The Smiling, Proud Wanderer - 第1章 Massacre

Spring was always a relaxing time of the year. The breeze gently brushed the willow trees and wild flowers, causing the air to be filled with the pleasant scent of the season.

The West Gate Boulevard of Fuzhou[1] was a stone slab road that extended all the way to the west gate of the town. A huge mansion stood south of the street with a tall flagpole on either side of its gate. The flagpoles were about twenty feet tall, each with a huge green banner streaming in the wind. The banner on the left was embroidered in yellow silk, bearing the image of a majestic lion. As the banner fluttered back and forth in the wind, the lion seemed as though it had come alive and were about to jump down at any time. Just above the lion’s head was a pair of bats, embroidered in black silk, waving their wings in flying motion. The banner on the right bore four huge words in black that read “Fortune Prestige Escort House,” all written in a bold, vigorous hand.

The house, itself, had a large vermilion gate. Teacup-sized copper studs on the gate shone in the bright sunlight. Above the gate, characters in gold lacquer were inscribed on a huge sign reading – “Fortune Prestige Escort House.” And slightly below, the word “Headquarters” was engraved in a smaller font. Beyond the gate were two rows of benches bordering a path, and sitting upon those benches were eight guards in house uniforms, with their faces animated with excitement.

Sounds of hoof beats came from the backyard of the court. All eight guards sprang up and rushed out of the gate. Five horses galloped out from the side-door on the west of the mansion and stopped directly in front of the gate. Leading the pack was a beautiful horse, white as snow, with a silver bridle and stirrups. A young man in silk clothing, roughly eighteen years of age, sat on the horse, with a sword hanging from his belt and a bow strapped onto his back. A hunting falcon perched on his left shoulder, as the horse strode along the street. The four horsemen following him were all dressed in tight, black outfits.

“The Young Master is going hunting!” three guards shouted in unison.

The young man smiled and cracked his whip in the air cockily. Answering the command, the white horse neighed happily and dashed along the stone slab road.

“Escort Shi,” one of the guards yelled out, “how about bringing back a wild boar, so we can all have a feast!”

A forty-year-old horseman, trailing behind, grinned back. “Don’t worry! I will make sure to save the boar’s tail for you. Just don’t get drunk before we get back.”

Amid the loud laughter, the five horsemen vanished like the wind.

Just after they exited the town gate, Lin Pingzhi,[2] the Young Master of the Escort House, spurred his horse lightly. The horse picked up speed and soon left the rest of the pack far behind. After riding onto a small slope, he set the falcon to work. Minutes later, a pair of yellow rabbits was flushed out from the bushes. Lin Pingzhi quickly grabbed the bow from his back. Pulling out an arrow from his saddlebag, he took aim and shot in one smooth action. One rabbit was down, with one more to go. But by the time he pulled out another arrow and was ready to shoot again, the other rabbit had disappeared behind the bushes.

Escort Zheng rode by with a smile. “Nice shot, Young Master!” he praised.

“Young Master, hurry, we’ve found pheasants here!” Henchman Bai shouted in the woods to the left.

Lin Pingzhi rushed over and saw a pheasant flying out from the bushes, heading directly toward his head. He pulled out an arrow rapidly and fired at the pheasant but missed. Out of reflex, he lashed his whip at the pheasant. With a cracking sound, the pheasant fell to the ground, bright and colorful feathers scattering in all directions. All five cheered.

“What a swift lash! Even a large griffon wouldn’t escape that,” Escort Shi exclaimed.

The party hunted in the woods for over four hours. Intending to let the Young Master have a good time, the two escorts, Shi and Zheng, and the two henchmen, Bai and Chen, always drove the prey toward the young man, even when they, themselves, had the better shot. By the end of the hunt, Lin Pingzhi had shot two more rabbits and two more pheasants. But Young Master Lin wanted to hunt more. Not realizing enough excitement from small prey, he yearned for larger game.

“Let's go a bit deeper into the woods, and see what we can find,” he exclaimed eagerly.

Escort Shi thought to himself, “If we go too deep into the woods, as the Young Master wishes, he probably won’t quit until after dark. Surely, the Madam will complain when we get back. That won’t be good.” So he replied, “It is quite late already. There are lots of sharp rocks around that might damage the hooves of your white horse. Why don’t we try our luck again early tomorrow morning?”

He knew that it would be very hard to persuade the stubborn Young Master, but Lin Pingzhi loved his white horse so much that he wouldn’t risk any chance to injure his precious pet. The horse had been given to Lin Pingzhi as a present on his seventeenth birthday two years ago. The colt had come from a foreign country, and cost his grandmother in Luoyang, a fair amount of gold.

Just as Shi had expected, his suggestion worked.

“My Snow Dragon is clever enough to not step on sharp rocks, but I am not so sure about your horses. Alright, let’s head back then. We wouldn’t want Henchman Chen to crack his bottom somewhere on those sharp rocks, would we?” grinned Lin Pingzhi, patting his horse on the neck.

Howling with laughter, all five turned around and started heading back home. Lin Pingzhi rode ahead of everyone else, but did not take the same route by which they had come. Instead, he turned north and sprinted forward. Satisfied after some rapid riding, he finally reined in the horse and let it trot slowly.

The sign of a wine shop emerged from one side of the road, not far ahead.

“Young Master, how about a drink here? The fresh rabbits and pheasants we’ve got would go perfectly with some good wine,” Escort Zheng suggested.

“So, you didn’t come out for hunting, but rather for drinking, did you? I suppose if I don’t bribe you with some drinks, you wouldn’t want to come out again tomorrow.” Lin Pingzhi grinned as he dismounted and started walking toward the wine shop.

Normally, the owner of the wine shop, Old Cai, would have hurried out to take the reins and flattered Lin with some praise. “Well lookee thar, the Young Master’s gotten so much game today! Ain’t he great! There ain’t many who can match his skills,” Old Cai would exclaim. But today, when they came to the door, they were greeted with complete silence. A girl, dressed in green, stood by the wine vat, with her hair done up in two buns with a hairpin through each; she seemed to be busy with it. She was facing inside and seemed to have no intention of turning around.

“Where is Old Cai? Get out and tether our horses,” Escort Zheng yelled impatiently.

Henchmen Bai and Chen pulled out a bench, brushed off the dust with their sleeves, and let Lin Pingzhi sit down. The two escorts sat with Lin Pingzhi, and the two henchmen sat down at another table. Coughing sounds floated out from the backroom, and moments later, a gray-haired old man walked out.

“Welcome, sirs. Can I bring you some wine?” the old man greeted the group of five in a distinctly northern accent.

“Do we look like we are here for tea?” Escort Zheng retorted. “Of course we want wine. Get us three jugs of Bamboo Green.[3] Where’s Old Cai? What’s going on? Are you the new owner here?”

“Yes, sir! Coming right up! Wan’er, bring three jugs of Bamboo Green,” the old man said to the girl. “To be frank with you misters, my name is Sa. I was born in this town, but I left to be a trader when I was young. Recently, my son and my daughter-in-law both passed away. I figured that no matter how tall a tree is, its leaves will always fall to the roots, so I brought my granddaughter back to my hometown. But since I’ve been gone for over forty some years, my relatives and my friends had either passed away or left town. Luckily, the previous owner of this wine shop, Old Cai, happened to want out, so he sold it to me for thirty taels[4] of silver. I am finally back, now. I feel happy just listening to the hometown dialect. But it’s so embarrassing that I’ve totally forgotten the dialect myself.”

The girl in the green robe came back with a wooden tray. She set down the bowls and chopsticks, and then placed three jugs of wine on the table. When she finished, she walked away with her head down, not even glancing at the customers. Lin Pingzhi watched as the girl walked away. She had a slim figure, but her skin was dark and rough. Pox marks covered her face, which made the face appear to be very ugly. Lin Pingzhi thought that the reason she was so rigid was probably because she had only started waiting tables not too long ago, so he paid no more attention to her.

Escort Shi brought out a pheasant and a yellow rabbit, and handed them to old man Sa. “Clean them up and cook them well,” he ordered.

“Yes, sir! Right away! Would you like some jerky and peanuts to go with the wine, sirs?” old man Sa asked.

Wan’er placed some beef jerky and peanuts on the table, not waiting for old man Sa’s order.

“Our Young Mister Lin, here, is the Young Master of the Fortune Prestige Escort House. He helps out needy people all the time. Money, to him, is like dirt. If you cook the two dishes well and make his stomach happy, you can easily make back that thirty taels investment you spent in a matter of months,” Escort Zheng introduced.

“Oh, yes, yes! Many thanks!!” old man Sa answered cheerfully as he picked up the pheasant and the rabbit and went into the kitchen.

Escort Zheng poured the wine into all three cups. Raising his own cup, he poured all of it down his throat, then after smacking his lips a few times, he said contentedly, “The owner changed, but fortunately the wine is still the same.”

He poured himself another cup and was just about to drink it, when suddenly, the drum of hoof beats rose from a distance and then came to an abrupt stop outside the shop. Two horsemen rode in from the north. Traveling at a blazing speed, they arrived at the small shop in no time at all.

“Hey, it’s a wine shop. Let’s go in for a couple of drinks,” one of the riders shouted.

Escort Shi recognized that the speaker had a distinct accent of western Szechwan.[5] He turned around and spotted two men in purple robes. They tied the reins of their horses to the big banyan tree outside the shop and walked in. Giving the escorts a casual glance, they made a big display of sitting down. Both had a strip of white cloth wrapped around their foreheads. At first glance, with their purple robes, they seemed to be fairly cultured people, but since both had bare legs showing in the open and bare feet in hemp shoes, they were unlikely to be so.[6] Escort Shi knew that most people from Szechwan dressed in this manner. The strips of white cloths worn on their foreheads were in mourning for the death[7] of Marquis Zhuge Liang.[8] The Marquis did so many great things for the people of Szechwan and was so well respected that even a thousand years after his death, people still wore white mourning cloths on their foreheads in his memory.

Lin Pingzhi had never seen people dressed like this before. “Their dress looks neither civilian, nor martial. It’s very strange indeed,” he thought aloud.

“Wine, get me some wine! So many damn mountains here. Our horses are really tired out!” the younger of the two yelled out.

“What can I get for you?” Wan’er walked to their table and asked. She looked down at the floor while asking the question, so that the two could not see her face. Her voice was low, but sounded very clear and pleasant. The younger man was dazed for a second. Unexpectedly, his right hand shot out and raised Wan’er’s chin.

“What a pity!” He snickered.

Wan’er gasped and quickly drew herself back.

The younger man’s companion burst into laughter. “Brother Yu, this chick has a nice body, but as for her face, look how pockmarked it is!! Just like the inside of a pomegranate!” The younger man laughed even louder.

Lin Pingzhi’s anger flared. He slapped the table hard and shouted, “What kind of creatures are you, you two blind scoundrels? How dare you to come to Fuzhou and behave so ill-mannered?”

“Hey, Jia Junior, somebody seems really upset. Who do you think this sissy is referring to?” the younger fellow, Yu, said with a smirk.

Lin Pingzhi was fair of face, and looked much like his mother. Even under normal circumstances, he would have slapped someone just for staring at him. Hearing the word sissy, his temper flared. He grabbed a tin kettle from the table and hurled it at the two men. Yu shifted back slightly; the kettle missed him and sailed out the door, landing on the lawn outside. Wine from the kettle splashed everywhere. Escorts Shi and Zheng sprang up immediately and rushed up to the two men.

“This boy should play a little bitch in the opera. He would seduce quite a few men. But I doubt he’s any good at fighting.” Yu grinned sneeringly.

“This is the Young Master Lin from the Fortune Prestige Escort House. You’ve really got your nerve to offend him!” Escort Zheng hollered. As he spat out the last word, his left fist was already on its way toward Yu’s face. Yu deflected the punch with his left palm, then grabbed Zheng’s wrist and pulled hard. Escort Zheng lost his balance and fell toward the table. Yu then struck Zheng’s neck with his left elbow. With a crash, the table collapsed to the ground, along with Zheng.

Although Zheng was not in the top echelon of fighters at the Escort House, he was not at the bottom, either. Seeing that Escort Zheng had been knocked down by Yu with just one move, Escort Shi knew the two would make tough opponents.

“Friends, who are you?” he asked. “Looks like you know Kung Fu. Haven’t you heard of the Fortune Prestige Escort House?”

“Fortune Prestige Escort House? Never heard of it. What the hell is that?” Yu smirked.

“We are in the business of teaching manners to lowlifes, such as you,” Lin Pingzhi leapt over with a roar. He struck out with his left hand, but before fully extending his arm, his right hand struck out from underneath his left hand. This maneuver was called “Cloud Concealed Glare” and was a move from the Lin Family’s Kung Fu style of Universal Hands.

“Ho! This sissy boy actually knows a few tricks,” Yu exclaimed mockingly, blocking the blow with his left arm and stretching out his right hand to grab Lin Pingzhi’s shoulder.

Lin Pingzhi lowered his right shoulder in evasion, and attempted to punch Yu with his left fist. Yu ducked his head from the punch, but to his surprise, Lin Pingzhi’s fist opened and changed from a punch into a palm strike. With the move called “Flowers in the Fog,” he slapped Yu hard across the face.

Now Yu went berserk. He threw a kick at Lin Pingzhi, who stepped to the right and returned a kick at Yu. While the two fought, Escort Shi had already engaged in a fight with Jia, and Henchman Bai helped Escort Zheng up from the ground. Swearing at the top of his lungs, Zheng leapt forward and joined Lin Pingzhi in the fight against Yu.

“Go help Escort Shi! I can handle this punk!” Lin Pingzhi shouted.

Escort Zheng knew that the Young Master always wanted to best others, and did not want extra help, so he picked up a broken table leg and swung it at Jia’s head. In the meantime, the two henchmen had run outside. One took Lin Pingzhi’s sword, which was hanging from the saddle, while the other grabbed a hunting fork, and then both started pouring out all manner of profanity at the top of their lungs. Retainers of the Escort House were not good fighters, but because they were the ones shouting out the escort songs during trips, they all had loud voices. They cursed in the local dialect. The two men from Szechwan had no clue as to what they were saying, but they knew that it must have been something quite uncomplimentary.

Lin Pingzhi focused on using moves from the Universal Hands style to fight Yu. He had practiced this form with many escorts in the Escort House. Partly because this form of martial art was indeed excellent, and partly because no one from the Escort House, who valued his employment, was stupid enough to beat the Young Master. Thus, even though Lin Pingzhi had a good understanding of the form, he did not have much actual fighting experience. He had fought some local rascals in Fuzhou before; however, no street thug could prevail against the fighting style of the great Lin Family. In less than three moves, they all would end up running away, with either a swollen face or a bloody nose. But things were quite different, this time. After only a dozen or so moves, Lin Pingzhi had to swallow his pride and admit that his opponent was really tough.

While the two exchanged punches, Yu kept taunting Lin Pingzhi with insults. “Hey, buddy! The more I look at you, the more you look like a girl dressed, as a guy. Look at those lovely cheeks of yours. Why don’t we stop fighting, so I can give you a big kiss? What do you say?”

Lin Pingzhi was enraged. He glanced over at Escorts Shi and Zheng, only to find that they were not faring well, even though it was two against one. Zheng had been punched hard on the nose; blood was all over his face and his clothes. Lin Pingzhi hastened his moves and, unexpectedly, was able to slap Yu in the face a second time. It was a heavy slap.

“Son of a turtle!” Yu snarled. “I was just playing with you, you loser faggot. You want to fight for real now?” He suddenly changed his tactics and sped up his moves. Punches poured down upon Lin Pingzhi like a thunderstorm.

The two fought from the inside of the shop to the outside. Seeing a punch aimed directly at his solar plexus, Lin Pingzhi remembered the release-block technique his father had taught him, so he tried to block it with his left arm, but Yu’s punch was so powerful that he failed to stop it. The punch sent a shock throughout his entire body, and before he was able to gather himself, Yu’s left hand grabbed him by the collar.

Yu jerked him down hard. Lin Pingzhi’s torso caved in to Yu’s strength and leaned forward. In the next second, Yu’s right arm was already pushing down on the back of Lin Pingzhi’s neck with a move called the Iron Threshold.

“You son of a turtle! If you kowtow[9] to me and call me Great Uncle three times, I might let you go.” Yu laughed scornfully.

Escorts Shi and Zheng were stunned. They wanted to rush over and rescue Lin Pingzhi, but were kept at bay by Jia’s nonstop kicks and punches.

Henchman Bai thrust the hunting fork at Yu’s back. “Punk, let go of him! Who the hell do you think you are…?” he yelled loudly.

Yu threw a reverse kick with his left foot, which knocked the fork out of Bai’s grip and sent it flying into the air. He immediately followed with another backward kick, using his right foot, sending Henchman Bai rolling to the ground.

“You stinking turtle egg! The hell with you! Your grandma has no eyeballs!” Henchman Chen started cursing. But with each curse, he took a step back, so after eight or nine of them, he was already far from the scene of the fight.

“Hey, sissy boy, are you going to kowtow or not?” Yu laughed. He pushed down even harder, pressing Lin Pingzhi’s head almost to the ground. Lin Pingzhi tried to punch at Yu’s stomach, but the punches always fell a few inches short. Lin felt unbearable pain from his neck as if his neck was going to break. Sparkles glittered in front of his eyes and his eardrums were filled with buzzing sounds. He clawed and scratched like a wild cat, when suddenly, his fingers came upon a hard object that was strapped on his shin. Without thinking, he pulled it out and stabbed it at Yu with all his might.

Yu let out a sudden shriek and let go of Lin Pingzhi. Dread and terror covered his face as Yu stumbled back in disbelief. The dagger had pierced through his stomach all the way, leaving only the handle showing. He was facing west, and the golden handle of the dagger glinted crazily in the rays of the setting sun. He opened his mouth wide, but nothing came out. He reached for the dagger with his hand, but then paused, too afraid to touch the shining handle.

Stumbling back several steps, Lin Pingzhi also looked on in shock. His heart almost jumped out of his throat. Jia and the two escorts stopped fighting and looked at Yu in astonishment. Yu finally gathered enough courage to grab the protruding handle. Blood gushed from the wound as he pulled out the dagger. The onlookers cried out in disbelief.

“Jia…Jia…Tell my father, se…seek…vengeance…for…!” Yu hissed before dropping the dagger and fell forward onto the ground. His torso twitched a few times and finally stopped moving.

“Brother Yu, Brother Yu!” Jia rushed to his side and cried out bitterly.

“Get your weapons!” Escort Shi whispered. He darted to his horse and drew out his long knife. As an experienced escort, he knew only too well that Jia would stop at nothing to avenge the death of his companion.

Jia glared murderously at Lin Pingzhi for a few seconds, and then quickly retrieved the dagger from the ground and dashed to his horse. He mounted in a hurry, wasting no time in untying the rein. In a swift slash, he cut the horse loose with the dagger. Jia spurred his horse hard, and within moments, both the horse and its rider disappeared into the northern horizon.

Henchman Chen walked up to the body and kicked it hard, sending it rolling over. Blood continued to gush from the wound.

“You big moron, how dare you insult our Young Master? Now you’ve learned your lesson.”

But Lin Pingzhi had never killed anyone before. His face turned pale in fright. “Escort Shi…what shall we do? I never…I didn’t mean to kill him.” His voice trembled.

Escort Shi pondered to himself, “The Fortune Prestige Escort House has been around for three generations. Getting into fights and having people die while on the job is simply unavoidable. But normally the victims are either bandits or unorthodox members of the Martial World, and these fights usually happen in some remote mountains or deep forests. Afterwards, we simply bury the corpses and forget about the whole thing. Of course the bandits would never go to the authorities and report the killing. But this time, the victim was obviously not a bandit, and the scene is close to a populated area. Murder is no small crime. Even the son of a governor or mayor wouldn’t be able to get off easily if they committed such a crime, let alone the Young Master of an Escort House.” Reflecting upon these facts, he came to a decision.

“Let’s move the body into the shop,” he said with a frown. “It’s too close to the road here. We don’t want anyone to see this.”

Luckily it was already quite late, and there was no one passing by. Henchmen Bai and Chen hauled the body into the shop.

“Young Master, do you have any money on you?” Escort Shi whispered to Lin Pingzhi.

“Yeah, I do!” Lin Pingzhi answered anxiously, as he took all of his money out in a hurry. There were about twenty taels of silver in all.

Escort Shi took the silver and walked into the shop. Setting the money on the table, he said, “Old Sa, this outsider was harassing your granddaughter, and our Young Master was just trying to help. He didn’t want to kill the man, but he had no choice. All of us witnessed the whole event. The incident originated because of you, so if anybody blows the whistle, no one will get away with it. Take the money and just forget about the whole thing. We’ll get rid of the body and pretend nothing happened here. Do you understand?”

“Yes, yes,” Old Sa nodded.

“Killing a few gangsters is a piece of cake for us when we escort cargos,” Escort Zheng exclaimed. “These two Szechwan rats behaved so suspiciously, I bet they were either burglars or rapists. They must have come to Fuzhou looking for crimes to commit. Our Young Master saw through their disguises, and took care of them for the safety of the town. He should have gone to the authorities for a reward, but our Young Master does not want to go through all that trouble, and he doesn’t really care about this kind of fame. You, old friend, better keep your mouth shut. If you let anything out, we will say that you are their accomplice and that you were just using this wine shop as cover to spy for them. From your accent, anyone could tell that you’re not from here. People would say ‘How did those two just happen to show up right after you took over the shop? What a coincidence!’”

“I won’t say anything. I know nothing,” Old Sa said hurriedly in compliance.

Led by Escort Shi, Henchmen Bai and Chen buried the body in the garden behind the shop; they also cleaned up all the bloodstains in front of the door.

“If we don’t hear anything unusual in ten days,” Escort Zheng said to Old Sa, “you’ll get yourself another fifty taels of silver. But if you really feel like telling stories…humph! Well, the Fortune Prestige Escort House has killed hundreds of bandits before. It wouldn’t be any trouble to plant two more bodies in your garden, would it?”

“We won’t dare! We won’t dare! Thanks! Many thanks!” Old Sa complied yet again.

It was already dark outside by the time everything was finally handled. Lin Pingzhi relaxed a little, but still felt uneasiness as he went back to the Escort House. When he entered the front hall, he saw his father sitting in a wooden armchair, his eyes shut, lost in thought.

“Dad!” Lin Pingzhi called.

“Went hunting? Caught any boars?” Lin Zhennan opened his eyes and asked with a smile.

“No,” Lin Pingzhi replied.

Lin Zhennan lifted the pipe in his hands and suddenly struck down toward Lin Pingzhi’s shoulder. “Take that,” he exclaimed.

Lin Pingzhi knew that his father always liked to impulsively check up on his progress in fighting skills. Typically, he would have countered this Plunging Comic Star – the twenty-sixth move in the Evil-Resisting Sword Art, with the Buddha Blossom – the forty-sixth move. But his mind was so burdened by the incident at the wine shop that he thought his father had already learned about the incident and was bestowing his punishment with his pipe. He dared not move, crying out plaintively, “Father!”

Lin Zhennan’s pipe halted just about three inches from his son’s shoulder.

“What’s with you today? You think you’d still have the shoulder when you are actually fighting someone, if you were this clumsy?” Lin Zhennan asked. Although the words were harsh, a smile played about his mouth.

“Understood!” Lin Pingzhi responded. He dropped his left shoulder and rapidly spun his body around, stepping behind his father. Snatching up a feather duster from the tea table, he thrust it at Lin Zhennan’s back. This was the move called the Buddha Blossom.

“That’s the right move!” Lin Zhennan nodded in approval. He passed his pipe across his back and parried the thrust, then countered with a move known as the Flute-Play on the River.

Lin Pingzhi was much more focused now. He blocked the attack with “Purple Mist East Bound.”

The father and son fought until after roughly fifty moves, when Lin Zhennan swiftly poked his son on the chest just below his right nipple with the handle of his pipe. Not able to fend off the attack in time, Lin Pingzhi felt a sudden soreness in his right arm, and dropped the feather duster immediately.

“Good! Very good! You have shown progress every single day of this month! You lasted four more moves than yesterday!” Lin Zhennan smiled gleefully and sat back down. “Pingzhi, guess what! Our Escort House has received wonderful news today,” he announced while filling his pipe with fresh tobacco leaves.

Lin Pingzhi took out a firestone and lit the pipe for his father. “Did you just sign off on a big business deal today?” he inquired.

Lin Zhennan shook his head.

“As long as our Escort House offers good services, business will come to us! Our only concern is our own ability – are we capable of fulfilling big contracts, when they do come to us?”

He inhaled deeply, and then blew out a cloud of smoke.

“Escort Zhang sent us a message from Hunan.[10] Master Yu of the Pine-Wind Temple, the Master of the Qingcheng Sword School, in Western Szechwan, has accepted our gifts.”

Hearing the words “Western Szechwan” and “Master Yu,” Lin Pingzhi’s heart almost jumped from his throat. “Accepted our gifts?” he repeated in a mutter.

“I haven’t really told you much about the business of the Escort House,” Lin Zhennan went on. “You wouldn’t have understood anyway. But you are growing up fast, and the heavy burden of running the Escort House will slowly shift onto your shoulders. It’s time for you to start taking a larger part in the business of the Escort House. Son, we’ve been in the escort business for three generations. We have been able to expand to today’s scale and become the largest and most renowned Escort House south of the Yangtze River. How did we accomplish this? First, because of the great fame of your great grandfather; second, because of the fighting techniques our ancestors have handed down, generation after generation. Anyone mentioning the name of ‘Fortune Prestige Escort House’ will give a thumb’s up and say, ‘What fortune! What prestige!’ In the escorting business, reputation counts for twenty percent, real fighting skills count for twenty percent, but the final sixty percent has to depend on your relationship with both the unorthodox and orthodox members of the Martial World.”

Blowing out another cloud of smoke, he continued.

“Think about it. Our wagons have to pass through ten different provinces. If we had to fight every time we went on a job, how many men would we have lost? Even if we won every single time, it would be like in the old saying: ‘To kill a thousand enemies, sacrifice eight hundred of your own.’ If any of our escorts were injured or killed on the job, the money we earned wouldn’t even be enough to cover the compensation to their families. Soon, we would run out of our own savings as well. That’s why we escorts have to know all the right people and spare no expense to cultivate relationships. Connections are even more powerful than the fist power.”

“Yes, Father.” Lin Pingzhi answered. Under normal circumstances, he would have become quite excited and would have asked many questions upon hearing about the business end of running the Escort House, yet today all he could think of were the words “Western Szechwan” and “Master Yu.” His heart pounded wildly.

“Your father’s Kung Fu is surely not as good as either your grandfather’s, or your great grandfather’s.” Lin Zhennan exhaled another cloud of smoke. “But my management skills are definitely better than either of theirs. Your great grandfather founded the business in four provinces: from Fujian to Canton in the south, and north to Zhejiang and Jiangsu. I expanded the business to six more provinces: Shandong, Hebei, Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi and Guangxi. What’s the secret here? Let me tell you: make many friends and few enemies. Our Escort House is called ‘Fortune Prestige.’ Remember, fortune comes before prestige; this means fortune is more important than prestige. Fortune will only come if you keep ‘making many friends and few enemies.’ If we change it to ‘Prestige and Fortune,’ wouldn’t that mean we would ride roughshod over above others for glory? Ha-ha!”

Lin Pingzhi forced a hollow laugh, which was devoid of amusement.

Lin Zhennan didn’t notice his son’s uneasiness and went on. “The old saying says, ‘Covet Szechwan after capturing Gansu.’[11] But for us, it’s ‘Covet Szechwan after capturing Hubei.’ Our escort route starts from Fujian, goes west through Jiangxi and Hunan, to stop at Hubei. Why shouldn’t we continue all the way west, up the river into the province of Szechwan? Szechwan is called the Heavenly Kingdom. There are lots of rich people there. If we made it through to Szechwan, we could go either north to Shanxi or south into Yunnan and Guizhou; our business would increase by at least another thirty percent. But Szechwan is a place of crouching tigers and hidden dragons. To do business there, we would have to have connections with the two schools, Qingcheng and Emei.[12] For the past three years, I have been sending valuable gifts to the Pine-Wind Temple of the Qingcheng Sword School and the Golden-Peak Temple of the Emei School every spring and autumn, but neither school would accept our overtures. Priest Radiance, the Head Master of the Emei School, would at least greet the gift bearers, thank them and invite them to a vegetarian meal, then return the gifts without even breaking the seal. Master Yu of the Pine-Wind Temple was even trickier. His apprentices would stop the gift bearers half way up the mountain, claiming that Master Yu was in Exclusive Meditation[13] at the moment, and unable to see any guest. They would also claim that they already had everything they needed in the temple, so that there was no need for any gifts. Our escorts couldn’t even tell which direction the gate of the Pine-Wind Temple faced, let alone meet Master Yu. When they came back, they were infuriated. If it weren’t because of the specific orders I gave them before the trip to behave with restraint and respect, regardless of how they were ill-treated, they would probably have called them all manner of names and started several fights.”

After these words, Lin Zhennan stood up, a proud smile blossoming on his face. “And guess what? At long last, Master Yu has accepted our gifts, and has even sent four of his apprentices to return the courtesy and thank us in person….”

“Four apprentices? Not two?” Lin Pingzhi asked breathlessly.

“Yes, four apprentices!” Lin Zhennan answered. “Master Yu is really handling this matter quite solemnly. This will make our Escort House look especially good!! I’ve just sent messengers to our branches in Jiangxi, Hunan and Hubei, informing them of the news and told them to treat these four as our noble guests.”

“Father, when people from Szechwan speak, do they usually call others ‘son of a turtle’?” Lin Pingzhi suddenly blurted out a question.

“Only bumpkins from Szechwan speak that way. There are rustics everywhere, and of course they are not taught of proper manners. Listen to our own henchmen talk when they gamble. They’re no better. Why do you ask?” Lin Zhennan chuckled.

“No reason,” Lin Pingzhi replied quickly.

“When the four Qingcheng apprentices come, you should spend more time with them; watch and learn how students of prestigious schools act. Making friends with them will surely benefit you later on in life.”

The father and son chatted some more. Lin Pingzhi couldn’t make up his mind if he should tell his father about the incident at the wine shop, and finally decided to tell his mother, first. After dinner, the family of three remained in the Back Hall to converse. Lin Zhennan was having a discussion with his wife, as to what gift to get for her brother’s birthday in June. It would be tricky to find something appropriate that the Golden-Blade Wang family in Luoyang[14] would hold in esteem.

A sudden uproar came from outside, and moments later several people rushed into the room.

“Where are your manners?” Lin Zhennan frowned.

Three henchmen had burst in. The man in front muttered in a disturbed tone, “Chief…Chief Master….”

“What’s the matter?” Lin Zhennan snapped in annoyance.

“Bai…Bai is dead,” Henchman Chen blurted out the words.

Lin Zhennan was slightly astounded. “Who killed him? Gambling must’ve let to the quarrel!” He became quite angered, thinking how hard it was to regulate the roughnecks of the Escort House. They would often fight and draw their knives for no reason. And, as they were headquartered in the capital of the province, it could be rather troublesome if someone were killed on their premises.

“No, it is not like that,” Chen explained hastily. “Xiao Li was going to the outhouse just a minute ago and saw Bai lying in the garden nearby. His body was already cold, but there’s not a single wound on the body. No one knows how he died. Must’ve been some kind of a disease.”

Lin Zhennan breathed out a sigh of relief and relaxed immediately. “Let me go have a look.” He started walking toward the garden and Lin Pingzhi followed behind.

When they arrived at the yard, a number of escorts and henchmen had already gathered around the body. Seeing the arrival of the Chief Master, the crowd moved back. Lin Zhennan took a close look at Bai’s corpse. Bai’s clothes had been unbuttoned, and clearly, there were no bloodstains.

“No wounds at all?” Lin Zhennan asked Escort Zhu, who stood next to him.

“I’ve examined the body carefully, and there’s not a single wound anywhere on the body. It does not look like poison either,” Escort Zhu replied, which Lin Zhennan acknowledged with a nod.

“Tell Dong the bookkeeper to arrange a funeral for Bai, and don’t forget to send a hundred taels of silver to his family,” Lin Zhennan directed.

The death of a henchman due to illness was not something Lin Zhennan would pay much attention to. “Didn’t Bai go hunting with you today?” he asked Lin Pingzhi after walking back to the living room.

“Yes, he did. He looked fine when we got back. Who’d think he would catch a deadly disease so unexpectedly,” Lin Pingzhi replied.

“Many things in this world are like that,” Lin Zhennan commented. “Whether good or evil, they always happen in an unexpected manner. I’ve always wanted to open the escort trail through the province of Szechwan. I thought it would have taken at least another ten years. Who would have expected that Master Yu would somehow be prompted by some sudden impulse to not only accept my gifts, but to also send four apprentices, such a long way, to thank us?”

“Father, although the Qingcheng Sword School is a well-renowned school, our Fortune Prestige Escort House is fairly famous, too. We have been sending gifts to Szechwan year after year; it’s only natural for Master Yu to send people our way to show his gratitude, as well.”

“What do you know?” Lin Zhennan chuckled. “Qingcheng and Emei have been around for hundreds of years. They’ve had many outstanding disciples in their schools. Maybe they aren’t as famous as Shaolin or Wutang,[15] but they certainly have enough fame to be placed next to Songshan, Taishan, Hengshan, Huashan, and Heng-Shan of the Five Mountains Sword Alliance.[16] Your great grandfather, Sir Yuantu, founded the seventy-two moves of ‘Evil-Resisting Sword Art.’ This set of sword techniques shocked the entire Martial Arts Society and gained him great fame. You can say that he had never met his match in swordplay. After this sword style was passed on to your grandfather, its eminence declined. It was then passed on to me, and I am afraid that it has declined, even more, in my hands. The Lin Family had only one child in each generation for the last three generations. We don’t even have any apprentices. With only you and me, we really don’t have the same kind of manpower that those other schools have.”

“We could gather all the people from our Escort Houses in the ten Provinces, then we could take on any of them – Shaolin, Wutang, Emei, Qingcheng, or the Five Mountains Sword Alliance,” Lin Pingzhi declared.

Lin Zhennan was amused. “Son, it’s alright to say something like that when you are talking to me. But if you had said those words to an outsider, you’d get into a lot of trouble. The eighty-four escorts we have at our ten Escort Houses each has his own specialties. Of course, when we all gather together, we aren’t afraid of anyone, but what do we gain by beating other people? It is well said that manners and amicability make great fortunes; this is especially true for us in the escort business. What are we going to lose by being humble, while the others go around showing off?”

“Oh no! Escort Zheng is dead too!” somebody suddenly yelled out from outside. Lin Zhennan and Lin Pingzhi were both dumbstruck.

Lin Pingzhi jumped out of his chair and muttered, “They’re back for re…!” It took him great effort to finally swallow the word “revenge” back down his throat. Lin Zhennan was already on his way out and didn’t catch what Lin Pingzhi had just said.

Henchman Chen rushed in and yelled incoherently, “Chief…Chief Master! Trouble! Escort Zheng…Escort Zheng’s spirit is possessed by the Szechwan demon, too.”

“Stop this nonsense! What Szechwan demon?” Lin Zhennan roared with a stern face.

“Sir! The demon…the man from Szechwan was already ferocious when he was alive, so of course he would be more terrifying after death…,” Chen said lamely. Seeing the Chief Master’s hard countenance, he dared not continue, and only looked to Lin Pingzhi with a mixed expression of fear and grief.

“Did you say Escort Zheng was dead? Where’s the body? How did he die?” Lin Zhennan asked impatiently.

Several more escorts and henchmen rushed into the hall. “Brother Zheng died in the stable,” one escort answered with a frown. “He died in exactly the same way as Henchman Bai. There wasn’t a single wound on his body, and no bleeding could be found from any aperture. No swelling on his face either. Maybe…maybe they became haunted by some kind of demon when they…when they went hunting with the Young Master.”

Lin Zhennan snorted. “I’ve lived all my life without ever seeing either a ghost or a demon. Let’s go have a look.” He walked out of the hall and into the stable.

Escort Zheng’s body lay on the ground, his hands still holding onto a saddle. Apparently, he had been taking the saddle off before his sudden demise. There was no sign of any struggle.

As it was already dark outside, Lin Zhennan asked a henchman to hold a lantern while he examined Escort Zheng. He carefully checked all parts of the corpse, including all the major bones, but failed to find any sign of injury – not even a broken finger. Lin Zhennan was not superstitious. When Bai had died suddenly, it was just a strange occurrence. Now, that Escort Zheng died in the exact same way, it had to be more than a coincidence. If they died of plague or some kind of disease, why were there no red or black spots on the bodies? Could the two deaths have been related to something that happened during his son’s hunting trip?

He turned around and asked Lin Pingzhi, “Besides Escort Zheng and Henchman Bai, it was just Escort Shi and he who went hunting with you, right?” He indicated Henchman Chen.

Lin Pingzhi nodded.

“You two come with me,” Lin Zhennan said firmly. Turning to another henchman, he instructed, “Go ask Escort Shi to report to the East Hall immediately. I want to have a word with him.”

Soon, the three arrived at the East Hall. “What really happened?” Lin Zhennan asked his son. Lin Pingzhi hastily confessed and told his father all about the trouble he had at the wine shop: how they went in for some drinks; how the two men from Szechwan accosted the girl, which resulted in the fight; how the fight broke out and the man attempted to push Lin’s head down to kowtow; how he pulled out a dagger and killed that person; how they buried the body in the back garden and gave old man Sa some silver to keep him quiet. He told everything there was to tell, without leaving anything out.

The more Lin Zhennan heard, the more concerned he became. But still, getting into a fight with an outsider and having it result in his death was not the end of the world. He listened to the whole story from his son stolidly. When Lin Pingzhi finished, he pondered in silence for a moment and then asked, “Did these two fellows ever mention which clan or gang they belonged to?”

“Not a word,” Lin Pingzhi answered quickly.

“When they spoke or did things, did you notice anything unusual?” Lin Zhennan inquired further.

“I didn’t see anything unusual. The fellow Yu….”

“Did you say the man’s name was Yu?” Lin Zhennan interrupted.

“Yes. I heard the other guy calling him Brother Yu. But it might have been something else. They had accents, so I couldn’t understand them too well.”

“It can’t be! It can’t be a coincidence. Master Yu said he was going to send someone over; how could they have arrived at Fuzhou so quickly? They don’t have wings,” Lin Zhennan shook his head and muttered to himself.

“Father, you don’t think those two were from the Qingcheng Sword School, do you?” Lin Pingzhi’s voice quivered.

Lin Zhennan did not answer; instead, he performed a move and asked, “When you attacked him using this move from the Universe Hands, how did he fend it off?”

“He couldn’t fend off that move, so I slapped him hard on the face,” Lin Pingzhi replied.

“Good! Very good! Excellent!” Lin Zhennan smiled.

The room had been filled with foreboding, but now that Lin Zhennan showed a smile, Lin Pingzhi felt quite relieved and could not help smiling himself.

“When you hit him with this move, how did he respond?” Lin Zhennan asked again, performing more different moves as he spoke.

“I was infuriated at the time, and can’t remember too well. I think I punched him in the chest,” Lin Pingzhi replied.

Hearing that, Lin Zhennan became even more relaxed. “Very good! Your move should have hit him that way. If he couldn’t even block a simple move like that, he couldn’t be a close relative to the famous Master Yu of the Qingcheng Sword School, Pine-Wind Temple.”

He kept saying “very good,” but he wasn’t complementing his son’s fighting skills; he was just relieved. There must be many people named Yu in the province of Szechwan; if this particular Yu could not even beat his son, he must have been a terrible fighter. Such a rotten fighter definitely had nothing to do with the Qingcheng Sword School. He kept tapping on the table with his right middle finger as he pondered upon the situation.

“How did he grab hold of your head?” he asked, and Lin Pingzhi demonstrated how he couldn’t move when his head was held.

Henchman Chen also felt much encouraged. “Bai was trying to poke him with a hunting fork,” he interrupted, “but the fork was knocked out by the guy’s back kick and then Bai was also kicked down.”

Lin Zhennan felt a shock run through his body. He asked immediately, “He kicked Bai with a back kick and then kicked the fork out of his hands? How…how did he perform those kicks?”

“It was something like this.” Chen grabbed the back of a chair and threw a reverse kick with his right foot, then jumped and threw another back kick with his left foot. These two kicks looked very clumsy, almost like a horse kicking back its hind legs. Lin Pingzhi watched the two clumsy kicks and could not help laughing. “Dad, see….” But then seeing the fearful expression on his father’s face, he stopped abruptly.

“These two kicks seem to be the unique Shadowless Kick maneuver of Qingcheng. Son, how did he perform the kicks exactly?” Lin Zhennan inquired.

“My head was held at that moment. I couldn’t see how he kicked,” Lin Pingzhi said.

“Of course! I’d better ask Escort Shi.” Lin Zhennan exited the room and yelled, “Where is Escort Shi? Why isn’t he here yet?”

Two henchmen came over and reported that nobody had yet to be able to find Escort Shi. Feeling the uneasiness growing inside him rapidly, Lin Zhennan paced up and down in the garden hall, thinking, “If the two kicks were indeed the Shadowless Kick technique, then even if the fellow was not a close relative of Master Yu, he must’ve had some kind of connection with the Qingcheng Sword School. If that’s the case, then who was he?” He finally decided to check it out himself. So he ordered the henchmen, “Go get Escort Cui and Escort Ji.”

Escorts Cui and Ji were the careful types, both experienced and prudent, and well trusted by Lin Zhennan. Having heard about the sudden death of Escort Zheng and the disappearance of Escort Shi, they were already waiting outside the hall. As soon as they heard their names called, both walked into the room.

“We need to go check something out,” Lin Zhennan explained. “Escort Cui, and Escort Ji, my son, and Chen, come with me.”

Lin Pingzhi leading the way, the group of five rode out of town, and headed north. Soon, they arrived at the small wine shop. The door of the shop was shut.

“Old man Sa, old man Sa! Open the door,” Lin Pingzhi pounded on the door and called out. He knocked and knocked, but there was no response.

Escort Cui signaled to Lin Zhennan, that they should bash down the door. After getting a nod from Lin Zhennan, he struck the door with both hands. With a resounding crack, the door’s bolt snapped, and the swinging doors squeaked back and forth on the rusty hinges.

Escort Cui pulled Lin Pingzhi to the side as soon as he forced the door open. They waited, until they were sure that there was no sound coming from within. Lighting a fire, they entered, and then lit an oil lamp sitting on the table along with two lanterns. They searched both the interior and exterior of the shop, yet could find no one. However, blankets, trunks, and other everyday accessories were still in the shop.

“The old fellow got scared. There was a murder here and the body was even buried right in the back garden. He was afraid of getting into trouble, so he just ran off,” Lin Zhennan said with a nod. Walked into the garden and pointed to a hoe that was leaning by the wall, he commanded, “Chen, dig the body up.”

Chen was nearly convinced that the whole crisis had been caused by demons, so after digging only a short while, he felt his limbs getting stiffer and stiffer. He felt so weak that his legs started to give out.

“Utterly useless! How can you even call yourself a henchman?” Escort Ji yelled at him sternly.

He handed his lantern to Chen, took the hoe from him, and then began digging. Not long after, the clothes of the dead body appeared. He dug a little deeper and then levering the hoe beneath the corpse, gave a strong tug. The body was lifted out of the hole.

Chen turned his head away, afraid to look. But gasps of shock suddenly came from the other four. Scared to death, Chen dropped the lantern. The light was extinguished and the garden was enveloped in complete darkness.

Lin Pingzhi’s voice quavered when he muttered uneasily, “We definitely buried the Szechwan guy’s body, how come…how come….”

“Light the lantern!” Lin Zhennan ordered. He had kept his calm since the strange events started to happen, but now there was fear in his voice.

Escort Cui lit the lantern. Lin Zhennan bent down to check on the body. Minutes later, he declared, “Same kind of death, not a single wound at all.”

Chen finally gathered enough courage to give a glance at the body, and then he screamed, “Escort Shi! It’s Escort Shi!” The body they had dug out was that of Escort Shi, and the corpse of the man from Szechwan had vanished.

“Something seems strange about this old man Sa,” Lin Zhennan said. He grabbed the lantern and hurried back into the room, looking over everything very carefully. But he couldn’t find anything unusual, even after looking at everything in the room – in the wine jugs, underneath the stoves, in the iron pot, under the table and chairs. Escorts Cui and Ji, and Lin Pingzhi also began examining the different rooms.

“Father, come here and look at this,” Lin Pingzhi shouted out suddenly.

Following the sound of his son’s voice, Lin Zhennan found Lin Pingzhi in the girl’s bedroom holding a green handkerchief in his hand.

“Father, how could a poor girl have a handkerchief like this?” Lin Pingzhi asked, his voice quavered with excitement.

Lin Zhennan took the handkerchief from Lin Pingzhi’s hands and examined it carefully. A trace of some kind of light but sweet scent soon caught his attention. The handkerchief was very soft and smooth, yet also quite heavy. It was obviously made from high-quality silk. When he looked at it more carefully, he found three levels of green thread sealing the edges of the handkerchief. In one corner, a small red coral branch was embroidered in great detail.

“Where did you find this?” Lin Zhennan asked.

“It fell underneath the corner of the bed. Maybe they didn’t see it, when they packed and left in such a hurry,” Lin Pingzhi suggested.

Lin Zhennan put his lantern close to the bed and searched, but found nothing else. He muttered, “You said that the girl was very ugly. I suppose she wasn’t wearing very expensive clothing, but was she dressed very neatly?”

“I didn’t pay much attention. I am sure her dress wasn’t filthy, because I would have noticed when she poured wine for me,” Lin Pingzhi replied eagerly.

“Brother Cui, what do you think?” Lin Zhennan turned to Escort Cui.

“I think this old man and the young girl must be involved with the deaths of Escorts Shi and Zheng, and Henchman Bai. It’s even possible that they were the actual killers,” Escort Cui concluded.

“The two fellows from Szechwan must have been in on it too; otherwise, why would they move the dead body?” Escort Ji added.

“But that fellow Yu was harassing the girl. I wouldn’t have called him names, otherwise. They can’t be working together,” Lin Pingzhi objected.

“Young Master,” Escort Cui explained, “you may not realize it, but we are living in a very dangerous world, and that people may intentionally set traps in which others may fall. It happens all the time. Two people pretend to fight, and when someone comes to try and separate them, the two will suddenly turn on him.”

“Chief Master, what’s your opinion on this?” Escort Ji asked.

“The old man and the young girl must have come for us. I am just not sure if those two fellows from Szechwan were in league with them,” Lin Zhennan replied.

“Father, didn’t you say that the Master Yu of Pine-Wind Temple sent four people over. There…there were exactly four people,” Lin Pingzhi muttered restlessly.

These words struck Lin Zhennan like a hammer. “The Fortune Prestige Escort House has always shown great respect to the Qingcheng Sword School, and has never done anything to displease them. Why would Master Yu send people to stir up trouble? Why?!” he muttered to himself.

The four just looked at each other in silence; no one could think of anything to say. After a long while, Lin Zhennan finally spoke.

“Let’s move Escort Shi’s body inside first. When we get back to the Escort House, don’t mention this to anyone. We don’t want the authorities to know about this and cause any unnecessary trouble. Humph, the Lin family respects others and wants no trouble, but that doesn’t mean we are cowards who don’t fight back.”

“Chief Master,” Escort Ji agreed heartily, “like the old saying goes, ‘Keeping an army for a year just for one battle.’ All of us will fight for the honor of the Escort House.”

“Many thanks!” Lin Zhennan nodded.

The party headed back to town. Just when they were about to reach the Escort House, they saw a big crowd gathering in front of the gate. Countless torches lit the street, turning the night into day. Lin Zhennan’s heart missed a beat. He rushed forward.

“Chief Master is back!” several people cried out.

Lin Zhennan dismounted his horse and saw that his wife, Madam Wang, was extremely angry.

“Look! Humph, someone is trying to challenge us in our home,” she exclaimed.

A pair of broken poles lay in the street; each had a flag attached to the end. These were the flags of the Escort House; someone had cut down the two flagpoles and left them lying on the ground. The broken ends had very smooth cuts, apparently were cut down with a very sharp blade.

Madam Wang was not carrying a weapon, so she drew Lin Zhennan’s long sword out from the sheath at his waist. With two sharp tearing sounds, she cut the two flags from the broken flagpoles. Picking the flags up, she went inside through the gate.

“Escort Cui, cut the stumps of the two flagpoles down,” Lin Zhennan instructed. “Humph, it won’t be an easy task to take down the Fortune Prestige Escort House!”

“Yes, sir,” Escort Cui answered.

“Damn them! What a bunch of cowards they are, only daring to play these dirty tricks when the Chief Master is not at home,” Escort Ji cursed.

Lin Zhennan beckoned to his son and the two went into the house while Escort Ji poured out even more profanities. The father and son went into the East Hall. Madam Wang had already spread the flags on two tables. On one of the flags, the eyes of the yellow lion had been cut out, leaving two empty holes. On the other flag, the word “Prestige” had been cut out from the name “Fortune Prestige Escort House.”

Lin Zhennan was a patient man with an even temper, but even he could not stand these insults any longer. He struck the table with a resounding blow. One leg of the sandalwood table broke with a crack.

“Father, it’s…my entire fault. I got the family into this situation!” Lin Pingzhi trembled.

“Yes, the Lin family has killed someone, and so what? If I ever saw a punk like him, I’d kill him too!” Lin Zhennan roared.

“Who got killed?” Madam Wang asked in surprise.

“Pingzhi, tell your mother about it,” Lin Zhennan said.

So Lin Pingzhi told Madam Wang everything that had happened: How he killed the man from Szechwan, how they found the body of Escort Shi in the garden of the wine shop, and so forth.

Madam Wang had heard about the mysterious deaths of Henchman Bai and Escort Zheng. At the news of the death of Escort Shi, she exploded.

“Husband, how can we let others push the Fortune Prestige Escort House around like this? Let’s gather our people and go seek justice from the Qingcheng Sword School in Szechwan. We can also invite my father and my brothers to join us.”

Since her youth, Madam Wang was known for having a bad temper. As a maiden, she had no qualms with pulling out a knife for even the smallest of disagreements. Her family, the Golden Blade Wang Family, was a large and powerful family in the city of Luoyang. Everyone would defer to her, out of respect for her father, the Unbeatable Golden Blade, Wang Yuanba. Even now, after her son had grown up, her hot temper had not improved much.

“We are still not sure who our enemy is. It might not even be the Qingcheng Sword School. But whoever they are, I doubt they’d stop at two broken flagpoles and two dead escorts…,” Lin Zhennan replied when he was suddenly interrupted by the bellowing voice of Madam Wang.

“What else do they want?”

Lin Zhennan cast a side-glance at Lin Pingzhi and Madam Wang understood instantly. Her heart started pumping fiercely, and her face paled from fear.

“I caused all the trouble. A true man would take full responsibility for his own action. I won’t…won’t be afraid.” Lin Pingzhi’s words were brave enough, but the trembling voice gave him away.

“Humph, they’ll have to pass through me first before they can get to you,” Madam Wang exclaimed. “The banner of the Fortune Prestige Escort House has been held high for three generations. We’ve never lost our glory.” She turned to Lin Zhennan. “If we can’t even settle this little problem, what good are we? How can we look at ourselves in the mirror for the rest of our lives?”

Lin Zhennan nodded to Madam Wang in agreement. “I’ll send people to search the town for new faces. Meanwhile, I’ll have more people on patrol around the Escort House. You wait here with Pingzhi. Don’t let him run around by himself.”

“Yes, I understand!” Madam Wang acknowledged.

The couple both understood well that Lin Pingzhi would undoubtedly become the next target. The enemy was hidden in the dark and they themselves were exposed under the light. Even if Lin Pingzhi only stepped out of the Escort House for a minute, he would be in great danger.

Lin Zhennan walked to the Main Hall and gathered the escorts, sending some people to go check out the town, and instructing the rest to patrol the Escort House. All the escorts had heard about the situation. The flagpole of the Escort House being cut down was a slap in the face of each and every one. Infuriated, they had already dressed themselves in uniforms and taken up arms. Upon the command from the Chief Master, they instantly obeyed the order whole-heartedly.

Lin Zhennan felt a measure of relief as he witnessed the entire Escort House working in unison, preparing to defend the honor of the Escort House. Walking back inside, he spoke to Lin Pingzhi.

“Pingzhi, your mom hasn’t been well for the last couple of days. The enemy will be soon coming; why don’t you move into the room outside her bedroom to guard her?”

“I don’t need…,” Madam Wang rejected, but before finishing the sentence, she suddenly realized what her husband had really meant. He wasn’t asking their son to guard her; instead, he was really trying to have their son close by, so they could protect him. Their son was a young man with very sensitive pride. If they had asked him to hide behind them, he would probably feel humiliated, and go straight out to challenge the enemy to a fight. That would be too dangerous! So she immediately swallowed the second half of the sentence down her throat.

“That’s right, Pingzhi. Mom is having joint problems these days; both my arms and legs feel weak. Your father needs to take care of the Escort House and can’t be accompanying me all the time. If the enemy gets in, I won’t be able to fight them off.”

“I’ll stay with you,” Lin Pingzhi stated without hesitation.

That night Lin Pingzhi slept on the bed just outside his parents’ room. The couple left the door open. Placing their weapons right next to their pillows, they slept dressed, so that they could jump up to fight at any time.

The night passed, uneventfully, until dawn, when someone outside the window called in a low voice, “Young Master? Young Master!”

Lin Pingzhi had not been able to sleep for the most of the night, and had just fallen asleep, so he didn’t wake up.

“What’s the matter?” Lin Zhennan asked.

“The Young Master’s horse…the horse is dead!” the man outside answered. Lin Pingzhi loved his horse very much, so as soon as the horse’s groom found out about the calamity, he rushed to tell Lin Pingzhi.

Roused by the words, Lin Pingzhi sat up in bed. “Let me go look.”

Lin Zhennan knew that once again, something had gone terribly wrong, so he hurried to the stable with Lin Pingzhi. The body of the horse lay on the ground. It had been dead for quite some time. As happened before, there was not a single wound on the corpse.

“Did you hear any noise last night?” Lin Zhennan asked.

“No, sir!” the groom answered.

“Don’t get upset. I’ll see to it that you receive another good colt.” Lin Zhennan patted Lin Pingzhi gingerly on the shoulder, as Lin Pingzhi quietly caressed the horse’s corpse, tears emerging from his eyes.

All of a sudden, Henchman Chen burst into the stables shouting in panic, “Chief…Chief Master, it’s terrible…horrible! All those escorts…the escorts were killed by the demon!”

“What did you say?” Lin Zhennan and Lin Pingzhi asked in unison, their voices filled with incredulity.

“Dead, all dead!” Henchman Chen kept muttering uncontrollably.

“Who is dead?” Lin Pingzhi demanded angrily. He grabbed Chen’s collar and shook him hard.

“Young…Young Master…dead!” Chen mumbled dazedly.

Hearing the words “Young Master dead,” Lin Zhennan was most disturbed. But he did not want to yell at Chen for saying those ominous words, afraid to show his uneasiness.

“Where’s the Chief Master? We’d better report this to him fast,” a man’s urgent voice floated in from the outside. “The demon is so vicious, what…what can we do?” another voice asked timidly.

“I am over here! What’s going on?” Lin Zhennan shouted loudly toward them, who, in turn, rushed over. It was an escort, followed by three henchmen.

“Chief Master, not a single escort we sent out, made it back,” the leading escort said.

Lin Zhennan had expected news of someone’s death when he heard the commotion. But he had sent out a total of twenty-three escorts and henchmen to gather information last night; how could all of them have been wiped out?

“Well, are you sure they’re dead?” he asked hurriedly. “Maybe they’re still investigating and just haven’t gotten back in time.”

The escort shook his head. “We have already found seventeen bodies….”

“Seventeen bodies?” Lin Zhennan and Lin Pingzhi cried out in unison.

Fear written all over his face, the escort confirmed with a nod. “Yes, seventeen bodies. Among them were Escorts Fu, Qian, and Wu. All of the bodies are in the Front Hall at this very moment.”

Without saying another word, Lin Zhennan hurried to the Front Hall. All the tables and chairs in the hall had been moved against the walls, and seventeen bodies lay on the floor in no particular order. Although Lin Zhennan was not a novice when it came to handling difficulties, when he took in the situation at the horrible scene, his hands could not help trembling and his knees almost gave out.

“Why…Why…Why?” he muttered, his voice so dry that the others could barely hear him.

“Alas, Escort Gao was an honest and diligent man, who’d expect that the demon would not spare him, either.” Voices came from outside the Front Hall, and seconds later, five neighbors walked into the front hall, carrying a door plank. A dead body lay on top of it.

“When I opened my door this morning, I saw him, lying dead in the middle of the street,” one of the neighbors explained. “I recognized him as Escort Gao from your Escort House. I figured he probably had some kind of plague, so I asked a couple of neighbors to help me carry him back to your Escort House.”

“Many thanks! Many thanks!” Lin Zhennan cupped his hands[17] and bowed. Turning toward a henchman standing by the side, he instructed, “Give three taels of silver to each of these wonderful neighbors. You can go to the bookkeeper to get the money.”

Frightened by all the dead bodies in the hall, the neighbors thanked Lin Zhennan and hurried away, and before long, the bodies of four more escorts were sent back. Lin Zhennan counted the bodies and came to a total of twenty-two. Escort Zhu’s was the only one not among them, but it might not be long, before his body would be found, somewhere.

Lin Zhennan walked back to the East Hall. Pouring a cup of hot tea for himself, he tried to calm down, but that didn’t help. Still feeling completely dumbfounded, he walked out of the gate and looked around. The stumps of the two broken flagpoles had been taken away, but he found himself even more disturbed. The foes had killed over twenty people in the Escort House, but had never actually shown themselves; they never formally announced their intentions, nor did they reveal their true identities. He turned around and glared at the big sign bearing the golden words “Fortune Prestige Escort House,” thinking, “The Fortune Prestige Escort House has been renowned for decades. Will it come to ruin in my hands?” Then he heard the sound of hoof beats approaching from the street. A horse slowly trotted toward the Escort House, and a man lay slumped back in the saddle. Lin Zhennan walked to the horse, and he wasn’t surprised to see, that it was Escort Zhu. The enemy must have killed him and just left the body on the horse. The horse remembered the way home and came back, all by itself.

Lin Zhennan let out a deep sigh, as tears poured down his face and fell on the body of Escort Zhu. “Brother Zhu,” he carried the body into the hall, murmuring, “if I can’t avenge you, I’d rather die. Why…why did you leave so hurriedly without even telling us the name of your killer?”

Escort Zhu was just a regular escort in the Escort House, and not particularly close to Lin Zhennan. Lin Zhennan’s tears were shed more out of frustration than from the sadness at losing a friend.

Madam Wang stood in front of the hall holding her golden saber in her left hand. Pointing at the courtyard with her right hand, she shouted challengingly.

“You cursed murderers! Why are you hiding yourselves and sneaking around? If you are real men, I dare you to come to the Fortune Prestige Escort House and fight a real fight. Aren’t you afraid of being looked down by doing all of this sneaking around?”

“Did you see anything?” Lin Zhennan asked his wife in a whisper as he placed Escort Zhu’s body down on the ground.

“No, I didn’t see anything,” Madam Wang growled. “These rotten lowlifes must be frightened of our Lin Family’s seventy-two moves of the Evil-Resisting Sword Art.” She waved the saber in the air and continued, “They are frightened of the golden saber in my hand, too!”

Suddenly, sound of snickering rose from a corner of the roof, and then with a hiss of wind, an object zipped through the air and struck the spine of the golden saber. Madam Wang felt a shock run through her arm and had to let go of the weapon. The saber flew into the air and landed in the middle of the courtyard.

Wasting no time, Lin Zhennan unsheathed his sword and jumped up to the roof, and with a move called Cast Upon Demons, the tip of his sword danced like the scatter of falling petals and flew toward the origin of the attack. Having not been able to face his enemies, he found his anger growing for the past couple of days and now reaching a point of explosion. Sparing no strength, he attacked with full force. But the attack hit nothing. The corner of the roof was completely empty, with not even a shadow. He jumped onto the roof of the east room, but found no one there, either.

Madam Wang and Lin Pingzhi also jumped up to the roof with their weapons drawn. Filled with fury, Madam Wang snarled.

“Damn you! You son of a dog! Be a man, come out and fight. Are you scared? What kind of shameless cowards are you?”

“Where did that son of a dog go? Who was he?” she asked Lin Zhennan.

Lin Zhennan shook his head. “Keep your voice down,” he whispered.

The three searched the entire roof and then jumped back down to the courtyard.

“What hit your saber?” Lin Zhennan asked in a low voice.

“Damn that son of a dog! I don’t know,” Madam Wang snapped.

They searched the courtyard but could find neither darts nor other missiles. The only thing they were able to find were small grains of bricks spread over the floor under the osmanthus tree. Obviously the attacker had hit Madam Wang’s saber with just a small piece of brick, and it was quite frightening to imagine that such a small piece of brick could have carried such great power. Seeing the fragments of brick, Madam Wang stopped cursing. Her anger was quenched, and completely replaced with fear. She froze for a moment, and then walked into the room, silently.

After the husband and son entered, Madam Wang shut the door behind them. “The enemy is too skillful. We’re not in the same class. What…what shall we…?” she whispered nervously.

“We can ask for help from friends. It’s perfectly normal for people to help each other in a time of need,” Lin Zhennan replied.

“We have many true friends that we can trust, but how many of them can fight better than we can? The ones that are no better than us won’t be any help anyway,” Madam Wang questioned.

“Yes, you are right,” Lin Zhennan admitted, “but the more people, the more brain power. It might not be a bad idea to ask them for ideas.”

“Fine! Who do you think we should ask?” Madam Wang asked.

“Let’s get friends who live close by, first,” Lin Zhennan suggested. “I will transfer all the elite fighters from our Escort Houses in Hangzhou, Nanchang and Guangzhou, and also invite famous Kung-Fu masters in our province and the neighboring three provinces.”

“Don’t you think that would hurt the reputation of the Fortune Prestige Escort House?” Madam Wang frowned.

“Wife, you are thirty-nine years old this year, right?” Lin Zhennan suddenly asked out of the blue.

“Why are you suddenly asking about my age? I was born in the year of the Tiger,[18] don’t you remember how old I am?” Madam Wang spat at him.

“I’ll be sending out invitations for your fortieth birthday party…,” Lin Zhennan said when Madam Wang quickly cut him short grouchily.

“Why the hell are you so interested in seeing me get a year older? You think I’m not old enough already?”

“You’re not old at all! You don’t even have a single gray hair.” Lin Zhennan shook his head. “I am using your fortieth birthday as an excuse, so when we invite relatives and friends over, we won’t rouse any suspicion. When everybody arrives, we shall only tell our close friends the true story, then there will be no damage to our reputation,” he explained.

Madam Wang thought about it for a while and finally agreed. “Very well! It is your decision. But what do I get for a birthday present?”

“A big one! Let’s have a cute, fat, baby boy next year!” Lin Zhennan whispered in her ear.

“Bah, you old goat! Still talking nonsense in such a crisis.” Madam Wang’s face went scarlet, and she spat at her husband half in annoyance.

Lin Zhennan grinned, and then left for the bookkeeper’s office so he could arrange to have the invitations sent out. The joke was just to ease his wife’s fear; he, himself, was still deeply worried. “Water a mile away can not put out a fire at hand. Terrible things will most probably happen again in the Escort House this very night. When our friends arrive, there might not be a Fortune Prestige Escort House waiting for them,” he thought to himself.

When Lin Zhennan arrived at the door of the bookkeeper’s office, he was greeted by two very frightened servants.

“Chief…Chief…Chief Master…something horrible…horrible has happened,” one of them mumbled in a trembling voice,

“What’s the matter?” Lin Zhennan asked.

“Bookkeeper Mr. Dong just sent Lin Fu to go buy some coffins, and right…right after he turned the corner on East Street, he fell to the ground dead,” said the servant fearfully.

“What? Where’s the body?”

“Still lying on the street.”

“Go bring the body back here,” Lin Zhennan directed. “Now, our enemies are becoming more reckless. They even dare to commit murder in broad daylight, and right in the middle of the street,” he thought aloud.

“Yes, sir…yes, sir…!” the two servants answered, but neither of them moved an inch.

“Well?” Lin Zhennan roared.

“Chief Master, you’d better go have…have a look…at….”

Lin Zhennan knew something bizarre must have just happened again. He gave a snort and walked toward the gate. Three escorts and five henchmen were already there. They stared through the gate, all looking very frightened.

“What’s going on?” Lin Zhennan demanded, and then saw for himself before anybody had a chance to answer. At about ten paces from the gate, an inch wide line was drawn on the stone slab street in blood. Words also written in blood next to the line read, “Cross the Line and Die.”

“When was this drawn? Did anyone see who did it?” asked Lin Zhennan immediately.

“Earlier, when Lin Fu died on East Street, everybody was crowded around him to see what was happening. There was no one here. I don’t know who would do such a thing,” an escort answered.

Lin Zhennan raised his voice and said loudly, “I, Lin Zhennan, am tired of living; I’d like to see how I’m going to die, after I cross this line.” He strode out of the gate.

“Chief Master!” Two of the escorts cried out.

Lin Zhennan waved them off and stepped over the line. The blood used to draw the line and the words was still wet. He scuffed the words out with the bottom of his shoes and then went back through the gate.

“This is just an attempt to scare us,” he said to the three escorts. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Brothers, would you please first go to the coffin shop, and then make a visit to the Heavenly-Peace Temple in the west end of town to have the monks come over for a mass to calm the souls, deliver them from the purgatory, and drive away the evil spirits?”

The three escorts watched the Chief Master stepping over the bloody line with their own eyes. Seeing that no harm had befallen him, they were quite relieved. After getting their weapons, they walked out the gate side by side. Lin Zhennan watched them stepping over the bloody line and rounding the corner of the street. He waited a little bit longer and then went back into the house.

Walking into the bookkeeper’s office, Lin Zhennan said to Bookkeeper Huang, “Mr. Huang, will you please write some invitations to some relatives and friends for a wine party in honor of my wife’s birthday?”

“Of course, sir! And which day would that be?” Bookkeeper Huang asked.

Suddenly, sounds of running steps came from outside. A man rushed in through the gate. Lin Zhennan stuck his head out and heard a loud thud. Someone had fallen. Hurrying toward the place from which the sound came, Lin Zhennan saw Escort Di, one of the three escorts he just sent to the coffin shop, laying on the ground. He was barely alive.

“Brother Di, are you alright?” Lin Zhennan held him in his arms and asked frantically.

“They’re all dead, I…I…I ran back,” Escort Di gasped.

“Who did this to you?”

“Don’t…don’t know…don’t know….” Then after a couple of shudders, Escort Di lay still.

Within minutes, everyone in the Escort House heard the news. Madam Wang and Lin Pingzhi both came out and all they heard from the crowd was: “Cross the Line and Die.”

“I’ll retrieve the bodies of the other two escorts,” Lin Zhennan said with determination.

“Chief…Chief Master…you can’t go,” Bookkeeper Huang muttered. “Great courage brings great rewards. Thirty taels of silver for the one that…that brings the bodies back.” He made the announcement three times, but no one answered.

“Where is Pingzhi? Pingzhi? Pingzhi?” Madam Wang suddenly shrieked frantically, her voice filled with fear.

“Young Master! Young Master!” everyone started calling together with Madam Wang.

“I am here!” Lin Pingzhi’s voice floated in from outside the gate.

With a surge of relieved happiness, everyone rushed to the gate, and rounding the street corner was Lin Pingzhi, with a body over each shoulder – he had carried back the two dead escorts. With weapons in their hands, Lin Zhennan and Madam Wang both rushed over the bloodline to guard Lin Pingzhi’s back.

“What a brave young man the Young Master is! He has great courage!” all the escorts and henchmen cheered, while Lin Zhennan and Madam Wang were both filled with pride for their son.

“Child, that was too reckless. These two escorts were good friends, but they were dead, already. It wasn’t worth the risk,” Madam Wang said reprovingly.

Lin Pingzhi managed a smile, but deep inside, he was miserable. “The whole affair is my fault,” he thought to himself. “It is all because I couldn’t contain myself and killed that guy; so many people have died because of me. If I only worry about my own life like a coward, how can I bear to ever look at myself again?”

“Unbelievable, Mr. Hua is dead too!” Suddenly shouts came from the back room.

“What happened?” Lin Zhennan shouted as the steward of the Escort House walked out in quick trots.

“Chief Master,” the steward said fearfully, “Mr. Hua went out the back door to shop for some vegetables, and he just dropped dead about ten paces out the back door. There are the same…the same words in blood.”

Mr. Hua was just a cook in the Escort House. His cooking skills were top notch; he was quite famous for his White-Gourd Pot, Buddha Over the Wall,[19] Pickled Fish, and Fish-wrap Wonton. He was Lin Zhennan’s secret weapon when he wanted to socialize with local officials and rich business owners.

Hua was only a cook, neither an escort, nor a henchman. It was an unwritten rule that wagon-pullers, sedan-carriers, grooms, and porters were to be left alone when bandits raided escort convoys. With enemies so ruthless, it would probably result in a massacre of the entire Escort House. Lin Zhennan shivered at the thought.

“Don’t be afraid.” He tried to calm everyone. “Humph, these damn bandits only have the guts to attack when one is off guard. You’ve all seen the Young Master, Madam Wang, and I step across the line. What did those damn thugs do? Nothing? They dared do nothing.”

Everybody agreed obsequiously, yet no one dared to step out of the gate. Lin Zhennan and Madam Wang frowned at each other and neither had any idea of what to do.

That night Lin Zhennan scheduled the escorts to guard the Escort House, but when he checked upon them, he found no one on duty. All the escorts just huddled within the hall. When they saw the Chief Master, all stood up looking embarrassed, yet no one wanted to move. Lin Zhennan knew that the enemy was just too vicious, and after the deaths of so many people, he still had not come up with a solution. No wonder everyone was so scared. So he uttered a few words of comfort, ordered servants to bring wine and dishes to the hall, and then drank together with the escorts. Greatly worried, each one just drank the wine silently, and no one talked much. Not long after, many became drunk and fell asleep.

The following noon, several horses suddenly thundered out of the Escort House. After a short investigation, Lin Zhennan found that five escorts simply could not bear the stress and had fled without notice. He shook his head and sighed.

“When trouble comes, each bird will fly in its own direction. I can no longer take care of each of you, brothers. If you feel like leaving, please go ahead,” he declared.

Some escorts started berating the five for lack of loyalty, while some others kept their silence and only sighed. They were probably wishing that they had fled as well.

Near dusk, five horses came back with five bodies. The five escorts, who wanted to escape, only ended up losing their lives before everyone else.

Lin Pingzhi was enraged. Sword in hands, he dashed out of the gate and stood three paces beyond the line of blood, yelling, “A true man would take full responsibility for his own actions. I, Lin Pingzhi, killed Yu from Szechwan. It has nothing to do with anyone else. If you want your revenge, come to me. Stab me through the heart and slice me up! I won’t complain. But you keep killing innocent people; what kind of monster does something like that? Lin Pingzhi stands before you. Come and kill me if you dare! If you are too scared to come out, then you are just a pack of craven weaklings; you son of a dog.” The sound of his voice escalated, becoming louder and louder. Tearing open his shirt and exposing his chest, he pounded his own chest, shouting, “Come out and put your knife right through here! I am a real man and I am not afraid of death! Why are you so scared to stand in front of me face to face? You damn cowards! You filthy monsters!” His eyes turned red from his anger as he struck his own chest heavily.

Many bystanders watched him from far away, but no one wanted to come near the Escort House. Hearing their son shouting, Lin Zhennan and his wife both rushed out of the gate. Their anger and frustration had been steadily building over the last couple of days. The anger finally exploded, and they too began to pour streams of abuse at their unknown enemies.

The escorts looked at each other with admiration for the courage of the three. They felt no surprise that their Chief Master and his wife would shout defiance at their enemies, since the Chief Master was an outstanding man and Madame was a brave woman, but the Young Master looked as fragile as a girl, making him seem that much more heroic for his fearlessness.

The three shouted for a good long while, but were only rewarded with silence.

“‘Cross the Line and Die?’ I just crossed the line, what are you going to do?” Lin Pingzhi yelled out loud. He walked over the line again and stood straight with pride, sword in hand.

“Yes, yes. These damn thugs only bully the weak but fear the strong. They don’t even have the guts to come and face my son,” Madam Wang said to Lin Pingzhi tenderly. She grabbed his hand and dragged him back into the gate.

Lin Pingzhi was still trembling with fiery anger. After going back to the bedroom, he could no longer hold his tears back. Bending over the bed, he started to cry.

“Son, you are very brave. You are a true man of the Lin family. There’s nothing we can do if the enemy doesn’t have the guts to face us openly. Why don’t you go take a rest?” Lin Zhennan patted him on the head, trying to comfort him, but Lin Pingzhi continued to cry until he finally dozed off.

After dinner, Lin Pingzhi overheard his parents talking. It was something about some escorts, who were talking about digging a tunnel out from the back garden. This way, they could escape without crossing the line of blood. If they were trapped in the Escort House, all of them would die, sooner or later.

“If they want to dig a tunnel out, let them,” Madam Wang sniffed, “but I am afraid…afraid that…Humph!”

Lin Zhennan and Lin Pingzhi both understood what she meant. The escorts would most likely end up just like the five escorts who tried to ride away – losing their lives earlier, rather than later.

“Why don’t I go have a look? If it really works, then it might be a good way for all the escorts and henchmen to escape,” Lin Zhennan said. He went out, but soon returned, saying, “They were just talking about it, but no one really dared to dig.”

That night, the three went to bed very early. Everyone in the Escort House had resigned themselves to their fates, and no one cared to stand guard for the night.

Lin Pingzhi slept till about midnight, when he suddenly felt somebody patting his shoulder. He jumped up and instantly reached for the sword under his pillow. Then he heard his mother’s voice.

“Pingzhi, it’s me. Your father has been gone for a good while and still hasn’t returned. Let’s go look for him.”

“Where did Dad go?” Lin Pingzhi asked in surprise.

“I don’t know!” Madam Wang replied.

The two grabbed their weapons and walked out of the room. They first peeked into the big hall, only to find that it was filled with candlelight and a dozen gambling escorts. Everyone had his heart in his throat for the last couple of days; finally realizing there was really nothing to do to improve the situation, they just stopped worrying about their safety. Madam Wang gestured Lin Pingzhi to follow her, and then left.

The mother and son looked everywhere, but still couldn’t find Lin Zhennan. They became more and more worried, but were afraid to alert the household. The news of the Chief Master’s disappearance at a time when everyone was scared to death would be disastrous. The situation would be completely out of control.

The two searched all the way to the rear of the Escort House, when Lin Pingzhi suddenly heard a faint noise come from the armory to the left. Fluttering candlelight shone from behind the window. Walking quietly by the window, he poked a hole in the paper[20] with his fingertip, and looked inside; then he called out happily.

“Dad, there you are!”

Lin Zhennan was hunched over something shielded by his body. When he heard the call, he turned his head back. Lin Pingzhi’s smile froze when he saw the terrified expression on his father’s face. His heart started thumping hard, and he just froze there, mouth wide open.

Madam Wang pushed the door open and went in. There was blood everywhere. Three benches were put together side by side and a body lay across them. The body was completely stripped, and the chest and belly were cut open. Madam Wang looked at the face and recognized it as Escort Huo, one of the five escorts who rode away and then was carried back dead. Lin Pingzhi walked in and closed the door behind him.

Removing the bloody heart from the chest cavity and holding it in his hand, Lin Zhennan exclaimed, “The heart was crushed to pieces. Just as I expected, it was…it was….”

Madam Wang completed the sentence for him, “It was the Heart Crushing Palm technique of the Qingcheng Sword School!”

Lin Zhennan nodded and then lowered his head in silence.

By then Lin Pingzhi finally understood that his father was performing an autopsy on the body, to try to determine the cause of the death.

Lin Zhennan put the heart back in its cavity, wrapped the body with oilskin, and then placed it in a corner. He wiped the blood off his hands with the oilskin and went back to the bedroom with his wife and son.

“The enemy is definitely an elite master hand from the Qingcheng Sword School. Wife, what do you think we should do?” he asked.

“The whole trouble started because of me, I’ll go challenge him to a fight. If I can’t win, then just let him kill me,” Lin Pingzhi bellowed.

Lin Zhennan shook his head. “This person can crush someone’s heart into pieces with a single hit without leaving any sign of damage to the body. His Kung Fu skills are remarkable. He must be a first-class master in the Qingcheng Sword School. If he had wanted to kill you, you’d be dead long ago. I think he is being deliberately cruel. He’s not just simply going to kill us.”

“What does he want?” Lin Pingzhi asked.

“He wants to play with us, like a cat plays with mice. He wants to see us squirm, until we are all frightened to death, and that’s when he will be satisfied,” Lin Zhennan answered.

“Humph, how dare this son of a dog show such disrespect to our Fortune Prestige Escort House,” Lin Pingzhi barked.

“He is surely looking down upon the Fortune Prestige Escort House,” Lin Zhennan stated.

“Perhaps, he is afraid of the seventy-two moves of Father’s Evil-Resisting Sword Art. Otherwise, why does he never dare to fight face to face with Father, and only sneaks around, stabbing people in the back?”

“Pingzhi,” Lin Zhennan said as he shook his head slightly. “Your father’s Evil-Resisting Sword Art is well and fine for dealing with regular gangsters. But this man’s Heart Crushing Palm Kung Fu is much better than mine. I…I don’t normally give up so easily, but after seeing Escort Huo’s heart, I…I…well.”

Seeing the dark expression that clouded his father’s face, Lin Pingzhi did not say another word.

“Since the enemy is so powerful, a real man should be ready to swallow his pride, so why don’t we just hide from him for a little while,” Madam Wang suggested.

“That’s what I have in mind, too,” Lin Zhennan nodded.

“Let’s head out to Luoyang tonight,” Madam Wang said. “Fortunately, we know who the enemy is now. It is never too late for revenge, even if we have to wait for ten years.”

“That’s right! Father-in-law has friends all over. He will be able to come up with a solution. Let’s pack now and we’ll leave right away,” Lin Zhennan said.

“If we leave, who’s going to take care of the people in the Escort House?” Lin Pingzhi asked.

“The enemy has no score to settle with them. After we leave, all the others in the Escort House will actually be safer,” Lin Zhennan explained.

Lin Pingzhi thought aloud, “That’s very true! The enemy had killed so many people in the Escort House, all because of me. After I leave, the enemy will just leave all the escorts and henchmen alone.” So he went back to his room to pack. He looked at all his robes and toys; afraid that the foes might just burn the Escort House to the ground, he could not bear to part with any of them, so even though he already had packed two big bags, he still felt that there were too many things left behind. He picked up a jade horse statue on the table with his left hand, and then grabbed a leopard fur with his right hand, a fur that was skinned from a leopard he had killed, himself. Carrying all the bags, he strode to his parents’ room.

When Madam Wang saw him, she couldn’t help grinning.

“We are escaping, not moving. What are you going to do with all this stuff?” she asked amusedly.

Lin Zhennan sighed and shook his head, thinking to himself, “Although we’ve been a Martial Arts family for generations, our son is so used to living in ease and comfort that except for the Kung Fu he has learned, he is no different from any rich, profligate son. Now, when a sudden misfortune has forced us to run away in a hurry, how can I blame him?” Love and tender affection welled up in his heart, and he could not help but try to comfort his son.

“Grandfather’s house has everything you need. Don’t bring so much stuff. All we need to bring is enough silver, gold, and valuable jewelry. On our way, we’ll be passing by our Escort House branches in Jiangxi, Hunan and Hubei. Do you think that we have to beg the whole way? The lighter the pack, the better. The less you carry, the easier it is to move about when you fight.”

At those words, Lin Pingzhi had no choice but to put down the packages.

“Which way shall we take, dashing out the front gate or sneaking out from the back?” Madam Wang asked.

But Lin Zhennan didn’t answer. He sat down in the armchair, closed his eyes and began smoking his pipe. A while later, he opened his eyes.

“Pingzhi, go tell everyone in the Escort House to pack their belongings and get ready to leave by dawn tomorrow morning. Ask the bookkeepers to distribute money to them. After the plague is over, then we’ll all come back.”

“Yes, Father!” Lin Pingzhi answered, feeling a bit surprised that his father had changed his mind all of a sudden.

“Are you asking everybody to just break up in chaos? Who’s going to watch the Escort House then?” Madam Wang was also confused.

“There’s no need to watch the house anymore. This is a condemned house, haunted by demons. Who would dare to come in? After we leave, who do you think would remain?” Lin Zhennan explained.

Lin Pingzhi went out to spread the message. Not long after, the whole Escort House was filled with commotion. Lin Zhennan waited until Lin Pingzhi left, and then spoke again.

“Wife, tomorrow Pingzhi and I will change into henchman’s clothes, and you can disguise yourself as a maid. At dawn, over a hundred people will rush out and disperse at the same time; no matter how fierce the enemies are, they only have two or three people at most, and won’t know whom to pursue.”

“Great idea!” Madam Wang applauded. She went out, and soon came back with two sets of dirty henchman garments, so when Lin Pingzhi came back, he and his father could put them on. She, herself, had changed into a set of dark blue clothes, with a piece of handkerchief decorated with blue flowers covering her hair. Now, except for her extremely white skin color, she looked just like an ordinary maid. Lin Pingzhi also changed into the henchman clothes. They stank terribly, but he had no other choice.

At dawn, Lin Zhennan had the gate opened and addressed all who had gathered in the court, “This year has not been a good year for us. We’ve suffered plagues and have been haunted by demons in the Escort House. I guess we’ll just have to stay away for a while. All brothers, who still want to remain in the escorting business, please go to Hangzhou and Nancang to join our Zhejiang and Jiangxi branch Escort Houses. Escort Liu and Escort Yi there will treat you well. Now let us go!”

After these words, all of the over one hundred people mounted their horses and rushed out of the gate. Lin Zhennan locked the gate and, with a howl, ten riders dashed over the bloodline. Everyone was greatly encouraged, and by now, neither was as afraid as before, all thinking the same thought – the earlier they left the Escort House, the safer. So, with the thunder of hoof beats, several rode toward the north gate of the city. Most people did not have any specific plan, so they all followed and headed toward the north gate.

Lin Zhennan signaled his wife and son to stop by the corner of the street. “Let them go north, we shall go south instead,” he whispered.

“Isn’t Luoyang north from here? Why are we going south?” Madam Wang could not understand.

“The enemy probably had guessed where we are heading to, and have set up an ambush outside the north gate. But, if we go south instead, and then make a turn later, to go back north, the ambush will not work,” Lin Zhennan explained.

“Father!” Lin Pingzhi suddenly called out.

“What is it, son?” Lin Zhennan asked, but Lin Pingzhi did not say anything more. After a little while he called again, “Father!”

“What do you want to say, just speak out,” Madam Wang encouraged him.

“I still want to go out from the north gate,” Lin Pingzhi declared. “These damn monsters have killed so many of our people, if we don’t fight them to the death, how can we vent our anger?”

“Of course we will get our revenge. But with your skill level, can you defeat his Heart Crushing Palm?” asked Madam Wang rhetorically.

“So what! At most I’ll just get killed like Escort Huo with my heart crushed in pieces!” Lin Pingzhi rebuffed her.

Lin Zhennan’s face turned livid with anger. “If all the three generations of our Lin family had acted as recklessly as you, the Fortune Prestige Escort House would have collapsed by itself, saving our enemies the trouble,” he bellowed.

Lin Pingzhi did not dare say another word, and just followed his parents quietly. They kept heading south, until they were well out of town, and then turned southwest. After crossing the Min River, they arrived at a small town, Nanyu. They continued the trip for half a day without stopping anywhere. When they finally needed a respite, it was already past noon.

Seeing a small restaurant by the road, they decided to stop and have something to eat. Lin Zhennan told the waiter to bring whatever was available and that the food should be prepared as fast as possible. The waiter took the order and left, but after a long while, there was no food forthcoming.

“Waiter, hurry up!” wanting to resume their trip as fast as possible, Lin Zhennan yelled. He yelled one more time, but there was still no response.

Madam Wang started calling out as well, “Waiter, waiter….” Still no response.

Jumping up from her seat, Madam Wang drew the golden saber out from her pack. Gripping it tightly in her hand, she ran to the back room, only to find the waiter lying prone on the ground. There was also a woman lying draped over the threshold. Madam Wang put her finger near the waiter’s nostrils and found that he was not breathing. She felt the lips of the body. They were still warm.

By then, Lin Zhennan and Lin Pingzhi had already drawn their swords and started checking around the small restaurant. The small restaurant stood next to a hill all by itself, adjacent to a small forest, with no other shop or neighbor nearby. The trio stood in front of the restaurant and gazed into the distance in all directions, but there was nothing unusual at all.

Lin Zhennan held his sword in front of him and started shouting in a loud voice.

“Friends of the Qingcheng Sword School, Lin Zhennan is right here awaiting his destiny. Please show yourselves.”

He called out several times, but was only answered by his own echoes, “Show yourself…show yourself…!” The trio knew that their enemies were watching close by. This was, obviously, the spot where they had decided to make their attack. All three of them gasped nervously, but knowing that everything would be soon over, one way or the other, they also felt a sense of relief and were able to regain some sense of calm.

“Lin Pingzhi stands before you! Come and get me! You filthy scoundrels! I know you’re too scared to show yourselves. All you can do is to sneak around, like thieving pickpockets!” Lin Pingzhi yelled.

Suddenly, laughter shot toward them from the woods. Lin Pingzhi only had enough time to take in the glimpse of a blurry shadow, before finding a man standing right in front of him. He did not even bother to take a good look at the man before thrusting his sword toward the man’s chest, using the move called Attack Straight To The Heart. The man turned to one side and dodged the attack. Lin Pingzhi changed the thrust to a slash to the side. The man sneered and stepped around to Lin Pingzhi’s left. Lin Pingzhi struck with his left hand and then thrust the sword back.

Lin Zhennan and Madam Wang both had their weapons in hand and were about to jump in to help, but after seeing the well-arranged series of moves Lin Pingzhi had put together, they both stepped back. Lin Pingzhi appeared to be very calm and well organized while fighting such a tough enemy. The man wore a purple robe and had a sword hanging at his waist. He seemed to be about twenty-three or twenty-four years of age, and disdain was written all over his long face.

Lin Pingzhi could no longer keep his anger under control. He chopped and stabbed and slashed and diced using the Evil-Resisting Sword Art recklessly, not worrying about his own safety. The man just moved around, dodging attacks without bothering to draw his own sword or fight back. After Lin Pingzhi had used about twenty different moves or so, the man finally sneered.

“Is this the vaunted Evil-Resisting Sword Art? How mediocre!”

He flicked the sword with his finger, and there was a reverberating ring. Lin Pingzhi felt a sharp pain between his thumb and index finger, and could no longer hold on to his sword. The sword fell to the ground. And before he knew it, the man threw a sidekick at him, which knocked him down and sent him rolling across the ground. Immediately, Lin Zhennan and Madam Wang rushed over and stood side by side to shield their son behind them.

“What’s your name? Are you from the Qingcheng Sword School?” Lin Zhennan demanded.

“With the paltry skills of your Fortune Prestige Escort House, you aren’t worthy to know my name. But, since I am here for revenge today, I’ll make an exception. You’re right, I am from the Qingcheng Sword School,” the man said haughtily.

Lin Zhennan pointed his sword to the ground and then cupped his hands in a formal greeting. “I have always held Master Yu of the Pine-Wind Temple in the highest regard,” he said. “Every year I’ve sent escorts to the Qingcheng Sword School with gifts and have never deigned to be impolite in any way. This year, Master Yu has even sent four apprentices to Fuzhou. I wonder how we have offended you?”

The man rolled his eyes and sneered. After a long while he finally replied, “You are correct! My Master did send four apprentices to Fuzhou, and I am one of them.”

“Excellent! What is your honorable name then?” Lin Zhennan asked again.

The young man seemed disinclined to answer the question, but with a sniff, he stated, “My surname is Yu, I am Yu Renhao.”

“‘Ying Xiong Hao Jie, The Four Aces of Qingcheng.’[21] You are one of the four great apprentices of the Pine-Wind Temple,” Lin Zhennan said with a nod, “no wonder your Heart Crushing Palm technique is so powerful, capable of killing without drawing blood. Impressive!! Very impressive!! Mr. Yu has come such a long way to visit, and Lin Zhennan did not greet him properly; our lack of manners is unforgivable.”

“The Heart Crushing Palm technique…humph…you did not greet us, but that Kung Fu master son of yours sure did. He even killed my Master’s beloved son. Yes, quite a show of manners,” Yu Renhao spoke with dead seriousness.

A cold shiver ran up Lin Zhennan’s spine. He knew that if his son had only killed a normal apprentice of the Qingcheng Sword School, then he could ask a well-respected member of the Martial World to intervene and arrange for a formal apology to the Qingcheng Sword School, which might have solved the problem. But if the victim were really the son of the Pine-Wind Temple Master Yu Canghai, there would no longer be any alternative, except to fight, until one side or the other was completely annihilated. He waved his sword and let out a couple of laughs.

“Funny, very funny! Young Hero Yu, you have told a good joke!”

“Who’s joking?” Yu Renhao replied coldly with raised eyebrow.

“I have long admired Master Yu for his amazing Kung Fu skills and his strict discipline with his students,” Lin Zhennan said. “In fact, everyone in the Martial World feels the same way. However, the person my son killed was just a punk who was harassing an innocent girl in a wine shop. Since my son was able to kill him, one can easily tell that his Kung Fu skills must have been very limited. How could such a person possibly be Master Yu’s son? Thus, I conclude that the Young Hero Yu must be joking?”

Presented with this line of logic, Yu Renhao was at a loss for words.

Suddenly another voice came from the woods, “There is an old saying: ‘Two fists can not parry four hands.’ In that tiny wine shop, your Young Master Lin and twenty-four escorts ambushed my junior apprentice brother Yu…!” The speaker walked out as he spoke. He had a small head and waved a folding fan casually. He continued, “If it was a fair fight, then there’s not much to talk about. To be frank, even if the Fortune Prestige Escort House had a lot more people, it wouldn’t have made any difference. But your Young Master Lin not only poisoned junior apprentice brother Yu’s wine, but also shot seventeen different kinds of toxic projectiles at him. Humph, this son of a turtle is so treacherous. We came to visit in good will, and never expected to be greeted with an ambush.”

“What is your honorable name?” Lin Zhennan asked coldly.

“No honorable name at all. I am Fang Renzhi,” the man answered.

By then, Lin Pingzhi had picked up his sword and had been standing angrily by the side, waiting for his father to finish the conversation, before jumping in to fight once again. But when he heard all of the nonsense from Fang Renzhi, he couldn’t help but shout angrily, “That is completely false! I had no grievance with him; I’ve never even met him before; I didn’t know that he was from the Qingcheng Sword School; why would I want to harm him?”

“Bull, bull! Stinking lies!” Fang Renzhi shook his head. “If you did not have ill feelings toward my junior apprentice brother Yu, why did you hide some thirty escorts and henchmen outside the little shop then? My junior apprentice brother Yu saw you harassing that innocent girl, so he knocked you down to teach you a lesson. He spared your life, but not only were you ungrateful, but you instructed all those damn escorts to attack my junior apprentice brother Yu at once.”

Lin Pingzhi felt that his lungs were going to explode with rage. “Is everyone from the Qingcheng Sword School a rascal who lies through his teeth?” he snarled.

“The son of a turtle says we’re liars!” Fang Renzhi said with a big grin.

“I said that. So what?” Lin Pingzhi retorted angrily.

“Continue to do so, it doesn’t matter to me.” Fang Renzhi nodded.

Lin Pingzhi was surprised. These words were completely unexpected. Suddenly he heard a “swoosh” and realized that somebody was jumping toward him. He hurriedly struck out with his left palm but was still one step too slow. With the sound of flesh against flesh, he was slapped hard across the right cheek. Sparkles began to swirl in front of his eyes; he almost passed out.

Fang Renzhi retreated back to where he was standing after his lightning quick attack. Putting his hand on his own right cheek, he yelled angrily, “Punk, what did you hit me for? Ouch, it hurts! Ha-ha.”

Seeing her son being humiliated, Madam Wang jumped forth and swung her saber toward the man. This was a move called Wild Fire Burning The Sky. Her attack was steady and vicious. The man jumped out of the way and the blade missed his right arm by a mere four inches.

“Damn bitch!” completely shocked, the man cursed. Not daring to take his opponent lightly, he drew his sword and deflected another of Madam Wang’s strikes.

“If the Qingcheng Sword School wants to get rid of the Fortune Prestige Escort House, that’s easy; but as to who is right and who is wrong, the Martial World will definitely be the judge of that. Young Sir Yu, if you please!” Lin Zhennan saluted Yu with his sword.

Yu Renhao pressed on his sheath, and the sword jumped out of the sheath with a ring of steel. “Chief Master Lin, after you!”

Lin Zhennan thought to himself, “I’ve long heard that the Pine-Wind Sword Art of the Qingcheng Sword School is both sturdy and light. They say that it is as sturdy as the pine and as light as the wind. I must try to control the initiative for a chance to win.” At that thought, he started his attack immediately. After thrusting the sword toward the enemy as a feint, he swiped his sword sideways. This was one move of the Evil-Resisting Sword Art called Keep Away Evil. Seeing the ferocity of the blow, Yu Renhao dodged out of the way. Lin Zhennan did not wait to complete the move; he immediately followed up with another move – Eye-Picking Zhong Kui,[22] the point of his sword shot straight toward his opponent’s eyes, and as soon as Yu Renhao jumped back from the tip of the sword, his third attack immediately followed. Yu Renhao raised his sword and blocked the thrust with a clash of metal. Both felt the impact in their arms.

“I thought the Kung Fu of the Qingcheng Sword School was really something,” Lin Zhennan thought, “but it seems to be only average. With this level of skill, how could he possibly perform the powerful Heart Crushing Palm? He must have another powerful helper around.” With this realization, his heart pumped faster.

Yu Renhao rounded his sword and stabbed at Lin Zhennan, directing his attack at seven different parts of Lin Zhennan’s body almost simultaneously. The thrusts were so fast that it seemed as though the air between them have been suddenly filled with the flicker of silver stars. Lin Zhennan’s counter attack was just as fast, working hard to control the initiative. The two fought back and forth, and after over twenty moves, they were still at a standstill.

At the other end, the fight between Madam Wang and Fang Renzhi turned out to be a totally different story. Madam Wang’s golden saber was simply no match for the incredible speed of her opponent’s attacks; it was already a miracle how she managed the several narrow escapes. Seeing his mother on the verge of losing, Lin Pingzhi hurriedly joined in. He swung his sword downward at Fang Renzhi’s head. Fang Renzhi moved aside and dodged the attack. Lin Pingzhi lunged forth again like a madman. Suddenly, he tripped on something. Losing his balance completely, he fell flat on his face. “Stay down!” he heard somebody yell, and then he felt a foot pressing down, heavily, on his back in addition to the sharp prick of a blade. All he could see was the dirt on the ground. He heard his mother screaming, “Don’t kill him! Don’t kill him!” Then he heard Fang Renzhi yelling, “You lie down, too.”

What actually happened was that when Lin Pingzhi and his mother were fighting Fang Renzhi, a third man had sneaked in from behind and swept Lin Pingzhi with his leg, causing him to stumble. He then pulled out a dagger and placed it right at Lin Pingzhi’s heart. Madam Wang was already having a hard time defending herself. With this distraction, she started panicking, and her moves became careless. It became easy for Fang Renzhi to elbow her in the ribs and knock her off her feet.

Fang Renzhi quickly sealed their pressure points.[23] The man who tripped Lin Pingzhi was none other than Jia, who had fought against the two escorts in the small wine shop outside of Fuzhou.

Seeing both his wife and son captured by the enemy, Lin Zhennan also panicked and attacked more desperately. Yu Renhao let out a long laugh and suddenly attacked with several moves and gained all the initiatives in the fight.

“How did this man learn the moves of my Evil-Resisting Sword Art?” Lin Zhennan was astonished.

“How’s my Evil-Resisting Sword Art?” Yu Renhao let out a broad grin.

“How…how…did you learn the Evil-Resisting…?” Lin Zhennan could only stutter.

“What’s so great about your Evil-Resisting Sword Art? I learned it too,” Fang Renzhi started laughing hard. He held his sword and started performing the forms – Keep Away The Evils, Eye-Picking Zhong Kui, and Swallow Flying Through the Willow Tree – all were moves of Evil-Resisting Sword Art. In that instant, Lin Zhennan was utterly filled with horror. He could have never imagined that his family’s very own secret technique, the Evil-Resisting Sword Art, being performed by his enemies. He was so confused that he completely lost the will to continue the fight.

“Gotcha!” Yu Renhao blurted out as he hit Lin Zhennan’s knee. The knee went numb and gave out on Lin Zhennan, forcing him to kneel down. Though he jumped back up immediately, Yu Renhao had already pressed the tip of his sword at Lin’s chest.

“Junior apprentice brother Yu, what an excellent display of Shooting Star Chasing The Moon!” Jia Renda cheered loudly. Like the others, Shooting Star Chasing The Moon turned out to be yet another move of the Evil-Resisting Sword Art.

“You…you know the Evil-Resisting Sword Art…Ok, just make it quick!” Lin Zhennan heaved a long sigh and dropped his sword. Numbness spread from his back as Fang Renzhi sealed his pressure point with a blow from the pommel of the sword. Then, he heard Fang Renzhi speak again.

“It’s not going to end that easy, you swine! You son of a turtle, wife of a turtle, and grandson of a turtle, the three of you are going to have the exquisite privilege of meeting my Master!”

Jia Renda grabbed Lin Pingzhi and lifted him up by the collar, slapping him hard on both cheeks.

“You little rascal,” he snarled, “starting this day, I am going to slap you eighteen times a day, from here all the way to Mount Qingcheng. I am going to slap you till your puny little face is changed beyond recognition!”

Filled with hatred, Lin Pingzhi spat at Jia Renda. Because the two were only a foot from each other, Jia Renda had no chance of dodging, and the wad of saliva hit him right on the nose with a wet smack. Jia Renda was furious. He hurled Lin Pingzhi to the ground and began to kick him on his back.

“Enough, enough!” Fang Renzhi restrained Jia with a big grin. “If you kick him to death, how are we going to explain this to the Master? This scum is as fragile as a girl; he can’t handle your punches and kicks.”

Jia Renda’s Kung Fu was just average, but his character was even worse. His Master was never fond of him, and even his fellow apprentices looked down on him. When he heard Fang Renzhi’s words, he didn’t dare kick Lin Pingzhi again. So instead, he spat at Lin Pingzhi to vent his anger.

Fang and Yu carried the three members of the Lin family into the small restaurant and threw them onto the floor.

“Let’s eat something first before we start our trip. Junior apprentice Jia, go cook us something, will you?” Fang Renzhi commanded.

“Sure,” Jia Renda answered in compliance.

“Apprentice brother Fang, we have to be careful, not to let these three escape. The old one’s Kung Fu isn’t half bad; we’ll have to figure something out,” Yu Renhao mused.

“That’s easy!” Fang Renzhi said with a nasty grin. “After we eat, we’ll just cut the nerves and tendons in their wrists and ankles. We can thread these three sons of turtles’ collarbones with a rope and tie them together, just like a string of crabs. I’ll bet you nobody can run away, then!”

Lin Pingzhi let loose a torrent of abuse. “If you’ve got guts, kill the three of us right now. Only dirty lowlife scum would do what you are going to do.”

“One more word out of your little rascal’s mouth, and I’ll find some cow dung or dog crap to stuff your mouth with.” Fang Renzhi threatened him with a wolfish grin. These words silenced him, although it made Lin Pingzhi almost pass out with rage. He shut his mouth immediately and did not dare say another word.

“Junior apprentice brother Yu,” Fang Renzhi said. “Our Master taught us the seventy-two moves of the Evil-Resisting Sword Art, and we actually did a good job performing them. As soon as the Chief Master Lin saw those moves, he was scared out of his wits, and his body just gave out on him. Chief Master Lin, I guess you must be wondering at this very moment: How the hell did the Qingcheng Sword School learn the Lin family’s Evil-Resisting Sword Art? Am I right?”

At the moment, that was exactly the question Lin Zhennan was pondering in his head: “How the hell did the Qingcheng Sword School learn the Lin family’s Evil-Resisting Sword Art?”

[1]  Fuzhou is the capital of Fujian province, which is in the southeast part of China, just across the strait from Taiwan.

[2]  Note here that Pingzhi is actually the first name. In China, one’s family name is always placed before one’s first name to show respect to the family heritage. The same applies to all names mentioned in the story.

[3]  Bamboo Green is the name of a very famous Chinese wine. It got its name because the color of the wine is like the leaves of bamboo.

[4]  Tael is a unit of weight (anciently it was 32.5 grams). It was popular as the unit for silver currency in ancient China.

[5]  Szechwan (Sichuan) is a province south from the center of China. It is far away from the province of Fujian and is famous for its very spicy food.

[6]  In ancient China, it was considered low class for people to not wear anything on their legs.

[7]  It is an old tradition in China that when a relative or an official in great power dies, people tie white cloth to their foreheads to show respect.

[8]  Marquis Zhuge Liang was a very famous and well-respected military counselor in Szechwan of ancient China. (See his story in “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” by Luo Guanzhong.)

[9]  To kneel and touch the forehead to the ground in expression of deep respect, worship, or submission, as formerly done in ancient China.

[10]  Hunan is a neighbor province northwest of Fujian Province.

[11]  See the story “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” by Luo Guanzhong.

[12]  Qingcheng and Emei are two famous mountains in Szechwan Province. Martial arts groups tend to either use the style of their martial arts or the name of the place they live in, as names for their groups.

[13]  In Taoism and Buddhism, the high-level monks or Taoists will shut themselves in a cave or somewhere similar to meditate for a couple of weeks, without seeing anyone. They believe this meditation is helpful in their studies.

[14]  Luoyang is a large city in Henan province, which is far northwest from Fujian province.

[15]  Shaolin is a Buddhism temple in Henan province. Its monks are very famous for the Shaolin style martial arts form. Wutang is a Taoist temple in Hubei province. It is the second most famous martial arts group. (Tai-Chi was created by Wutang.)

[16]  In Chinese, “Shan” stands for mountain. These are five large mountains in central, eastern, southern, western and northern China. People call them the Five Mountains. Two of these have the same pronunciation, so we will be distinguishing them by using Hengshan and Heng-Shan.

Central: Songshan (Henan Province);
Eastern: Taishan (Shandong Province);
Southern: Hengshan (Hunan Province);
Western: Huashan (Shanxi Province);
Northern: Heng-Shan (Hebei Province).

[17]  This is a Chinese way of greeting, by cupping one fist with the palm of another hand and bowing slightly.

[18]  In the Chinese zodiac, an animal represents each year. There are a total of twelve animals, and the cycle starts over after every twelve years.

[19]  This is a very famous dish in China. It got its name from a story: The smell of the dish was so good that the monk next door climbed over the wall to steal it.

[20]  In ancient China, people did not have glass to seal their windows. Instead, they used paper to seal the frames.

[21]  “Ying Xiong Hao Jie” is a Chinese phrase meaning heroes. The four great apprentices of Qingcheng each use one character in their names. Yu Renhao is using the character “Hao.”

[22]  When Chinese martial artists name their moves, they always like to use names from legendary stories. Zhong Kui was half-god half-human in Chinese mythology and he has the special power to drive evil spirits away.

[23]  According to Chinese martial art and medical procedures, there are many “pressure points” on a human body. By pinning or hitting them, you can disable the movements of muscles, blood flow or information flow from the nerves. Fang Renzhi hit their pressure points so that they could not move and had to stay still.