371 A Snowy Nigh

    The freezing winter had come up north. Thick layers of snow blanketed the landscape outside the old temple, and crunching footsteps filled the silence as people stepped on them.

    A group of members of the Jianghu were traveling across the snowfield with luggage on their backs. There were men and women, both young and old, strong and shriveled. Reaching the temple, their leader shouted to the rest, "It is difficult to make our way through the dark of a snowy night. We shall rest here tonight, and resume our journey at the break of day tomorrow."

    His breath escaped his mouth in white as he spoke, and he shivered at the icy touch of the chilling weather.

    "Sure. I almost can't feel of my hands or feet. It seems I am no longer the young and energetic young man I was so many winters before," agreed a bald old man, smiling at the thought of warmth and rest.

    The rest followed with murmurs and nods of agreement. They split into smaller groups and climbed the steps of the temple one after another.

    "Halt!" Their leader was a middle-aged man in a fur cloak. He carried a sword by his side. "I saw some firelight inside. I'll go in first and check," he said warily.

    The others were on their guard instantly and looked inside the temple. Warm and comforting rays of light escaped the gaps of the tightly-closed doors and windows.

    Drawing his sword, the middle-aged leader slowly pushed the temple door open with his other hand. He cautiously peered inside with intense concentration. Not seeing anyone, he whispered, "Why isn't there anybody here?"

    Hesitant to let his guard down, he remained at the entrance observing. It took him a moment for him to make out the silhouette of Meng Qi on the floor, curled up between the altar and the burning fire.

    The figure lying on the floor was in Taoist garb with his hair tied in a bun. There was a sword and a saber by his side. The leader could sense that he was alive despite not hearing any breathing.

    "There's a young Taoist disciple asleep inside." The middle-aged leader breathed a sigh of relief. They could ill suffer a clash with enemies, bandits, or any disciples from the Moon Village. "We shall remain quiet and not disturb him. Let's light a fire further from him."

    The group followed their leader through the door of the temple. The door was shut to keep out the freezing, bone-piercing winds of the cruel blizzard. A huge fire was raised at the center. The travelers huddled around in separated groups around the fire. They seemed to be a collective of different groups of travellers that shared a common path.

    Silently, they curled up in their robes without any chatting or discussion. The bitter wind whistled outside as they munched silently on the dry rations they brought with them. They were all pre-occupied with deep thoughts swirling in their minds. The fire crackled cheerily, roasting the ration cooking in the fire.

    Without any gesture or regard to the newcomers, Meng Qi paid them no mind as he continued practicing the 13 stances from the first volume of the Muscle-bone Strengthening Scripture. Each stance would require about 10 to 15 minutes.

    "Father, look! The posture of the young Taoist disciple is strange!" exclaimed a little girl with braided hair to her father as she poked at his arm with excitement and curiosity. Her words made all that were present shift their gazes to the Taoist disciple lying by the fire.

    Her father was the leader of the travelers who had first inspected the temple earlier. Glancing over at Meng Qi, he explained with a light cough, "Peek not at the private affairs of others, especially when they are practicing Kung Fu. There are people who would take offense and find fault."

    "Practice? Father, is this how one practices Kung Fu?" The father's warning had done little to quell the inquisitiveness and enthusiasm of his young daughter.

    The leader looked around, as if fearful of prying ears in the stuffy temple chamber. He whispered solemnly, "I heard there are prominent schools and sects that have series of breathing exercises. The postures and stances of these exercises are most peculiar."

    "We have all seen our fair share of the apostles of the Shrine of Probity. Their stances were nowhere as bizarre as this..." mumbled a young man with freckles on his face.

    The sound of the relentless, unforgiving winds overshadowed the murmur of his voice. The chilling winds whistled through the holes and cracks of the temple, and the windows and door shuddered each time a gale of ice assaulted the decrepit structure that granted them their only protection from the harsh frost outside.

    The bald elder coughed and added, "Mr. Wen is right. We are all together in this company by chance. Let us speak no further of the young Taoist disciple here. We should set our gazes upon our own well-being and our journeys ahead as the night grows old in this snowy darkness."

    Gloom blanketed the company once more as the atmosphere which had barely turned merry plummeted into somberness at the mention of "journeys ahead". The air of despair and concern plagued them once more into a melancholy silence.

    Suddenly, there was a knock on the temple door.

    "Knock Knock!" The loud knocking resounded loudly to the darkness of the cold, snowy night.

    "Who's there?" Mr. Wen asked loudly as he tightened his grip on his sword. He did not realize that someone had approached during their conversation, and the sudden appearance of an unknown guest had unsettled him greatly. The stranger must have an outstanding grasp on the techniques of Lightness Skill in order to traverse the thick snow without any sound!

    "A female of 20 summers or more in a plain white, cotton tunic and cloak, she came out of the forest while you were busy bickering over my posture. She has made almost no sound as she walked on the snow, leaving only a faint trail of her footprints which were blanketed by the falling snow immediately. She came with an older man. Tall, strong and slightly hunchbacked, he's wearing a cyan-colored cloak and possesses Protective Upstanding Qi..." Meng Qi answered their questions to himself as he ended the first round of his practice.

    During his training in the Muscle-bone Strengthening Scripture, Meng Qi felt a sensation reminiscent of the Oneness of Heaven and Men. It was like having returned to his mother's womb, where the acuteness of his senses seemed to have peaked to a level he had never felt before. His heightened senses allowed him to "see" incidents as far as a hundred of meters away as if they were taking place right before him.

    "A wanderer who has lost her way in a snowy night." A female voice was heard from outside the door. Her soft words held a slight of Southern accent.

    Without letting down his guard, Mr. Wen laughed airily and said, "This place has no owner. Come in if you please."

    Despite being behind a door, he was close enough to tell that she was not alone.

    Gusts of cold wind rushed from outside as the doors of the temple opened. Two strangers walked through the threshold. They were exactly as Meng Qi had sensed. The oval-faced lady with arched eyebrows and a well-groomed appearance shook her cloak and dusted off the snow. A thin, red string was fastened to her sword, Meng Qi noticed as the lady walked to the side of the temple with the old man.

    Strangely, Mr. Wen's and the bald old man's expressions changed suddenly. One could not tell if they were afraid or embarrassed at the sight of the pair that had just joined them in taking refuge in the temple.

    The redrope lady and the hunchback old man did not light a fire. They sat on the floor and observed the wandering group, most prominently Mr. Wen and the bald old man. There was an initial confused expression and then a sudden realization. The tinge of contempt that surfaced thereafter hinted at a former enmity between them.

    However, none of them had spoken a word. An unspeakable silence filled the temple amidst the boisterous din of the blizzard outside.

    "Another group is approaching. They are moving stealthily, hiding their breath..." Meng Qi sensed as he shifted his stance.

    He was able to examine his Inner Qi Force, bladesmanship and sword skills from a different perspective in his current condition. It allowed him a greater depth to assessing the abilities of his adversaries, allowing him an increased ascendacy for future encounters.

    His heightened awareness allowed him to notice changes in the flow of Qi energies. The routes of his meridian channeling shifted slightly without him noticing. By the shift of the vague sensation which he could not yet determine, Meng Qi made miniscule adjustments. Yet the sensation pervaded him with impressions of incomprehensible surreality and ethereality.

    "Holy Hunchback Beyond the Great Wall and Redline Lady. May I have the pleasure of being informed of your intended objectives?" A deep voice broke the silence and shuddered through the air. The voice rang from all directions, sounding distant and yet close. Mr. Wen and the rest of the wandering company looked around aghast, a terrible fear struck upon them as they could not determine the origin of the voice.

    The little girl with braided hair was on the verge of tears. Could it be the evil spirits or malevolent ghosts?

    Redline Lady snorted coldly and said, "Show yourself and end the dramatics! I am heading for the God-Gathering Heights!"

    "So am I," Holy Hunchback Beyond the Great Wall agreed in a deep voice.

    Upon hearing God-gathering Heights, Mr. Wen and the rest suddenly had a surprised yet scared expression, their faces also turned dark. Meng Qi stopped practicing Muscle-bone Strengthening Scripture and thought, "This is related to God-gathering Heights? Is it possible that Dominator of Samsara in the Six Realms chose where I was sent to on purpose?"

    "As I have guessed. What are you going to do at God-gathering Heights?" The dark voice was heard again.

    "Stop the marriage between Miss Huangfu Fei and Moon Village, of course!" Although Redline Lady was a woman, the way she talked was rather straightforward mixed with a bit of anger.

    "Isn't marriage a beautiful thing? Why would you want to stop it?" The dark voice pretended to sound surprised. Its location still could not be determined, which was rather scary.

    Redline Lady stood up with her hand on the sword hilt as she said, "Mr. Huangfu was able to break through the plateau period of his predecessors and made it to the top among all the generations. That is why he went insane and dwelled in the mountains before he even entered his later years. However, not all of his disciples nor daughter has grown up. By forcing this marriage, you people from Moon Village would steal the foundation of God-gathering Heights for yourself. How can you call such an act of bullying a 'beautiful thing'?"

    Compared to Nine Villages, which were passed down by many generations, Huangfu Tao's God-gathering Heights had no masters who were on the same level as him. Even his strongest disciples had only opened up nine acupores. If he had had 20 more years before going insane, the foundation of God-gathering Heights would be completely stable. After all, for an expert of the Exterior, he could still be strong and powerful even in his sixties. That was what Huangfu Tao believed as well, since he only married and had children when he was in his forties.

    "Heightslord Huangfu passed away at such a young age. That is why Moon Village would like to lend a hand to Miss Huangfu to further stablize the foundation of God-gathering Heights. How is that bullying?" The dark voice answered without any sense of surprise.

    "Humph! The whole world knows that Miss Huangfu already has a lover and has rejected your offer of marriage many times! If it wasn't for Moon Village, why would Madam Huangfu cry at heightslord's tomb until Miss Huangfu agreed so reluctantly? Also, who else could have murdered the third best disciple of heightslord Huangfu, young Master Xue, as he was rushing around due to this matter?" Redline Lady bristled with anger and spat, "How fierce would Mr. Moon-washing need to be if he was to compete for the position of Emperor of Tengen!"

    Wen Haogu, also known as Mr. Moon-washing, is the current Master of Moon Village having reached the Exterior level for merely a few years. This world has the impartation of Zhenwu's Decoy Grave, hence the levels of Kung Fu being decided in the same way as the main world.

    The dark voice paused for a moment, then said, "I've tried to persuade you with kind words, yet you became so overbearing. Are you not afraid that I may kill you?"

    Redline Lady pulled her sword out and pointed it towards the ceiling, then said in a harsh tone, "How dare you make use of our misfortune for your own benefit! Do you really think there is no one willing to help God-gathering Heights? During Mr. Huangfu's years of fighting against injustice, he always guided the young so generously, and made tons of friends, so you'd better not mess with him."

    The dark voice laughed and said, "Unfortunately, none of his friends are experts of the Exterior. That's why for three months since the engagement, the people helping God-gathering Heights were so few I could count them on one hand. That includes you two, by the way. What's more, after being persuaded by me, most of them quite out of fear, and a small number of them went insane just like Huangfu Tao."

    "Everything in this world depends on your strength, after all. For those who are selfish and ungrateful, how can you expect them to repay your help and kindness? Of course, there are also very few people like you two. Not selfish, just stupid."

    Redline Lady was so angry that she started laughing. She pointed her sword towards Mr. Wen and the bald old man saying, "You're right, I know most people are selfish and ungrateful. You, Wen Qichang! You almost died as you were chased by the Six Devils of Wei River. Your life was saved by Mr. Huangfu who was passing by and beat your enemies. Afterwards, he knew it was difficult for you to recover from your severe injuries, hence him taking you into God-gathering Heights as the Deacon. He introduced your wife to you and allowed you to have a family. Is that not right?"

    "And you, Chifeng! Your whole family was dead since you offended some disciples of Heavenly Village. Who was the one to take you in? Who was the one to make sure that justice was served in the end?"


    She named them one by one until Mr. Wen, the bald old man and the rest were blushing. They felt so ashamed of themselves, and also a sense of anger from the embarrassment.

    "Is that how you repay his kindness? Running away with so many masters when God-gathering Heights is in danger?" Redline Lady barked, "I may be a weak woman, but I was also instructed by Mr. Huangfu. I have always remembered what he has done for me. That's why today, I must rush to God-gathering Heights and fight for what's right for Miss Huangfu. Even if it may cost me my life!"

    Holy Hunchback Beyond the Great Wall also stood up, and said in a hoarse voice, "I would have been dead 30 years ago if it wasn't for heightslord Huangfu. I have been in my prime during these 30 years. Now I will repay him the 30 years he gifted to me by sacrificing his life, and I have no regrets!"

    "How foolish! How reckless!" The dark voice said in a vicious manner.

    "Yes! That's how chivalrous men should act!" A clear voice was heard suddenly.

    Redline Lady and the others turned to see a handsome Taoist standing up. He was in a blue-white robe with a waistband made of silk. He wore a pair of hempen sandals, with a sword on his back and a long saber at his side, as one unfettered by all desires for the secular world.

    "What is this Taoist doing..." Wen Qichang and the rest were all at a loss.

    Meng Qi walked forward as he smiled and said, "However, a chivalrous man never forces anyone to do anything. Considering Mr. Wen's strength, he would not be of any help. Moreover, since he has both a wife and a daughter to take care of, staying may cost his and his family's life. Therefore, it's understandable that he did not want to help..."

    His words followed what Redline Lady said earlier on, filling Wen Qichang and Chifeng with emotions. Meanwhile, Redline Lady was filled with anger and Holy Hunchback Beyond the Great Wall's face turned gloomy as they heard what Meng Qi said.

    "Now this little Taoist can really talk sensibly." The dark voice praised him.

    Before Redline Lady even said anything, Meng Qi was stroking his blade hilt and said with a laugh, "I am Taoist Qingyuan, whose bladesmanship was once instructed by Mr. Huangfu. I am willing to help God-gathering Heights with you."

    "You..." Redline Lady did not expect things to take such a dramatic turn, and was at a loss for words as she looked at this handsome Taoist.

    "Absurd. It seems he is another foolish and reckless one..." The dark voice said coldly.

    Before the voice even ended, Meng Qi shouted with the sound of thunder,

    "Show yourself!"

    He used Eight Nine Mysteries to imitate Purple Thunder Force and facilitate the use of Thundering Scream.

    "Show yourself!"

    His voice sounded like violent thunder. Purple lightning could be seen faintly in the sky.

    A person fell from the rooftop, his body twitching vigorously as if striken by lightning. The dark voice disappeared completely.
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