Chapter 38: The Main Hall
Wenchang found a passage leading upward and he hurried along. Strange, no one seemed to be chasing him. Where did they go? But he didn’t have time to think about it; he was busy looking for a way out. He had been in two fights and felt his opponents were more skilled than he. It was a good thing he had understood the principles of speed, ruthlessness, stability, and accuracy that the Revenant Swordsman had written inside that Autumn Mountain Mist painting. That enabled him to take the initiative to attack and defeat his opponents in one stroke and protect himself.
He reached the top of the steps and turned two corners. There was torchlight up ahead. In the same instant a strange sound came from the tunnel. Someone swayed in the dusky torchlight. “Close the pit door, quick!” someone yelled.
An ear-piercing creak followed as a stone gate lowered slowly. “Brother Xu, get in here quick and close off the exit.”
Outside the stone gate it was pitch-black. Four people ran toward the gate exit.
Wenchang was anxious. He circulated his ultimate breathing to protect himself, engaged his lightness skill, and ran like lightning for the gate.
Thirty feet away inside the gate, three men turned. They met each other head-on. “Junior, ah…”
Wenchang showed no mercy. A gentleman has to have guts, a real man has to be ruthless. At the juncture of life and death there was no room for mercy. He became a soaring dragon, his sabre like a ferocious tiger as he charged ahead. As he struck he also threw three silver-plumed darts which were screened by the light glinting off the sabre, one aimed at each man. His sabre shimmered and followed the concealed weapons into the crowd.
He knocked away two sabres with a clang and slipped through a gap between the three men and continued on.
The three men wailed. Each had a dart sunk between their eyes, only the silver plumes sticking out. They had been thrown with astonishing force, and at a vital point.
The men had not yet hit the ground by the time Wenchang neared the gate. It was only three feet away and still lowering.
He dropped the sabre and slid on the ground and rolled out. The stone gate closed with a heavy thud, catching the tail of his sheepskin jacket. He rolled away with all his might, ripping the jacket. If he had been just a split second late you can imagine the result.
Before he stood up he was met by a pair of dark feet.
He yelped and drove his fist into the man’s groin. The man howled and stumbled back, then crashed to the ground.
He rolled to the side and sprang up and slammed into a clay statue. He saw stars as the statue fell over and shattered.
Mysterious Altar Temple was dedicated to the God of Wealth Zhao Gongming, who had been a hermit of Zhongnan Mountain. But Daoists called him Marshal Zhao and to followers of the Way of Orthodox Unity he was the Marshal of the Mysterious Altar. It was said he was in charge of eradicating pestilences and exterminating atrocities, as well as protecting one from illness and averting disasters. One could appeal to him to right wrongs as well as help one accumulate wealth for one’s business. But commoners only beseeched him for wealth; they didn’t bother with anything else. No wonder his temples were resplendent and magnificent; people put a lot of stock in wealth!
The huge main hall was magnificent, and not only was the full-body statue of Marshal Zhao larger than normal, the statue of the black tiger he rode was also massive. Such a pity, some great disturbance must have happened here. The common man valued wealth, but he valued his life more. Once ghosts began haunting the area people hesitated to go there, and over time the temple to the God of Wealth fell into disrepair and became a haunted ruin. It would perhaps vanish completely before long.
The god statues in the main hall were scattered here and there, broken or fallen over, covered with cobwebs, and it was very gloomy and eerie. Fortunately it was winter, otherwise foxes and rats would be everywhere.
Wenchang ran into the clay statue and realized there were still several people inside the dilapidated hall, but it was hard to tell how many. He wasn’t about to get careless. He held his breath and darted to the right toward a crumbling wall. Light reflected off snow over there. He had to get out of this ghastly, ruined main hall.
He didn’t have his sabre anymore and he wasn’t holding any concealed weapons, so it would be easier to feel his way around. His concealed weapons were not easy to forge so he couldn’t waste them. He wouldn’t get them ready to use unless he had to, and it wasn’t proper to use concealed weapons all the time.
Four people were groping their way through the main hall, each on high alert. The sky was darkest just before dawn. Inside the hall one could hardly see his own hand in front of him. Everyone stepped lightly, watching their every step.
There was a light scraping sound. Wenchang had excellent hearing so he knew it was the sound of a blade scraping on something.
To his left a crash as clay and stone collapsed. He didn’t have to guess where the other people were. Someone had accidentally bumped into a statue.
He inched to the right, his hand out, probing. He touched a clay statue of a ghostly soldier that was taller than a real person. A piece broke off and he grabbed it and gently set it down so it wouldn’t make a sound.
There was a dark figure behind the statue, holding a sabre in his right hand, moving off to the left. He felt something touch his face and he freaked, reaching his hand out to knock it away. It was a dusty mass of cobwebs.
The dark figure had been spooked. His elbow had brushed against a clay statue when he had reached to knock away the cobwebs, knocking clay crumbs off.
Wenchang peeked out from the right as the man brushed against the statue, alerted by the sound of falling crumbs of clay. He stopped and listened.
The man paid no attention to the clay crumbs, but he changed directions, the tip of his sabre pointed ahead of him. He was right behind Wenchang, the tip of his blade extending toward Wenchang’s back.
Wenchang heard a faint sound, but he was not at a high enough level of cultivation yet to detect its specific source and position. He squatted and listened.
Just then the tip of the blade extended. He felt a sharp object brush over his right shoulder. Startled, he stayed absolutely still and turned to look.
He felt the object hesitate, then pierce through his fur jacket and probe twice before retracting and moving off his shoulder. He saw a faint glint off the edge of the blade and realized it was a sabre.
He froze so as not to alert the other. He might be in big trouble if he moved carelessly or ducked. His quick thinking and composure helped him calmly pass this crisis.
The man moved his sabre away, thinking he had bumped into a clay statue. He extended his left hand, probing, and stepped forward.
Wenchang decided to act as soon as the man moved the sabre away. He spun around and closed in, knocking the man’s sabre to the side with his left hand while punching with his right.
Three punches in a row, like a mountain torrent, square in the man’s chest, breaking the sternum and caving it in. Then he darted over and slammed into a decayed shrine.
The man’s sabre clanged to the floor as he wailed and staggered and fell. He groaned twice and was dead.
The shrine collapsed, sending dust into the air. Fire light from both sides lit up as two other men lit fire sticks.
The dilapidated hall lit up, bringing the ghastly clay statues into view. Wenchang was pressed up against the huge black tiger statue. Marshal Zhao’s huge black rod was laying by his foot. The paint was chipped and worn. It was over five feet long and big around as a large bowl.
The two men roared and held up their fire sticks. They leveled their sabres and closed in from the left and right. “You’re dead meat, fella.”
Horse hooves pounded in the distance, gradually approaching.
There was still another in the main hall, but no one had noticed. A man with tonsure marks on his bald head, indicating he was a monk, stood behind a ferocious-looking god statue shrine to the left, his eyes flickering like stars in the dead of night.
In a corner to the right, behind a smashed screen wall, a pair of similarly bright eyes stared without expression, cold and stern eyes that would chill you to your core. In the dim light one could see these eyes belonged to a woman, because her hair was drawn up in a palace bun, replete with pearl head ornaments and phoenix-head hairpins, and shiny black hair one could see oneself in. She was not old.
The stone gate Wenchang had exited was set into the wall of the Marshal Zhao statue. This temple had not been constructed thoughtlessly; there were actually useful secret passages here.
Wenchang picked up Marshal Zhao’s wooden rod and got into an attacking stance. “Sirs, there’s no enmity between us, why force the issue?”
“Just capture him for now,” the man on the right said.
“If you won’t listen to reason then we’ll have to fight it out,” Wenchang roared. The blood on his face had already been wiped clean. His eyebrows arched up, his tiger eyes opened wide, making him look surprisingly heroic and awe-inspiring.
“Tie him up!” the men shouted, brandishing their sabres.
Wenchang roared and swept the wooden rod out close to the ground in a move called “Iron Ox Plows the Field”, then swung it back at the man on the right, thereby striking at both of them at the same time.
The fire sticks were extinguished as the three people connected. Now they had to rely on their hearing to tell where the others’ weapons were. Wenchang had no one with him so he didn’t have to be careful. He could attack ruthlessly at the slightest sound. He was like a crazed tiger and his five-foot wooden rod was heavy. He fixed on the man on the right and swung it ferociously.
An explosive sound like thunder as the wooden rod smashed into the clay statue shrine, obliterating the already dilapidated shrine to smithereens and sending a cloud of dust into the air. The man on the right dodged left and right, but his feet inevitably made noise, pointing the way for Wenchang’s attack. Five strikes flustered the man, not sure when the wooden rod was slam into his head> Wenchang’s wild attack was too ferocious.
The man’s sabre thunked into the wooden rod three times, but the rod was too thick; there was no way he was going to chop through it. It only incurred Wenchang’s sweeping, tempest-like attack.
The horses were close now; they had already entered the front courtyard in front of the main hall, their roars audible.
“Get the torches ready.”
At the same time, a chilling howl erupted from somewhere.
The enemy was here. Wenchang was startled, his hands hesitating. His opponent took that moment to disappear.
He threw down the wooden rod and darted to a far corner of the dilapidated hall. There was a faint glow of light off the snow. He had to get out of this dark, broken-down hall.
Shit! It was a dead end. Five horses stood quietly on the packed snow outside, the riders retrieving torches from their saddles.
He went back and ran to the other corner.
Too late. Aside from the inner rear of the hall, the other directions were all lit up with torches. Burly men dressed like the men in the dungeon appeared at a crack between a tattered window and broken wall, each holding a torch, more than twenty of them. Every exit and gap had been sealed off. There was nowhere to hide under the torchlight.
Shit, he cursed to himself. I’m surrounded again. This is bad!
His first thought was to defend himself. He saw the glint of a blade at his foot, an abandoned sabre. Its owner had had his chest caved in by him, but the body was nowhere to be seen. He remembered there were five killed, but where were their bodies? Odd.
No time to think, he grabbed the sabre.
Four burly men holding torches stood at the collapsed temple gates, leading a tall figure who appeared to be their leader, who stepped through the broken gates in a calm, dignified manner. There was no sound aside from the burning torches. The atmosphere was tense and unusually chilling.
Someone at a crack in the wall on the left coughed lightly.
The main hall was completely lit up. Fallen shrines and statues were scattered around, everything covered with dust and cobwebs. The run-down surroundings were desolate, now lit up for all to see. Five men stepped onto the sacrificial altar that was overgrown with tall weeds, and stopped.