not playing dead, but if you want me to do that thing with an old granny like you every day, I am going to die for real.”

Liu Qingqing laughed and said, “You can always close your eyes, and just try really hard to imagine what I used to look like.”

She was laughing so hard that she was out of breath, “Besides, don’t you men often say that as long as you close your eyes, all women in the world are just the same?”

At last now Lu Xiaofeng understood the meaning of ‘you reap what you sow’.

This hole was dug by him, and now the one falling head first into it was precisely himself.

By the time Canine Master arrived, Liu Qingqing was still gasping for breath.

Watching an old woman, so old that her teeth were falling apart, lying side-by-side with a young man while gasping for breath, if one can refrain from laughing, this person’s ability is indeed not small.

Canine Master’s ability was indeed not small.

Unexpectedly he did not laugh; unexpectedly he could pretend not to see. But when Lu Xiaofeng stood up, he suddenly gave him a wink as if saying, “What do you think?”

Lu Xiaofeng really wished he could dig these two eyeballs out and gave them to Liu Qingqing to eat just like the fava beans.

Fortunately, before he could make his move, an old granny that was even older than Liu Qingqing and Old Lady Lou combined stuck out her head from the door, and said with a laugh, “Master and Madame had better get ready, we are going to set off at first light.”

This person was, naturally, the Housekeeper.

Who would have thought that the Hall Master Gao of the Phoenix Tail Clan’s three inner halls could turn into someone like this?

Instantly Lu Xiaofeng felt a bit better; suddenly he raised his voice, “Where is that precious son of mine? Quickly summon him here to pay his respect to the old man.”

Cousin, who looked about twenty years younger, had no choice but coming in with a frown on his face.

With a straight face Lu Xiaofeng said, “Government officials from Beijing always have a bit stricter household rule, even during traveling we must not be negligent; therefore, from now on you must come to kowtow and pay your respect to me every day. Do you understand?”

Cousin only nodded.

Lu Xiaofeng said, “Since you understand, why don’t you hurry up to get on your knees and kowtow?”

Watching Cousin really went down on his knees, Lu Xiaofeng’s mood was even better. No matter what, being the old man is always much better than being the son.

One thing for sure, he would not be lonely along the way; other than a wife, he had a son, a housekeeper, and a housemaid.

He even had a dog.

“Can’t take the dog along!”

Hai Qikuo has had the hook on his severed hand removed, the useless bare stump of his hand hidden inside his sleeve looked awkward and funny.

But his expression was very serious, his manner was even more firm, “We absolutely must not bring him along.”

“Is this Old Sabre Honcho’s order?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

“Of course it is,” Hai Qikuo replied.

“You are going to kill him, aren’t you?” Lu Xiaofeng said.

“Yes,” Hai Qikuo replied.

Now that Canine Master’s job was done, they did not have any scruple toward him.

“Who is going to kill him?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

“Me,” Hai Qikuo replied.

“Without the hook you can still kill people?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

“I can kill anytime,” Hai Qikuo replied.

“Very well,” Lu Xiaofeng said, “In that case, go ahead and kill me now.”

Hai Qikuo’s countenance changed, “What do you mean?”

Lu Xiaofeng dryly said, “What I mean is very simple: he goes, I go, he dies, I also die.”

Of course he could not die.

Hai Qikuo looked at Cousin, Cousin looked at Housekeeper, Housekeeper looked at Liu Qingqing.

Liu Qingqing looked at Canine Master; suddenly she asked, “Are you a male dog, or a female dog?”

“I am male,” Canine Master replied.

Liu Qingqing said, “Some dogs love to sleep by their master’s bed at night. How about you?”

“I love to sleep by the door,” Canine Master replied, “And once I asleep, I will be like a dead dog, I won’t hear anything.”

Liu Qingqing laughed and said, “As long as it is not a female dog, I don’t care how many dogs he want to bring, I have no objection.”

“Anybody has any objection?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

Hai Qikuo sighed. “No,” he said.

“Not even half a person,” Housekeeper said.

Lu Xiaofeng looked at Cousin, “What about you?”

Cousin chuckled and said, “I am a filial son, I am ten times more obedient than a dog.”

Therefore, with four people and a dog, our Old Master Lu grandly set off from the Mansion of Spirits.

This was the second time he left this place. He knew that this time he would never come back again.

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