Chapter 58: A Scene of Carnage
But Wenchang and Black Iron Pagoda were not in the city. They were still around the south gates and heading south, passing Prevailing Charity Temple and continuing on toward Fanchuan. They stayed off the main road, taking a shortcut down a small trail on the right side of the public road. They were waiting, waiting for it to get dark so they could sneak into the city and meet up with the little beggar.
The snow had melted so it was not quite easy going on the trail. Stalks of wheat would be sticking their heads up in the fields soon, vigorously growing after surviving the winter under a blanket of snow. There were hills and ditches between the fields, and winter woods scattered around, but there were no people around, though the sounds of dogs barking could be heard from a distant village, breaking the silence.
It was the hour of the goat1 when they awoke from their nap in the woods and continued on; the little trail had already ended.
Wenchang suddenly shot his head around and looked behind him. “Odd! I clearly saw someone behind me. Where did they go?”
Black Iron Pagoda looked around. “Brother, you must have seen a ghost. This is quiet, open country, where would they have come from?”
“Really, I saw a gray flash out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned to look it was gone. It wasn’t a ghost, and it’s not my eyes.”
“Who gives a f*ck! So what if there was someone? In this vast open field, we can slip away too if need be. Eh! There really is someone up ahead.” Black Iron Pagoda pointed.
They were standing at the edge of the woods. A jujube orchard ran a mile or so ahead from southeast to northwest from where they were standing. Sure enough, a person wearing a sheepskin overcoat emerged slowly from the edge of the orchard. He was not far away, clearly discernible.
There was nothing strange about someone being there, except he was carrying a sabre. One glance and it was clear the person acting as a lookout, because he was half-hidden behind the trees, using them for cover as he scanned the surroundings.
Wenchang and Black Iron Pagoda were hidden behind a tree and so were not discovered. Wenchang watched him for a time. “Come on, let’s go take a look. Someone’s up to no good.”
“Let’s go, we’ll use the trees for cover and come in from the right,” Black Iron Pagoda said.
They retreated back and to the right and slowly made their way into the jujube orchard. It was not an expansive orchard, with a mountain ravine behind it. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a ravine, but a gully, about forty feet wide, the cliff walls weathered by the wind into jagged, crisscrossing points. Part of the cliff wall was yellowish brown, some the distinctive yellow of loess. It was a collapsed, fixed fault, about thirty-five feet deep, damp and muddy. It looked like to be an old dried-up stream.
They didn’t want to go toward the bottom, but there were thorny thickets in the orchard that made it hard to pass through, so they had to skirt along the edge of the wood. The edge was not even so they couldn’t just go in a straight line. After half a mile they reached the part of the orchard that jutted out the most and they hid behind a tree and looked ahead. The man in the fur coat was gone.
A dozen horses were galloping toward the east on the horizon more than three miles away. They couldn’t be seen clearly and they were gradually receding.
“They’re leaving,” Black Iron Pagoda said. “We shouldn’t have taken the long way around.”
“Still, let’s go take a look and see why they were hanging around in such a deserted area. Maybe they left something behind.”
“Alright!” Black Iron Pagoda started running.
They smelled the stench of blood before they reached the place where the lookout was previously. Black Iron Pagoda’s eyes were like a hound spotting its prey. He raced over. “Son of a bitch! They killed someone over here.”
Wenchang’s lightness skill was better so he took a deep breath and ducked down and sped into the woods, urgently following the smell of blood.
They reached the side of a hill and gasped in astonishment and stopped in their tracks, a cold chill running up their spines.
There were scattered footprints, and eight bloody corpses hung from the side of the hill which was a mud wall that looked like it had been sliced straight with a knife. The bodies’ hands and feet had been nailed to the wall with hard, stiff jujube branches. Suspended a foot off the ground, the bodies were a repulsive sight to behold.
Seven words were carved with a knife above the bodies: “Rebels are forbidden from collecting the bodies.”
There were no other markings left behind, and no signature, but whoever carved those words must have known someone would discover the bodies, so left that message as a warning.
The eight bodies had been killed in different ways. Head split open, eyes, nose and mouth dug out, chest caved in, stomach cut open, limbs ripped off… The jujube branches piercing their hands and feet were enough to kill them, why go further and rip them open or cut them open? Whoever did it was too cruel. The blood pooled below them had not completely congealed, and blood still dripped from the bodies. It was shocking. Since the blood had not yet solidified on such a cold day, the murderer must have done the deed a short time ago and they had discovered the bodies just after it happened.
Black Iron Pagoda’s eyes were wide. He grit his teeth. “Murdering them like this is really too vicious. Sons of bitches. Just let me get my hands on ‘em.”
Wenchang found a path and headed down it. “Big brother, can you tell who did it?”
“Judging by the tone of those words carved there, it must be someone from the dark path.”
“Quick! Let’s see if we can save any of them.”
But it was no use. The heads of all eight bodies hung limply. They were all clearly dead. Wenchang poked around on one whose head and belly were still intact, shaking his head as he searched. Then he checked the fifth one. “This one is still breathing. Big brother, get him down.”
Black Iron Pagoda used his finger strength and pulled the branches out one by one, and with Wenchang’s help, lowered the person to the ground.
Wenchang got his box of needles and poked acupuncture needles in the Inner Pass, Intermediate Messenger, and Marsh at the Crook acupoints, then grasped the Hundred Meetings acupoint on the top of his head and smacked the Great Vertebra acupoint at the base of his neck on his back, then massaged the Sea of Qi acupoint below his navel. “We might be able to get something out of him. Since we’ve gone this far, there’s no danger that can intimidate us.”
The person’s eyes had been destroyed, the eyeballs hanging out of their sockets grotesquely, and his nose and lips had been cut off, leaving only a thread of skin hanging. His lower abdomen had been cut open and his intestines were bulging out, but it had only damaged the flesh; his internal organs had not been harmed. Whoever did this to him was quite skilled.
After a moment the man let out a breath. He was alive.
“Brother, who did this to you?” Wenchang said into the man’s ear. “Do you know his name?”
The man’s breathing gradually intensified and his jaw began to move. Although his lips had been cut, his mouth had not been wounded. After a long time they suddenly heard a faint voice. “Gold… Snatching… Silver Sabre… Tang… River… Refined Guest Luo…” Then his head slumped and he was gone.
Wenchang shook his head. “We did what we could, but couldn’t save him.”
Black Iron Pagoda was at a loss for words. “I was wrong. It’s not an evil bandit from the dark path.”
“Who is Gold Snatching Silver Sabre?” Wenchang asked.
“Gold Snatching Silver Sabre is the right-hand man of the head of Endless Valley, Qiu Hen. His name’s Ling Guangzu, a supremely righteous, outstanding hero of the martial fraternity. Tang River Refined Guest Luo Changcheng is a famous martial artist from the eastern bank of the Tang River in Zaoyang. He’s known for his chivalry all throughout the Hu-Guang area. They’re both heroes of the light path. Eh? How could they do something so brutal and inhumane?”
“Hmph, the head of Endless Valley is a rotten scoundrel,” Wenchang fumed.
“Brother, what what you say,” Black Iron Pagoda shot back. He had a forthright way of thinking. Before, Wenchang had talked with the little beggar about the Two Sovereigns colluding together, but he didn’t think it was right.
“The truth is right in front of you. A dying man wouldn’t lie.”
“I still don’t know. Strange! Who ordered them to do it?”
A booming voice suddenly resounded from above them. “Ruhai, first bury them so they can be laid to rest.”
They couldn’t see who had spoke. The person must be on top of the hill. Black Iron Pagoda was taken aback. He looked up. “Is it you, Miss?”
“Idiot, you have to ask?” the person said, but they still couldn’t see anyone.
Wenchang was about to go up, but Black Iron Pagoda pulled him back. “It’s my paternal aunt,” he said in a low voice. “Her dharma name is Clearcause. She’s here.”
Wenchang went around to the left and found a ruined house cave which had once been someone’s home. They had built a home in the hillside, but after so many years it had mostly collapsed and become a den for foxes and rats.
They dragged the bodies to the cave and used jujube branches to knock down the cave entrance, collapsing it and sealing the hole.
They went to the top of the hill. Wenchang stopped short, his face frozen in shock.
Two old nuns stood side by side, one tall, the other a bit shorter. The one on the left, the taller one, held a horsetail whisk and a long cloth bag. She smiled at Wenchang.
He saw the nun’s grayish-white robe and her whisk and cloth bag and he knew the bag contained a sword. It seemed to be that nun who had appeared and disappeared in the city and followed him wherever he went, the strange nun Thousand-Faced Abbess.
He thought to run, but the old nun pointed her whisk at him. “Get over here, child. You couldn’t escape even if you wanted to.”
By the tone of her voice he knew he was done for. It really was Thousand-Faced Abbess. He would not likely be able to escape. The only place he could hide out in and slink away from later from was three miles away. How could he get away? He steeled himself and approached them along with Black Iron Pagoda. As the latter made his greeting, Wenchang circulated his qi to protect himself and said coldly, “You must be Thousand-Faced Abbess.”
“I never denied that I was.” She smiled.
“The winner between us has not been decided. I, Cai Wenchang, am not afraid of you.”
“Heehee! I don’t want you to be afraid.”
Wenchang removed the dagger from his bracer. It glittered and gleamed. He rooted himself and said, “I’ll go a few rounds with you before using my concealed weapons.”
Black Iron Pagoda’s face dropped. He said to Abbess Clearcause, “Aunt, do you know Thousand-Faced Abbess? Let me and Brother Cai fight it out with her. She’s nothing special.”
“Don’t be rude,” Abbess Clearcause said. “Go greet your elder, Thousand-Faced Abbess.”
“No!” Black Iron Pagoda’s voice boomed. “That old nun… She’s giving Brother Cai trouble, I don’t want to talk to her.”
Thousand-Faced Abbess nodded to Abbess Clearcause and smiled. “Friend, please take your nephew and go.”
Once Thousand-Faced Abbess turned her head, Wenchang took the chance to turn and flee. He leapt into the ravine and ran along it to the northeast using his lightness skill, running like an arrow loosed from a bow. Until he heard Black Iron Pagoda roar, “No! No! I’m not going back. I’m gonna have it out with that third-rate Thousand-Faced…”
“You what?” Abbess Clearcause bellowed. “You’re defying me? Gat back here!”
Black Iron Pagoda meeped and was silent, clearly under her control.
Wenchang wasn’t worried. Black Iron Pagoda had already told Wenchang about his family background. Abbess Clearcause was not only his paternal aunt, she was also his master who was very fond of him. She wouldn’t do anything to him.
Wenchang ran with all his might, knowing full well he was no match for Thousand-Faced Abbess. He would be a fool not to escape. He ran two miles until the ravine came to an end and there appeared a budding copse not half a mile away. He would be able to lose her in there. He turned to look but Thousand-Faced Abbess was nowhere to be seen.
He wasn’t about to get careless. He ran into the thicket of small trees and didn’t slow down until he was fifty feet from the edge of the wood. He panted and said to himself, “That old nun is evil as anything and won’t let up. Such a headache…”
Before he could finish his thought a gray figure suddenly appeared in the woods and he heard Thousand-Faced Abbess’ voice.
“Just now getting here? I’ve been waiting on you forever.”
Wenchang was stunned. He cursed himself. The ravine zigzagged all over like a rodent’s den, couldn’t even see anything up on the surface, yet there she was waiting for him, ahead of him, blocking his path. He was in a stupor. Why hadn’t he gotten out of the ravine earlier? It was too late for regrets now. There was no choice left but to fight it out.
He drew his dagger and held three silver-plumed darts in his left hand. He stopped and sneered. “It’s either you or me. Til the last one standing.”
- 1-3pm ↩