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Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain Chapter 10.5 Duel (End)

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 Chapter 10.5 Duel (End)

Phoenix broke two stiff branches off a tree nearby and felt their weight with his hand and found them to be almost the same. Flinging one wooden rod to Fox, he remarked, "We found it difficult to outmanoeuvre each other in pugilism and footwork. Now let us meet in a death grapple, wielding improvised edged weapons." Gripping the imitation weapon like a sword in his left hand, Phoenix edged the branch to the side and dealt his enemy a backhand stroke. What he was practising were moves unique to the esoteric Swordplay of the Miao Family. Phoenix was duelling with Fox using the unparalleled ultimate prowess of the Martial Brotherhood. The branch,

small as it was, was fast and furious, bringing strokes upon the enemy, hurling down gust and gale. The tip of the branch could pierce the body like a sword. Seeing Phoenix charging at him fiercely and ferociously, Fox did not dare to slacken. Flourishing his own weapon-like branch, Fox warded off the blows, parrying lengthwise point up, blending fluidity in vigour. The delicate subtlety of his movements, coupled with the mighty use of strength, captured the quintessential essence and spirit of celebrity fighters. This made Phoenix shudder, causing him to ask in silence, "How is it that his martial feats bear close resemblance to Gully's?" Once the blades crossed themselves between two deft fighters in an encounter such as the present one, the natural sequence of the combat unfolded itself in quick succession, like toppling waves rippling in endless lines. Caught in the heat of combat, Phoenix was denied the time to find answers to his own question. After making the counter-caveating parade with his tree blade, Fox immediately thrust his weapon in a lunge. Brandishing the branch in his hand, Phoenix

smote backhanded, hewing strokes at his enemy, forcing Fox to retract his blade to counter the impending attack.

This was the fiercest battle Fox had ever fought in his life. He paraded martial feats in which he had trained himself by learning the Canon bequeathed by his father. The moves were intended to be immaculate in their own right, but Fox was lacking combat experience. His youth imposed also a limit, causing his martial dexterity to fall short, as yet, of perfection.

Fortunately, he was young and strong, mustering more strength than his enemy, thereby making it possible for the battle to unfold with several dozen tricks without either side gaining much advantage. Precariously dangerous situations stared both fighters constantly in the face, but they

both managed to dissolve impending moves by practising even more clever ones. Fox immersed his whole self in battling his enemy and dissolving his moves. He admired Phoenix in silence: "The Gilt-faced Buddha, Phoenix the Knight-errant, indeed lives up to his far-famed sobriquet. I would have been defeated a long time ago had he been twenty years younger. It is no

wonder that he and father were so evenly matched. A great Master, indeed."

Both Phoenix and Fox realized that it would be a very great task for either to quash the other relying solely on martial feats. They knew that whoever could place his back against the ice wall would then be able to claim the advantage of the field and the day would surely be his.

Thereupon, each of the two combatants battled desperately to force the other opponent to the outer edge, while fighting to keep himself on the inner rim, hugging the icy wall. So closely did they check each other's moves that moves deftly brought off with lightning movement served only to reinforce their controlling grip on one another. Each fighter knew that the moment he ventured half a step towards the range of his opponent, he

would immediately sustain a nasty graze from the opponent's blade.

Fast and furious they kept at it. Practising the Empery Dragon Spinning Round to Sprout Whiskers, Phoenix charged fiercely forward, plunging

straight at Fox's heart. Dodging aside was now out of the question. Fox, having just lashed his wooden blade to its outer range, was utterly incapable of retracting it in time for a counter-caveating parade.

A chill smote his heart. Whipping out his left hand with a lightning movement, Fox warded off the smiting branch bare-handed, practising the Sprawling Tiger, hewing mighty blows. Phoenix let out a sudden loud cry, "Bravo!"

Brandishing his weapon, Phoenix laid a stunning blow upon his enemy.

Fox sustained excruciating pain in his fingers and speedily withdrew his hand.

Phoenix strode forward half a pace. Just as he was on the verge of thrusting out his weapon to lunge by following through the more Advancing to Pluck a Star, the icy, limestone ledge on which the fierce fighters had been trampling for so long started to loosen, the thawing ice fracturing.

Wielding his wooden blade, Phoenix planted virtually his whole weight on his left foot behind him. With a sudden crack, the boulder rumbled into the depth of the gulley, hurling a mass of snow and lumps of ice and rock

skywards.

Phoenix suddenly found his feet in the void and faltered involuntarily.

Terrified, Fox stretched out his hands to arrest the falling body. He clutched Phoenix by the sleeves; but Phoenix's drop had already gathered momentum, his coat tugging Fox off the brink. Down plunged Phoenix and Fox into the abyss.

In a trice, both fighters made a simultaneous turn in mid-air, steering their trunks parallel to the surface of the cliff. Both were intent on parading the Lizard Scaling the Wall, struggling to make their way back up on the

shelf. However, the formidably sheer cliff, shrouded in blue ice, proved treacherously slippery, preventing Phoenix and Fox from bringing off that move. No real lizard visiting the spire would ever have been able to surmount this glacial cliff, let alone human beings. Though Phoenix and Fox failed to master their vertical upward climb, they, nonetheless, managed to slow down their descent.

At length, the glissade became more gentle. In a moment, their eyes

spotted an icy ledge one hundred or so feet further down the slope. They told themselves that if they could not plant a foothold on this shelf, they would be smashed to pieces. The second this thought flashed across their minds, they placed their feet on the jutting rock. Their thoughts ran

identical, just as they were equally matched in their martial feats. Practising the Thousand-Catty Counterpoise, Phoenix and Fox both nailed their feet like grapnels on the stone table.

The horizontal surface of the ledge was smooth and even to start with. The glacial covering rendered it more treacherously slippery. Both being accomplished fighters, Phoenix and Fox halted the moment their feet glanced ice, not skidding an inch. A sudden muffled rumbling sound

reached their ears. To their surprise, the monstrous rock, measuring several tens of thousands of catties, wavered a few times. Due to weathering, the boulder, which jutted out on the brink of the precipice, was crumbling.

There was every chance of its avalanching down the cliff. Unable now to withstand the sudden pressure of a prey and his predator, the giant boulder began to fragment and to rock increasingly feverishly.

The two branch weapons wielded by Phoenix and Fox also followed their Masters' way down, dropping onto the ledge. In the face of this threatening situation, Phoenix swept out his left palm and retrieved the unusual fighting tool with his right hand. Immediately practising the formidable move

Advancing To Strip the Moon By the Cloud, he whirled up his improvised sword, and, without warning, attacked Fox. Fox ducked. His back narrowly missed the blade. Picking up his own tree branch, Fox retaliated, unfurling the esoteric feat Worshipping Buddha cum Learning Sutra.

Both antagonists confined themselves now to practising only offensive moves, each bringing savagery down upon the other and missing the other by only a narrow margin. Gradually, the muffled rumbling sound came increasingly louder to their ears. They were soon losing their steady footing. Each thought to himself, "Only by driving the enemy into a corner to evict him from the ledge can the weight be reduced. Only this can prevent the boulder from tumbling, and only then can I hope to stay alive." The question of life and death hung in the balance. Thereupon, they charged down at each other, stunning brutal blows, barring all sentiments.

In no time the two blades had crossed in a dozen or more tricks. Curiosity gripped Phoenix on seeing his enemy wielding his weapon in a manner

similar to Gully's fighting techniques of former years. But the battle did not allow him to find out more from his opponent. After lashing out with his blade by practising General Swinging the Arm to Slash the Tent, Phoenix followed it through, bringing off instantaneously the move Piercing the Stork in Flight. Flashing his sword and also hewing with his palm, Phoenix resolved to force his assailant down the cliff. Conditioned by long habit, the old warrior involuntarily twitched the muscle at the back, immediately before plunging into this particular move.

The moon hung in the clear midnight sky, shedding beams on the snow- shrouded cliff, blanching it a ghostly white. The moonlight painted the glacial wall of the cliff silver, causing it to reflect rays like a mirror. The

silvery coat of the icy sheen of the cliff's face revealed a vividly sharp image of Phoenix's back.

Phoenix's back, as reflected by the glacial mirror, registered itself distinctly in his enemy's eyes. Fox suddenly recalled the scene described by Quad, of how during the contest between Phoenix and his father in that particular year, his mother had signalled his father to strike by coughing behind Phoenix's back. Fox now had a godsent mirror standing opportunely right behind his enemy's back, ready to lend him a helping hand. Realizing that Phoenix would invariably follow through his move by practising Piercing the Stork in Flight, Fox at once paraded the move Stealing Jab from all Angles, hoping thus to preempt Phoenix's impending move.

Phoenix had only proceeded half way through practising Piercing the Stork in Flight when he was suddenly closed in on all sides by Fox brandishing and flourishing his branch blade. All doubts were cast from his mind on the instant. Phoenix knew that the person confronting him this very minute must be connected to Gully. Thereupon, he let out a sigh, "Past sin, present suffering! Retributive judgement!" He closed his eyes, resigning himself to fate.

* * * Whirling his blade in the air, Fox could easily have hurled down a stroke and driven his prey right down the boulder. But he was bound by his promise to Orchid. Therefore he could not hurt her father. If he did not bring down the hewing stroke upon his enemy, he himself would certainly meet his end the minute Phoenix followed through all movements in the move Piercing Stork in Flight. Was he going to allow the other party to

escape at the expense of risking his own life?

In the space of a second, thought after thought turned over in his mind: "This very enemy has brought death upon my parents, forcing upon me

the status of an orphan and ensuring hardships my entire life. Yet he is a valiant and noble character, indeed a great hero fighter. As he is father to my true love, it will go against all reason to smite the blow. But if I choose not to strike, my own life will certainly be at stake. I am in my prime: am I willing to depart like this? If I dispatch him, can I muster the courage to face Orchid? If I were to shun her for the rest of my life, my heart would break. It would be better for me to die than to live."

Fox was plunged into deepest gloom by these thoughts. He debated with himself whether he should strike or not. He was most reluctant to hurt Phoenix, and yet he was the more unwilling to lose his own life.

If Fox had not been a person who prized chivalric spirits and the righteousness of knight-errantry, he certainly would have brought down his weapon to strike; there can be no question about that. Though one should

show generosity and valiance, one still should not give up one's own life so easily. This great indecision tore Fox's mind to pieces.

* * *

All this time, Orchid was waiting, standing in the snowy ground. A long, long time had elapsed, and yet there was no trace of her father and her true love. Thereupon, she gently undid the parcel Fox had entrusted to her.

Inside she found only a few infant clothes, a pair of baby's slippers and a bundle wrapped in yellow cloth. The moonlit sky saw clearly embroidered in black on the pack the inscriptions "The Invincible Under the Sky". This was the very covering which her father had wrapped around Fox all those years ago. Orchid stood under the moonlit sky, gazing at the tiny baby's clothes and slippers, overwhelmed by the warmth of her emotions.

* * *

Would Fox return safely to her side? Would he bring down the stroke or would he not?

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