Chapter 101: One Foot in the Grave
This messy unmarked graveyard was not part of a hamlet or village. For ten miles all around there were no towns or markets, just the mountain woods. Seven or eight miles to the south was a river valley. The grass in the valley was yellow and withered with little vegetation growth, desolate as far as the eye could see. There might have been a village there in the past, but either due to a natural disaster or some man-made one, over the years it gradually disappeared and the grave mounds here became abandoned and isolated.
A stray dog rustled out from the brambles and snarled and stole into the poplar thicket and was gone.
The dog drew Chai Feng’s attention and he turned and reached for his pipa. But he saw it was only a stray dog and he released his pent-up breath and his keyed-up terror subsided. He kept saying to himself, “This abandoned graveyard might really have ghosts. Heaven protect Black Iron Pagoda and let him get back here soon so he can get me out of this terrible place.”
His eyes finally settled on the fluttering seven-star flag and his heart jumped. He composed himself and looked again.
“Heavens!” he called out softly, his face ashen. He was shaking all over as he rubbed his eyes, then opened them wide again for another look. He gasped, “It’s Seven Spells’ secret northern hideout. If they find me I’m done for. I have to get out of here.”
Seven Spells had built several secret locations throughout the jianghu in order to implement his plan of building a huge temple. These hideouts were headed by his men in different areas where they committed crimes to amass wealth, stopping at nothing doing all kinds of evil, opening thieving and secretly robbing, plundering homes and selling their secret medicines of the five heretical sects, kidnapping and extorting… If it was profitable they would do it. His hideouts were scattered all over and very well hidden, but of course they could not escape the notice of men of the jianghu, though they could avoid government inspections and investigations. His power was extraordinary; he was in the top five of the Thirteen Greats, so there were few willing to provoke him. Not even Endless Valley or Black Flag Sovereign wanted open conflict with him. Anyone who dared enter one of his secret hideouts would face death. This prohibition was well-known throughout the jianghu.
Seven Spells’ didn’t seem all that fearful. If you gave up your money he would let you off. Seven Spells would take in anyone who could earn him money, and this guy was incredibly conceited. He rarely used his vicious toys like his confusion spell or his dementia knockout gas or will-o-the wisp poison. But his henchmen were much more frightful than he was. They would use those vicious toys whenever they ran into someone, both openly and in secret, making it impossible to defend against. You would never feel that you were surrounded by will-o-the wisp poison, and you would not know you were suddenly tired due to the light red knockout gas.
Chai Feng saw the seven-star flag and felt his stomach drop. He cursed to himself. His life was in serious danger.
He prayed to Buddha for protection, hoping Black Iron Pagoda would get back soon and take him away from this perilous place. He didn’t want to die, he refused to die. Wenchang had stirred up his thoughts of home. He had to think of a way to sneak back into the capital and reunite with his wife and son. The Five Tiger Nails had reminded him of the true meaning of “life is precious”. An intense longing and sentimentality for his life and his family surged within him. He must not die now.
Black Iron Pagoda seemed to have been gone for years. He looked left but he wasn’t there. He looked right, but still no sign of him. A gust of wind, a rat scurrying, these little rustles in the grass made his heart leap up into his throat.
I have to leave! he thought. The more he waited the more anxious he became. He had to find a way out of here himself.
Two horses stood quietly under a poplar tree twenty feet away, snorting and stamping their hooves every now and then. To him, they were his only hope.
He swallowed a pill of his own concoction to reduce the pain and began dragging his heavy body toward the horses. When he was ten feet away, out of the corner of his eye he saw something strange flash by.
He flinched and moved into a guarding position, nearly loosing the concealed weapons inside his pipa.
He saw nothing unusual. Whatever strange apparition it was had vanished. He could see no more than thirty feet out; it was all overgrown in brambles. Of course there was no way for him to discover the people dressed in black robes with an eight trigram design in white on the front, lying low all around him. They lie prone on the ground with black hoods covering them.
The shadow of death encompassed him, but he had no idea.
Frightened, he retreated toward the horses, the hand holding his pipa trembling.
He finally reached the horses. He need only grab the reins and use all his strength to pull himself up into the saddle, then gallop away from this hellish place.
Finally, he turned his head slowly and saw the reins hanging on a tree branch. Then he turned around completely, guarding his rear, as he reached out to feel for the reins.
A silver light arced over, a throwing knife launching through the air soundlessly, cutting the reins. Such extraordinary knife-throwing skill, it had not made a sound at all as it zipped through the air and embedded itself into the trunk of another tree.
The thunk of the knife into wood sounded as the reins fell to the ground. He felt the reins and gasped and turned to look, terror-stricken. He could see clearly that the reins had been cut and that it had just happened.
He knew this was trouble and immediately picked up a piece of the reins and hastily grabbed the pommel and hoisted himself up, thinking to gallop away from this danger.
The horse whinnied and bolted forward and fell to the ground and struggled to get up. On its butt was a three-foot long short spear sunk more than a foot into its abdomen. It was a goner.
He was calm in the face of death, falling with the horse and rolling away, then facing up and plucking a string.
The spring was sprung and a Bee Stinger Needle shot out at a dark figure coming for him.
“Ah…” the dark figure screamed and dropped the loop of rope he was carrying. He pitched to the ground a rolled around, struggling and writhing in intense pain until his cried eventually quieted and he was still.
Chai Feng was terrified, reclined in a depression in the ground, his pipa half-raised, ready to shoot another weapon at the slightest notice. He was in a safe, concealed place. No one would be able to get near him without being spotted.
Nine sleeve arrows and five throwing knives had sailed over his head as he had rolled over; if he had been just a split-second too late in reacting then he would have become a throwing knife and arrow target.
He was drenched in sweat. He cried out, “We’re on the same side, let me say something first.”
No response, just a light rustle in the weeds. Seven Spells’ men were also fiends of the dark path, so he said they were on the same side to cotton up to him.
“I’m Ghosthand Pipa Chai Feng, one of Black Flag Sovereign’s men. Show this fellow dark pather some face and say something.”
“Anyone who enters my forbidden area will be put to death,” the person replied, his voice cold and severe.
“I didn’t mean to,” he shouted, almost hoarse.”
“You’ve slit your own throat. There’s no other way out.”
Chai Feng gritted his teeth. He knew it was over. He didn’t saying more and got ready to kill whoever came for him. It was even at least, gain one, lose one.
There were weeds overgrown all over, but he could still keep an eye on his surroundings. His Bee Stinger Needles could shoot more than forty feet outm and his Death Nails could go even farther, either plunging into the dense overgrowth or shooting up into the air. He reclined in the hole, his range of vision broad, his target small, and it was easy for him to loose his weapons.
Soon, another rustle, someone moving in the thicket on the left.
Behind him to his right three men in black robes slowly stood, slowing drawing their blades.
“Go!” someone ordered.
The weeds on the left rustled and four men in black robes came out, hunched over, knives and arrows loosing as they came, using their concealed weapons to clear the way.
The three men behind him to the right leapt up into the air and came down.
Chai Feng clenched his teeth and pointed his pipa left, then right.
Bee Stinger Needles zipped out one after another, and his Death Nails tore through the air like a storm, coming out in a group of three.
“Die!” he roared and threw a dagger at the last man. He could only shoot three of his needles and nails, but with seven men coming at him, he threw his dagger in defense. If there had been one more person after him then he would have had time fight him hand-to-hand in the hole.
The seven men in black screamed and fell down one by one like they’d been struck by lightning, where they wailed and writhed on the ground. The closest man was only two feet or so from the hole.
Chai Feng yelped as well as a throwing knife whizzed by him, grazing his shoulder and ripping his clothes and blood poured down his shoulder onto is chest. But he seemed not to feel any pain as he loaded his pipa again. “Come on you sons of bitches! It’s either you or me.”
All was quiet, deathly still. Soon, a barely visible wisp of smoke curled upward from the brambles on the right
Hoofbeats thundered as Black Iron Pagoda and Wenchang returned at the very last moment.
Chai Feng tore off a piece of his upper garment and urinated on it, then covered his nose with it for protection. He heard the hoofbeats and suddenly called out with all his energy, “Watch out for the knockout gas, the knock… out… gas…” he felt a wave of dizziness overtake him. His urine-soaked piece of cloth was not enough to completely filter out the knockout gas.
Black Iron Pagoda flinched and said, “Dear brother, careful. Seven Spells might be around here.”
“Big bro, you go up that tree and I’ll circle around from the bottom and jockey for position. Put this anti-poison powder under your nose.” Wenchang handed over a pouch of anti-poison powder. It had been given to him by Outcast Androgyne and it could neutralize knockout and anesthetic types of concoctions of the Five Minor Sects. Put some on your nose in the evening and even resurrection incense would lose its effectiveness. He needed to circle around to avoid Seven Spells’ knockout gas.
Black Iron Pagoda didn’t climb the tree. He took out his long whip and held it in the center, since such a long thing was useless in the dense woods, so he had to hold it from the middle so he could use it. He leapt down from his horse on the left and charged, roaring,” Ox nose son of a bitch, Papa Blackie is here.”
They were risking their lives for their friend, both of them knowing they were no match for Seven Spells, but they still plunged ahead, not even thinking of escape.
Wenchang ran to the right to get in a superior position. A dark image flashed by and a short spear came at him like lightning, ripping through the air like thunder. He hit the ground and yelled “Hyah!” as he loosed three of his silver-plumed darts, then he straightened back up and grabbed the short spear heading for his lower body. He leapt and dashed forward, roaring, “Come on, who ever doesn’t fear death, Cai Wenchang will take it.”
“Ai… Ah…” Three cries from men in black reached him as they fell heavily to the ground.
He crouched down to avoid three sleeve arrows, then flit left and right along the ground and went and retrieved his three silver-plumed darts that were lodged in the chests of the three men in black.
Two men in black exploded to their feet, thinking that Wenchang had been hit by their sleeve arrows. They rushed ahead without even drawing the swords at their waists.
“Die!” Wenchang cried, suddenly standing and throwing the short spear he had caught, then went to deal with the man coming at him from the left.
“Ah…” The man on the right was pierced clean through with the short spear like a fish, the spear sticking out of his belly on both ends and hurling him to the ground.
The man on the left howled and drew his sword and brandished it wildly.
Wenchang stuck close risking a duck as the sword swung over his head. He popped his left hand up and grabbed and caught with his right with “Heavenly King Supports the Pagoda”, stepping off the sword and leaping up and kicking the man in the head, smashing his skull and neck.
He picked up the sword and went back the other way. “Brother Chai, Chai… Hyah!” He threw the sword.
Chai Feng, in a stupor, saw from the corner of his eye two dark figures jump down. He was already powerless. He forced himself to pick up his pipa and trip the mechanism, but because he couldn’t turn very well he could only shoot at one of the figures as a sword came thrusting toward his chest.
He heard Wenchang’s holler and he was pulled back to his senses, and he used all his strength to turn and use his pipa to knock away the sword coming at him. It connected with a clang.
“Ah…” The man with the sword cried out as the sword Wenchang had thrown pierced through his back and his hand went slack and was pushed away by the pipa and the sword missed the mark and stuck into the dirt right next to Chai Feng and the man fell on top of him and snapped the neck of his pipa.
Chai Feng fainted away in that moment, but he was conscious of the sword breaking his pipa before he blacked out.
At the same time, Black Iron Pagoda raged like a crazed tiger, roaring like a thunderclap, “Get the hell out here, ox nose. Don’t send these men out to their deaths! Attack!”
There was a hair-raising scream and several paths of green flame licked out suddenly and converged on him. He was on guard against this and quietly jumped up into a tree and swung fifty feet away and dropped down on the other side and circled around again.
The woods were now on fire, dense smoke soaring upward.