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Phantoms’ Mountain Manor Chapter 2

CSI

Chapter 2 – Adversity makes for strange bedfellows

Even if Lu Xiaofeng had lost himself, at least he hadn’t lost his bearings.

He was certain this road led westwards, and once he crossed the hills ahead, he would be able to find spring water that he could drink.

Night had fallen and the fog in the mountains was thick, but he still believed his judgment was right. However, he was wrong again.

There were neither hills nor spring water ahead, only a thick mass of forest.

He had been on the run for three days, in these barren mountain ranges where he couldn’t even find spring water.

Even if his friends could see him now, they might not be able to recognise that he was Lu Xiaofeng.

The suave and charming Lu Xiaofeng who could always make girls swoon.

The forest was pitch black, and danger lurked in all shapes and forms in absolute darkness. Every kind of danger was potentially fatal, so if a person lost his way in the forest, hunger and thirst would surely kill him!

He was not certain he could find his way out of this mazy forest. He had already lost confidence in his own judgment.

But he could only forge ahead; even though there was no other road he could choose, he could not backtrack!

Retreating would only be scarier and more dangerous, because Ximen Chuixue was hot on his tail!

Even though Lu Xiaofeng could not see, he could feel it, feel the menacing aura of the sword.

At times, for no good reason, he’d feel chills down his back, and he would know then that Ximen Chuixue was nearby.

Being on the run is a kind of torture.

Hunger and thirst, fatigue, fear, worry… they are like countless whips, all flogging him nonstop.

It was enough to push him to the verge of a breakdown, not to mention he was carrying an injury.

A sword wound!

Every time the wound began to hurt, he would recall the impossible speed of that sword!

The “swordless” Ximen Chuixue had used his sword after all!

– I used that sword to defeat Ye Gucheng, so who else in the world would be fit enough to make me pull out that sword again?

– Lu Xiaofeng, only Lu Xiaofeng!

– Because of you, I used the sword, and it will not return to its sheath unless it is stained with your blood!

It was impossible to describe the speed and ferociousness of the move.

If there were really immortals and spirits on earth, they too would turn pale when faced with such a strike.

A flash of the sword and blood will flow!

No one could counter this blow, not even Lu Xiaofeng, but still he didn’t die!

Not dying was a miracle!

He was probably the only one who could escape alive from that lethal strike!

Dark, endless darkness.

How many dangers abound in the dark?

Lu Xiaofeng didn’t even think about that. If he worried too much, he would probably have suffered a nervous breakdown or even gone mad.

He had entered this pitch-black forest, and that was equivalent to a wild beast falling into a trap; it was no longer in his control.

Still no water, no food.

He broke off a branch, used it to feel his way about slowly, just as a blind man would.

This stick was like his white cane.

A man who was well and alive had to resort to relying on a lifeless piece of wood – Lu Xiaofeng laughed when he thought of that.

It was a laughter filled with shame, grief, pain and self-mockery.

Only now did he truly understand the pain of the blind, and realised Hua Manlou’s greatness.

How much love did a blind man have if he could still live happily and in peace?

There was a tree in front, a tall and big tree.

Lu Xiaofeng stopped at the tree, gasping for breath; perhaps this was the only time he could afford to take a breather.

– Ximen Chuixue would have paused to reconsider before stepping into this forest.

– However, he would still come chasing in.

There was almost nothing that would stop him; he was determined to have Lu Xiaofeng die by his sword!

It was near silence in the dark, but this sort of quiet was also one of the most frightening sounds.

Lu Xiaofeng’s breathing seemed to have stopped too; suddenly he struck with lightning speed and caught something with two fingers!

He hadn’t seen anything, but he’d already struck.

He did not usually miss.

In times of real danger, man would be no different from beasts, would develop the sort of abilities and sixth sense inherent in animals.

He had caught a snake.

With the snake’s tail between his fingers, he twisted and shook it, then bit down on an area seven ‘cun’ from the head of the snake (where the heart was).

The snake blood, fishy and bitter, slid down his throat and into his stomach.

He suddenly felt as though he had become a beast. But he didn’t stop; as the snake blood flowed, he immediately felt a burst of life!

He would accept whatever could give him life, could allow him to go on living!

He didn’t want to die, could not die!

If he died now, he would turn into a vengeful ghost and return to haunt the living, so as to redress his grievances!

The darkness was beginning to fade into a curious shade of dull, dead grey.

He’d finally endured through this long night and it was finally dawn.

But so what if daylight came?

Even if darkness was long gone, death was still clipping at his heels!

He snatched up a handful of fallen leaves and wiped the blood off his hands; it was then that he heard a sound.

A human voice.

He wasn’t sure where it was coming from, it seemed as though someone was moaning and gasping for breath.

How could there be anyone here at this point in time?

Who would be in this forest, on the path of no return, if he were not at his wits’ end?

Was it Ximen Chuixue?

Lu Xiaofeng suddenly felt as though his whole body had frozen over and his breathing had stopped, as he listened quietly.

The weak moaning, panting sounds floated over little by little, the sounds were filled with pain.

A pain filled with fear, a kind of hopeless pain.

This kind of pain could not be faked.

Even if this person were Ximen Chuixue, the pain he was suffering now would not be any lesser than Lu Xiaofeng’s.

Could he have suffered some sort of fatal blow? Otherwise how could he have lost that deadly aura of the sword?

Lu Xiaofeng was determined to find out; regardless of whether that person was Ximen Chuixue, he had to find out.

And of course he found out.

The fallen leaves were wet, so was the mud.

A man was lying on the wet mud, among the fallen leaves, his entire body twisted with pain.

He had white sideburns and was old, haggard, weary, sorrowful and fearful.

He saw Lu Xiaofeng and seemed to struggle to spring up, but ended up suffering a fresh round of pain.

There was a sword in his hand, its shape was classically elegant and made of pure steel; whoever saw it could tell it was a good sword.

But this sword was not frightening, because this person wasn’t Ximen Chuixue.

Lu Xiaofeng expelled a long breath, muttered: “No, it’s not him.”

The man’s throat worked and there was a trace of hope in the eyes that were filled with fear, as he wheezed: “Who… who are you?”

Lu Xiaofeng smiled, said: “I’m no one, just a passer-by.”

“A passer-by?” the old man asked.

“You must be wondering why there are passers-by around here!”

The old man scrutinized him from head to toe, and suddenly, a cunning look entered his eyes as he said: “Don’t tell me you are on the same road as I am?”

“Most probably,” Lu Xiaofeng said.

The old man laughed.

His laugh was miserable and bitter, and he couldn’t stop coughing once he started laughing.

Lu Xiaofeng also realized that he was injured; there was also another more serious wound on the chest.

“Who did you think I was?” the old man suddenly asked.

“Someone else,” Lu Xiaofeng said.

“Was it the person who wants to kill you?”

Lu Xiaofeng laughed too, asked instead: “Who did you think I was, the person who has come to kill you?”

The old man wanted to deny but couldn’t.

They gazed at each other like two wounded beasts.

No one could understand their expressions or their feelings.

After a long while, the old man let out a long breath, said: “You should go.”

“You want me to go?”

“Even if I didn’t, you would leave anyway.”

He was still smiling, but more bitterly. “My situation is worse than yours, so naturally I won’t be able to help you. You don’t know me, so you wouldn’t help me either.”

Lu Xiaofeng didn’t speak, he had also stopped laughing.

He knew this old man was speaking the truth; he was in a difficult situation, much worse than what the old man had imagined.

One person might not be able to make it out alive, much less with an extra burden.

This old man was evidently a very heavy burden.

After another long while, Lu Xiaofeng expelled a long breath as well, said: “Indeed I should leave.”

The old man nodded his head and shut his eyes, not bothering to look at him.

Lu Xiaofeng continued: “If you were only a wild dog, I would have left by now, but…”

The old man suddenly interrupted, saying: “Unfortunately, I’m human, not a dog.”

“I’m no dog either, I’m also human,” Lu Xiaofeng said with a forced smile.

“It’s a pity,” the old man agreed.

Even though his eyes seemed to be shut, he was actually looking at Lu Xiaofeng out of the corner of his eye. Again, the cunning look returned.

Lu Xiaofeng smiled again, said: “You knew anyway that I wasn’t going to go.”

“Oh?”

“You’re human, so am I, and I can’t watch you rot to death here.”

The old man’s eyes flew open, widened and stared at Lu Xiaofeng, asked: “You will take me away?”

“What do you think?”

The old man blinked. “Of course you will take me away, because you are human and so am I.”

“That’s not enough reason.”

“Not enough? What else is there?”

“A scumbag is still human.”

Nobody understood why Lu Xiaofeng suddenly said this, much less the old man, who could only wait for him to continue.

“If I take someone away with me, that’s because I’m not only human, I’m also a scumbag, an extra big scumbag.”

It was spring, the season when all things began to blossom and grow.

The trees and leaves that had withered were sprouting out in thick bunches again, such that not even sunlight could pierce through.

It was still a patch of misty grey between the branches and leaves, and one could only see a hint of murky shadows.

One could see, but not very far ahead.

Lu Xiaofeng helped the old man lie down before he did. He couldn’t move another step, not even if Ximen Chuixue was nearby.

They had walked quite some distance, but as soon as he lowered his head, he saw once again his own footprints.

He’d exhausted himself running, but still ended up on the same track.

This was no longer any sort of irony, it was plain sad, the kind where desperate people at their wits’ end could only understand.

He was panting, and so was the old man.

A huge python was slithering down from the tree. A python of that size would no doubt possess immense strength, enough to strangle the life out of any living thing.

But he wouldn’t think of that. The old man couldn’t move, and incredibly, the python didn’t touch him, merely slid past them quietly.

Lu Xiaofeng smiled, not knowing how he could still do so.

The old man slanted a glance at him, said suddenly: “Of course I can’t call you a scumbag.”

“You can call me a big scumbag,” Lu Xiaofeng said. He was still smiling.

There are different kinds of smiles. Some are more miserable than crying, and his was of this sort.

There was only smiling, no laughing, and in the deep silence, time seemed to pass especially slowly.

After a long while, the old man suddenly said: “Big scumbag.”

“Mm.”

“Why don’t you ask me who I am, what my name is?”

“I don’t have to.”

“You don’t?”

“We’re going to die soon anyway, whoever heard of a dead person asking another dead person his name?”

The old man gazed at him for a long time, wanted to speak but didn’t, then looked at his eyebrows and beard, and finally said: “I suddenly thought of someone.”

“Who is it?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

“Lu Xiaofeng,” the old man said. “The one with ‘four eyebrows’.”

Lu Xiaofeng smiled again, said: “You should have thought of that, since the world’s biggest scumbag is Lu Xiaofeng.”

The old man sighed, said: “But I can’t imagine why Lu Xiaofeng would end up like this.”

“What did you think Lu Xiaofeng would be like?”

“Once, a long time ago, I heard that Lu Xiaofeng was a playboy who enjoyed plenty of female attention, and was very highly-skilled too. So I always thought Lu Xiaofeng must have been a very handsome and awe-inspiring man, but now you look like…”

He didn’t finish the sentence, but Lu Xiaofeng continued it for him: “Like a desperate wild dog chased and forced into a corner.”

The old man smiled too, said: “Seems as though you’ve stirred up some big trouble.”

“Indeed it’s big.”

“Is it because of a woman?”

Lu Xiaofeng could only give a resigned, bitter smile.

“Who is the woman’s husband?” the old man asked. “I heard you could even counter the Master of White Cloud Castle’s ‘Immortal Flying to the Outer Heaven’ stroke, what else could force you into desperation?”

“Only one person.”

“I’ve thought about it and it seems too that there’s only one person.”

“And who do you think this person is?”

“Is it Ximen Chuixue?”

Lu Xiaofeng’s bitter, resigned smile was back again.

The old man sighed. “You’ve got yourself into quite a big mess, I simply can’t understand how you’d get involved in something like this.”

“I didn’t really do much,” Lu Xiaofeng said. “I only slept on the same bed with his wife, and it so happened he saw.”

The old man stared at him in shock. After a long while, he shook his head and said: “So you have some nerve.”

“And what about you?” Lu Xiaofeng countered. “What mess did you get into?”

The old man was silent for a long while, then sighed and said: “I’m in big trouble as well.”

“I can tell.”

“Oh?”

“If someone is wearing clothes worth three hundred tales of silver and carrying a good sword worth three thousand taels of silver, but doesn’t at all look like he’s been hounded into desperation, this person must have stirred up some big trouble.”

The old man couldn’t help a bitter smile, said: “I’ve gotten myself involved in more than one mess.”

“How many are there?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

The old man put up two fingers, saying: “One is Ye Guhong, the other is the Pink Swallow.”

“Ye Guhong, Wudang’s Little White Dragon?”

The old man nodded.

“And that’s ‘Flower Thief’ Pink Swallow[1]?”

The old man nodded again.

Lu Xiaofeng sighed. “Indeed you’re in deep shit.”

Ye Guhong was the secular disciple of Wudang Sect, and one of the most promising. It was said he was also the distant cousin of the Master of White Cloud Castle, who had personally imparted some swordplay tips to him.

Pink Swallow’s reputation in the martial arts world was even bigger, very few could match his qinggong and skill with hidden weapons.

Lu Xiaofeng continued: “But Ye Guhong is a member of a prestigious sect, while Pink Swallow is a master thief of Lower Five Sect, so how did you get involved with both of them at the same time?”

“You can’t figure out?” the old man asked.

Lu Xiaofeng shook his head.

“Actually it’s rather simple. Ye Guhong is my nephew, and it so happens that Pink Swallow is too. Their wives, coincidentally, were guests at my place…”

Ye Guhong travelled the world, while Pink Swallow slept around; naturally their wives would be lonely.

“So I couldn’t not comfort them,” the old man explained. “But unfortunately I was caught.”

Lu Xiaofeng looked at him in shock. After a long while, he said in a resigned tone: “Looks as if you are not only bold, you don’t recognise family ties as well.”

The old man smiled, said: “You thought I wasn’t?”

Lu Xiaofeng seemed even more shocked. “Don’t tell me you really are?”

“In the last ten years, very few in the martial arts world have heard of my name, I didn’t expect you to know.”

Twenty years ago, there were three notorious master thieves and the first one was “Cold-blooded” Dugu Mei[2]. If a man had a name like that, one could imagine how heartless and ruthless he was.

Lu Xiaofeng was resigned. “Looks like you’ve got the right name after all.”

Dugu Mei said blandly: “I have no care for familial ties, while you value women above friends. You’re a big scumbag and I’m pretty much the same, so we’re on the same path because we have something in common.”

“Fortunately we have something not in common,” Lu Xiaofeng said.

“What’s that?”

“Now I can still leave, but you will have to lie here and wait for your death.”

Dugu Mei smiled.

Lu Xiaofeng continued: “If you think that I still can’t harden my heart to do that, you’re wrong. Since you care for no one, why can’t I do the same?”

“Of course you can,” Dugu Mei replied.

Lu Xiaofeng had already stood up and was walking away.

Dugu Mei watched him, then slowly said: “But I guarantee that once you leave, you’ll regret it.”

Lu Xiaofeng couldn’t help turning his head to ask: “Why?”

“There are not only man-eating beasts in this world, there are also men who will eat their own kind.”

“I know that,” Lu Xiaofeng said. “You’re one.”

“Do you know there are other things in the world that eat humans?” Dugu Mei asked.

“And that is?”

“Forests,” Dugu Mei said. “Some forests will swallow up those who lose their way. Once they walk into such forests, they will be eaten up and won’t be able to walk out alive.”

It was almost noon, but the surrounding areas were still a dull, murky grey. The huge, ugly trees and rotting swamp made it impossible for one to find a way out.

If there were really man-eating forests, this must be it.

Lu Xiaofeng finally turned around, stared at the old man’s face. “You know the way?” he asked. “You’re confident of getting out?”

Dugu Mei smiled again, said leisurely: “Not only can I get you out, I can ensure that Ximen Chuixue won’t ever be able to find you.”

Lu Xiaofeng laughed coldly.

Dugu Mei continued: “I can take you to a place. No matter how highly-skilled Ximen Chuixue is, he won’t be able to find it.”

Lu Xiaofeng gazed at him, neither moving nor speaking. In the distance, however, someone had let out a chilling laugh. It had sounded faraway, but in the twinkling of an eye, it was here.

The one who had arrived wasn’t the qinggong master Pink Swallow, but rather a pale, sickly white man – sickly white face, sickly white hands and sword, dressed in a snow-white outfit.

Having searched in this dark swampy forest for over forty hours, his spirits were still as cool and steady as ice, and there were only a few spots of mud on his clothes.

He was like his sword, untouched by blood, untouched by mud!

The moment he appeared, Lu Xiaofeng had frozen, but just as suddenly relaxed.

Dugu Mei laughed mockingly as he said: “Did you think he was Ximen Chuixue?”

Lu Xiaofeng couldn’t deny that.

This young man was exceedingly like Ximen Chuixue – pale face, haughty and cold demeanor, snow-white clothes… even his posture was the same as Ximen Chuixue’s. Even though he was far younger than Ximen Chuixue and his features softer, he looked just like Ximen Chuixue’s shadow.

Dugu Mei said: “His name is Ye Guhong, unrelated to Ximen Chuixue right down to his ancestors, but he could really pass for Ximen Chuixue’s son.”

Lu Xiaofeng couldn’t help a smile. “There’s some resemblance.”

“Do you know why he’s become like this?” Dugu Mei asked.

Lu Xiaofeng shook his head.

Dugu Mei laughed coldly. “Because he’s just dying to be Ximen Chuixue’s son.”

“Maybe he just wants to be another Ximen Chuixue,” Lu Xiaofeng said.

Dugu Mei said frostily: “Unfortunately, he’s picked up none of Ximen Chuixue’s good qualities, just all the bad ones.”

The ice-cold, haughty nature, like the pristine snow of the mountains in the distance; the shining vitality of life, like the shooting stars in the winter sky; that peerless sword…

How many young men in the martial arts world would not worship Ximen Chuixue as their personal god?

Lu Xiaofeng gazed into the distance and suddenly sighed, said: “At least there’s something of Ximen Chuixue that others can’t imitate.”

“His sword?” Dugu Mei asked.

“Not his sword, his loneliness.”

Loneliness.

That chilly loneliness akin to the frosty snow on the faraway mountains, the aching loneliness that was like the shooting stars of the winter night.

Only someone who has truly experienced this kind of loneliness and was willing to endure it could reach the level that Ximen Chuixue had attained.

Ye Guhong had been eyeing Lu Xiaofeng frostily and had yet to utter a word.

Suddenly, he let out a chilly laugh, said: “What kind of thing are you, that you’re fit to even discuss him!”

Lu Xiaofeng could offer a forced smile. He knew Dugu Mei would be rushing to answer that, and he wasn’t wrong.

Dugu Mei was already saying: “He can’t really be considered a ‘thing’, just a human after all. But if there’s one person qualified to talk about Ximen Chuixue, he would be the one.”

“Why” Ye Guhong couldn’t help asking.

“Because he has four eyebrows,” Dugu Mei replied leisurely. “And because he’s the only one in this world who has slept with Ximen Chuixue’s wife.”

Ye Guhong looked startled. “Lu Xiaofeng, are you Lu Xiaofeng?”

Lu Xiaofeng couldn’t deny.

The veins on Ye Guhong’s hand that was gripping his sword were nearly popping out, as he clipped out: “I should have killed you on Ximen Chuixue’s behalf…”

He was interrupted by a voice high up on the trees: “A pity he’s not the one we have to kill this time.”

A flurry of activity among the thick leaves saw a man sail down as smoothly as a swallow.

A pink swallow.

A rosy face that was not unlike a young girl’s, close-fitting pink clothes, and on the pink belt around his waist hung a pink pouch.

Even the look in his eyes was ‘pink’, the sort that most men would have when they see the bare thigh of a young lady.

The worst of it was that he was sporting that exact expression when he gazed at Lu Xiaofeng.

Lu Xiaofeng suddenly felt like vomiting.

Pink Swallow was unconcerned with his reaction; he was still smiling and looking at him, said gently: “Lu Xiaofeng is indeed Lu Xiaofeng, you have not disappointed me.”

“Oh?” Lu Xiaofeng said.

“You don’t look too good now,” Pink Swallow said, “but if you get a basin of water and a bar of soap, then take a good bath, you’d be a very good-looking man.” His eyes crinkled as he scrutinised Lu Xiaofeng from head to toe. “I can imagine it now.”

Lu Xiaofeng didn’t quite feel like vomiting now, because the thing he’d most like to do now was to smash this man’s nose flat.

Fortunately, Pink Swallow had already turned to look at Ye Guhong, saying: “This one is mine, I won’t let you touch him.”

Ye Guhong also looked as though he was about to retch, and coldly said: “You will take both men and women?”

Pink Swallow chuckled and said: “I’d want you too sometimes.”

Ye Guhong’s already pale face turned green.

Pink Swallow said: “I know you’ve always hated me, but you can’t do without me because if you didn’t have me around this time, you wouldn’t have found this wily old fox and you can forget about going back alive.”

He smiled and continued: “You young heroes from prestigious sects can show off all you like in the world out there, but in this man-eating forest, you probably won’t survive beyond four hours.”

Ye Guhong, surprisingly, did not refute that.

Pink Swallow gently expelled a breath, said: “So if I allow you to have this old fox, you should feel very satisfied.”

Ye Guhong’s hand gripped the sword hilt again, said: “You must let me strike, you know I’ve sworn to kill him with my own hands.”

“Lu Xiaofeng, you mean?” Pink Swallow asked.

Ye Guhong gritted his teeth and said: “Lu Xiaofeng is yours, I just want him…”

Dugu Mei suddenly broke into laughter, said: “You’re all wrong, Lu Xiaofeng is neither his nor yours!”

“Whose, then?” Pink Swallow asked.

“Mine,” Dugu Mei replied.

Pink Swallow laughed uproariously as well, and said: “Even if he’s got my bad habit, he wouldn’t fall for the likes of you.”

“But if he wants to live, he can’t let me die at your hands,” Dugu Mei said.

Pink Swallow turned to Lu Xiaofeng, said gently: “If you stay out of this, I can let you live too.”

Lu Xiaofeng didn’t reply.

Pink Swallow let out a sigh and said: “Young Master Ye, you can strike now!”

“Fine.”

The sword was out of its sheath by the time he said that. The speed with which he pulled out the sword paled in comparison to Ximen Chuixue’s, but was certainly a cut above others’.

His attack was swift and ruthless; other than the Wudang skills he already possessed, there were at least two other schools of swordplay mixed in them.

This stroke was the most exquisite of his swordplay. It was also a fatal blow, an unerring stroke that would leave no business unfinished.

Dugu Mei’s mouth was wide open; he wanted to scream, but not a sound came out.

True enough, Lu Xiaofeng had not stepped up to counter the blow.

Pink Swallow was still laughing, but suddenly, his smile froze.

The blade of a sword suddenly pierced through from his heart, blood splattered and rained down right before his eyes.

This was his own blood?

He would not believe it!

Unfortunately, he had to believe.

He stretched out his hand to retrieve the hidden weapons in his pouch, but he had already collapsed.

Blood was still dripping from the tip of the sword.

Ye Guhong gazed at the blood droplets on the edge of the sword, then gently blew off the final droplet.

This was a habit unique to Ximen Chuixue, and he had imitated it to perfection.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t Ximen Chuixue, never would be!

Every time after he’d killed someone, there would instantly be that sense of isolation and loneliness about Ximen Chuixue, that incredible feeling of emptiness and disinterest.

Blowing the last droplet of blood off his sword was merely like someone returning home in a snowstorm brushing the last snowflake from his cloak.

He was blowing off snow, not blood.

But now, Ye Guhong’s eyes were filled with indescribable excitement, as though he was ready to rush into the snowstorm and conquer.

He was blowing off blood, not snow.

The last droplet, coincidentally, fell on Pink Swallow’s face, which seemed to still be twitching; however, his eyes had popped out like those of dead fish, and the lust in his eyes was no longer evident.

Lu Xiaofeng suddenly felt this person was very pitiful.

He’d always felt sorry for those who died without knowing why, and he knew this one wouldn’t have died in peace.

The blood had dried, and the sword was back in its sheath.

Ye Guhong suddenly turned around and stared at Dugu Mei.

Dugu Mei was also staring back at him, his eyes filled with suspicion and surprise.

“You didn’t expect me to kill him, did you?” Ye Guhong asked coldly.

Indeed, Dugu Mei had not expected it, nobody had.

“You’re not here to kill me?”

“No.”

Dugu Mei was even more surprised. “But you were…”

“I was indeed determined to have you die by my sword,” Ye Guhong interrupted him.

“So why did you change your mind?” Dugu Mei asked.

“Because now I know you’re no longer alive.”

This was a very odd sentence and difficult to understand, but Dugu Mei seemed to get it and expelled a long breath. “So you’re from the Mansion as well?” he asked.

“You didn’t expect that, did you?” Ye Guhong said.

“Not even in my dreams,” Dugu Mei admitted.

Ye Guhong’s eyes were mocking, and after a long while, said slowly: “Of course you wouldn’t have thought of it. Some people do things they wouldn’t have expected to.”

Dugu Mei was sighing as he said: “The people in the Mansion all seem to be those you’d never expect to be.”

“Precisely, that’s why it is able to exist.”

Dugu Mei nodded his head slowly, and suddenly changed the topic. “Have you seen Lu Xiaofeng fight?” he asked.

“No,” Ye Guhong said.

“You don’t know the level of his skills?”

“No.”

“What do you know of him?”

“I know he once managed to take a blow from the Master of White Cloud Castle’s ‘Immortal Flying to the Outer Heaven’ swordplay,” Ye Guhong said.

“But he’s now wounded by Ximen Chuixue,” Dugu Mei said.

“I can tell.”

“So let me ask you something that you must consider very carefully before you reply,” Dugu Mei said. His expression turned serious as he enunciated each word: “Are you confident of killing him now?”

Ye Guhong was silent. There was that mocking look in his eyes again, and the veins on his forehead seemed more pronounced. After a long while, he replied slowly: “I am not Ximen Chuixue.”

Dugu Mei gazed at him for a long time before he turned to Lu Xiaofeng.

Lu Xiaofeng was expressionless; it was as if he’d not understood what they were saying.

Dugu Mei suddenly laughed, saying: “Just now you didn’t save me.”

Lu Xiaofeng was silent.

“So I don’t wish to kill you, since we aren’t confident we can do it,” Dugu Mei said.

Lu Xiaofeng remained silent.

“We didn’t know each other and never crossed the other’s path; it remains thus.”

“But we were just on the same road,” Lu Xiaofeng had finally opened his mouth.

“Such are the vicissitudes of life,” Dugu Mei said lightly. “Change abounds, you and I are no exceptions.”

“That’s reasonable,” Lu Xiaofeng said.

Dugu Mei said: “So you are still you, I am still me, and you’d best be on your way.”

“Not good,” Lu Xiaofeng replied.

“No?”

“Because the road I’ll take is still the one I’ve been on.”

Dugu Mei smiled. “Well, that’s your problem.”

“And you?”

“Of course I have my own path to take.”

“Which one? The one to the Mansion?”

Dugu Mei’s expression hardened, said coldly: “Since you’ve heard, why bother to ask?”

Lu Xiaofeng persisted. “What sort of Mansion is this that you’re going to?”

“It’s one that you can’t go.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re not dead.”
“So it’s a mansion for the dead people!”

“Indeed.”

Lu Xiaofeng laughed. “You guys should go.” He waved his hand, smiling: “I don’t want to go to a mansion of dead people, neither do I want to be dead. So long as I can stay alive, even one hour is good enough.”

He walked off without a care in the world, and vanished quickly in the grey of the forest.

It wasn’t until he’d disappeared that Dugu Mei snapped to alertness and yelled: “You really let him go?”

“He’s gone,” Ye Guhong replied coldly.

“You’re not afraid that he’ll leak the secret of the Mansion?”

“He doesn’t know much, and in these circumstances, he might not even live beyond an hour.”

“Well, he’s still alive now,” Dugu Mei said. “And he could follow us secretly.”

“Where are we going?” Ye Guhong asked.

“To the Mansion, of course,” Dugu Mei said.

Ye Guhong laughed coldly. “You’re wrong. We are not going to the Mansion; rather, if you want to go, you go alone!”

“You’re not going?” Dugu Mei asked.

“Why should I?” Ye Guhong returned blandly.

Dugu Mei’s expression changed.

“I know you have a contract with the Mansion, so I can’t kill you,” Ye Guhong said. “But I never said I was going to lead you there.”

Dugu Mei’s face was mottled with rage and he shrieked: “But you should know I can’t even move an inch right now.”

“That’s your problem,” Ye Guhong replied frostily. “What’s that got to do with me?”

He drew his sword again and sliced off a large piece of tree bark, then laid it on a relatively dry area of the mud and sat down cross-legged.

Dugu Mei glared at him, and finally couldn’t resist asking: “Why aren’t you leaving?”

“Why should I?” Ye Guhong asked leisurely.

“Are you waiting for me to die?” Dugu Mei asked.

Ye Guhong replied: “You can take your time to die, I’m in no hurry.” He was looking mighty comfortable, and had even brought out a piece of beef that was wrapped in oilpaper, and a flask of wine.

To an old man ravaged by hunger and thirst for seventy-two hours, the aroma of beef and wine was no longer mere temptation, it was a kind of torture.

He could only watch, as aromatic waves of the beef and wine pricked him like needles and every part of his body trembled.

Ye Guhong sipped some wine and let out a satisfied sigh. Suddenly he said: “I know you must be regretting in your heart about letting Lu Xiaofeng go just now, but there’s something you don’t know.”

Dugu Mei was just about to start a conversation to distract himself, so immediately he asked: “What’s that?”

“I didn’t kill Lu Xiaofeng not because I wasn’t confident of killing him,” Ye Guhong said, “but because I’d rather let him die at Ximen Chuixue’s hands.”

“Oh!”

“So if he dares return, once my sword is out of its sheath, I’d make his blood splatter all over.”

“So you mean there’s no one in the world who can save me, and nobody can save Lu Xiaofeng,” Dugu Mei said.

“Definitely not,” Ye Guhong said.

In the moment that these words were said, a hand snaked over from behind the tree and stole away his flask of wine.

His reaction wasn’t slow either. By the time the hand was withdrawn, he’d gone behind the tree.

There was no one behind the tree.

When he came back again, the flask of wine was in Dugu Mei’s hand, and he was pouring the last of it into his own mouth.

The piece of beef in the oilpaper that had been on the tree bark was also gone.

Ye Guhong did not move again and his breathing seemed to have stopped; the murky forest was grey and silent as a graveyard.

There was no wind, but something floated down from the top of the tree.

Ye Guhong drew his sword and pierced through it. Stuck on the tip of his sword was actually that piece of oilpaper.

Dugu Mei burst into uproarious laughter and tears came out of his eyes.

Ye Guhong didn’t seem to have heard any of it, but his face had turned green as he slowly plucked the oilpaper off the tip of his sword.

Dugu Mei laughed: “There’s no blood on that oilpaper, so what are you blowing?”

Ye Guhong still didn’t hear that; in a flash, the sword was back in its sheath.

He settled down on the tree bark again and breathed in deeply twice. From his sleeve he took out a few pieces of paper and used needles to pin them one by one on the tree trunk behind. Then he coldly said: “This is the map to getting out of the forest and into the mountains. Whoever has the guts can come and take it.”

Once again, he sat motionless, with his back facing the tree, eyes closed, as though an old monk gone into deep meditation.

Dugu Mei had stopped laughing; his eyes were wide open, fixed on the pieces of paper pinned to the tree trunk.

He knew this was Ye Guhong’s way of luring the fish to bait.

Wudang was a sect known for its internal skills; Ye Guhong had been at Wudang since he was four years old, and his internal energy must have reached peak levels.

Now his mind and heart were one, and although his eyes were closed, anything within a fifty-feet radius would not escape his attention.

His bait was ready, but where was the fish? Would the fish bite?

Dugu Mei’s breathing suddenly stopped; he’d seen a hand stretch out stealthily from behind the tree. Agile and brisk, it reached immediately for the pieces of paper on the tree trunk.

“Dong!” Just at this point, there was a flash of brilliance from the sword as the blade pierced through the wood and pinned the hand firmly to the tree trunk.

Dugu Mei’s face blanched, so did Ye Guhong’s.

He did not see blood.

The hand was no oilpaper, why wouldn’t there be blood?

Dugu Mei expelled a long sigh; he had already realised that the blade had not pinned the hand to the tree. Rather, the blade was caught by the hand.

More precisely, wedged between two fingers.

Ye Guhong’s pallor turned red again and sweat dripped down his face. He’d exerted all his might trying to wrench the sword away, but it was as though it’d been flattened beneath Mount Tai, it just refused to budge.

Whose fingers were these? Whose fingers had such extraordinary strength and power?

Lu Xiaofeng’s!

It could only be Lu Xiaofeng!

The smile was back on Dugu Mei’s face, as he said: “Now your sword is out of its sheath, but his blood hasn’t splattered all over.”

Ye Guhong gnashed his teeth, then suddenly released his hold on the sword and dashed behind the tree.

Lu Xiaofeng was indeed behind the tree grinning at him. In his hand was Ye Guhong’s sword, its blade caught between two fingers.

Ye Guhong laughed coldly: “I don’t need a sword to kill you.”

Lu Xiaofeng smiled. “But the sword is yours, so I shall return it to you.”

Ye Guhong had already struck, using Wudang’s Golden Silk Palm, mixed with the Hand into Blade and Seventy-Two Grappling Techniques, his five fingers like hooks and with all the strength concentrated at the tips.

But Lu Xiaofeng actually returned the sword back to him, with the blade captured between two fingers and the hilt back into his hands.

Without conscious volition, he stretched out for it and his face immediately changed; blood trickled from between his fingers.

Lu Xiaofeng had sent over the hilt of the sword, but what he held in his hands was the tip.

He hadn’t even seen how Lu Xiaofeng had done it.

Lu Xiaofeng was still smiling, saying: “This is your sword, nobody is going to steal it from you, so why did you exert so much effort?

Ye Guhong’s face had drained of blood, but suddenly said: “How many strokes did Ximen Chuixue need to wound you?”

“One,” Lu Xiaofeng said.

“You couldn’t counter even one blow?” Ye Guhong asked.

Lu Xiaofeng gave a forced smile.

“You weren’t dead drunk then?” Ye Guhong asked.

Lu Xiaofeng shook his head.

Ye Guhong asked again: “With skills like these, you couldn’t even take one blow from him?”

Lu Xiaofeng sighed and replied: “I know you’ve seen him fight, but to those on the sidelines, they can never understand the speed with which he strikes.”

Ye Guhong’s head bowed as he looked at his own hands.

Blood was still dripping from them, and he had not released his hold on the blade. Blood was also dripping from the tip of the blade, droplet by droplet…

This was his own blood.

When the last droplet fell, he let out a long sigh and pierced the sword right into his chest.

His breathing abruptly stopped and his eyes popped out.

Startled, Lu Xiaofeng said: “I don’t want to kill you, why are you doing this?”

Perspiration dotted Ye Guhong’s face and his breathing quickened and he struggled to get his words out: “I studied the sword for twenty years, believing myself to be unbeatable. I’d arranged to duel with Ximen Chuixue during the Dragon Boat Festival at high noon at the peak of the Forbidden City.”

“This year’s Dragon Boat Festival?” Lu Xiaofeng asked.

Ye Guhong nodded. “I had no hope of winning, but I was confident of giving him a good fight. However, having seen you today, I realized that even if I train for another twenty years, I would not be his match…”

At this point, he began coughing nonstop, but Lu Xiaofeng understood his meaning.

If he didn’t turn up for the duel, he would not be able to face the martial arts fraternity; even if he did show up, it was just asking to be humiliated.

It was because he had suddenly realized there was such a huge gap between his skills and Ximen Chuixue’s.

Lu Xiaofeng couldn’t even take one stroke from Ximen Chuixue, and he hadn’t even been able to figure out Lu Xiaofeng’s moves. The disparity between them was a kind of shame and dishonor.

To him, such humiliation was worse than having his wife raped.

Lu Xiaofeng was already feeling sorry for him and said: “You’re dying because of this?”

Ye Guhong nodded.

Lu Xiaofeng let out a gentle sigh, then crossed over and whispered something into his ear.

Ye Guhong’s face suddenly twisted and there was an indescribable expression in his eyes as he stared at Lu Xiaofeng.

Then he collapsed.

The strange thing was that after he collapsed, there seemed to be the faintest of smiles on his face.

There was no more blood on the tip of the sword.

The last droplet had been blown dry by the wind.

The man was dead, but the sword was still there, its brilliance clear as autumn waters.

Regardless of whether the blood on the sword was blown dry by man or wind, it didn’t matter to this sword.

The sword is emotionless, but humans have emotions.

So the sword remains while people die.

Lu Xiaofeng gazed at this emotionless sword, couldn’t help a long sigh.

– Why are there so many sentimental people in this world who want to devote their lives to an emotionless sword?
– Is this because there is some irresistible power of the sword that draws one to it?

Looking at the shining brilliance of the sword, Lu Xiaofeng felt as though he was beginning to be lost again…

[1] Pink Swallow’s (nick)name in Chinese is 万里踏花粉燕子 (wan4 li3 ta4 hua1 fen3 yan4 zi), which stumped both mich and me. After an enlightening discussion, she figured the most appropriate meaning of the whole phrase would be “bisexual fiend”. However, because he is often referred to as 粉燕子, this is translated as “Pink Swallow”, while 万里踏花 is translated as “Flower Thief”.

[2] Again, Dugu Mei’s nickname is “六亲不认” (liu4 qin1 bu4 ren4), which means the person has no regard at all for familial ties or kinship. But that’s quite a mouthful, and mich and I figured “cold-blooded” would be an appropriate substitute.

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