Characters appearing in this chapter:
Zhao Lusi 赵露思 — Chunhua 春花
Cheng Yi 成毅 — Wu Tiankai 吴天凱
SUMMIT OF SHIFTING ILLUSIONS
Oblivious to the presence of unexpected guests, Chunhua snacked on the cakes as she headed toward the guest cabin. Suddenly, she stopped, her intuition alerting her that something was behind her. Initially, excitement washed over her, as she assumed Shangguan Qiuyue had returned earlier than expected. She swung around, a smile beginning to form on her lips.
“Gege!” She cried out jubilantly.
Just as the words left her mouth, her smile froze as she saw who approached her. Even though the intruders were still some distance away, she could make out the outline of two figures, one tall and the other slightly shorter. The shorter one struggled to walk in the deep snow, as he limped forward with the aid of a walking stick and the support of his taller companion. The wind roared at that moment, spraying snow and wetness everywhere, creating a hazy effect. Even with the low visibility, Chunhua knew neither of them were her gege. She could tell their body builds were different from Shangguan Qiuyue’s, even from some distance away.
Alarmed, she backed up a few steps, her heart pounding, even as the men continued to advance toward her. As they approached a few paces closer, she gasped, recognizing one of the strangers.
The limping man with the walking stick was the same one who had held a knife to her throat while taking her hostage in Little Star Town a couple of days ago. She recalled her gege referring to him as Hu Shenlong. Whoever he was, he was definitely foe, not friend. She knew she would be in grave danger if he were to capture her. The taller person next to Hu Shenlong exuded a distinguished aura. About seventy years of age, he still appeared dashing and attractive. Noting that the older man shared similar facial features with Hu Shenlong, Chunhua guessed that the older man was Hu Shenlong’s father.
Panicking, she turned around and ran as fast as she could through the heavy snow. Her legs kept sinking into the deep white powder, impeding her escape. She slipped and tripped, before scrambling up and running again.
“Stop!” A voice behind her shouted.
However, Chunhua did not obey. She dashed toward the guest cottage. She could hear yelling and swearing behind her, but she just concentrated on churning her legs.
She slammed into some sort of invisible barrier about one-hundred paces from the guest cottage. Her forehead throbbing from the hit, she tumbled backward from the force of the collision with the invisible wall. Dazed, she looked up and blinked. The guest cottage had strangely vanished from its original location, even though she had clearly seen it just moments ago while racing toward it.
“Where did the guest cottage go?” She panted. She glanced over to the right and stared in disbelief at the empty space where the main cottage should have been. “The other cottage disappeared, too!”
She pounded uselessly at the invisible wall again, but she couldn’t seem to penetrate it. Unsure what to do now that she didn’t have the protection of the barrier erected by Yang Feng and Yin Xue, she glanced back over her shoulder. She noticed a dark blue blur spin in the air, and within moments, Hu Shenlong and his father landed in front of her. She screamed and tried to run, but they blocked her path.
For a moment, Hu Shenlong and Hu Ming simply gaped at her, shocked into silence. Then both spoke at the same time.
“You’re the girl that night at Little Star Town.” Hu Ming narrowed his eyes speculatively at Chunhua.
Simultaneously, Hu Shenlong blurted out, “Father, that’s Shangguan Qiuyue’s tramp!”
However, Hu Ming seemed to be deep in thought and did not pay attention to his son. “How is it possible that you are still alive?” He murmured to himself.
“You tramp!” Hu Shenlong seethed. He jabbed a finger at his injured leg. “Shangguan Qiuyue did this to me!” He glanced around, searching for signs of the former demon sect leader. Hu Shenlong, too, appeared to not see the guest and main cottages. “There is nothing here, Father, except for endless snow. There isn’t even a dwelling in sight.” He turned his attention back to Chunhua, smirking, “That coward Shangguan Qiuyue must have tired of you and abandoned you here.” He reached toward Chunhua, his eyes filled with malice. “Today is your unlucky day, tramp. When I am done with you, you won’t have any tears left.”
“Silence!” Hu Ming scolded his son, slapping away the hand his son extended out to Chunhua.
The Iron Fist Clan leader scanned the landscape, and Chunhua noted that he also seemed unable to see the cottages.
After seeing only barren, snow-covered land, Hu Ming frowned. From his experience with the Yin Yang Shadows, he knew there must be some sort of illusion array hiding the true landscape and its structures. He hadn’t been back to the summit since his first wife had died decades ago. Hence, he worried about possible traps masked behind a curtain of illusion. Coaxing information from the girl would be the smarter and safer option.
With this plan in mind, Hu Ming turned his attention back toward the young maiden in front of him, his expression schooled to appear benevolent, but authoritative. “Young miss, we are looking for Noble Healer Yin Xue and Poison Master Yang Feng. Do you know where they are?”
When Chunhua remained silent, Hu Ming smiled kindly, hoping to reassure her. “You can trust us, young miss. I am Hu Ming, leader of the Iron Fist Clan, one of wulin’s most revered orthodox clans. My son and I are elder Yin Xue and Yang Feng’s family.”
Iron Fist Clan?! So this is Hu Ming of the Iron Fist Clan?! Chunhua thought in alarm.
She recalled Yang Feng’s rants last night about his phony son-in-law. Whether Hu Ming was a true hero or a hypocritical one did not concern Chunhua as much as the younger man beside Hu Ming, who kept leering at her. She clearly remembered being clamped in Hu Shenlong’s arms that night at Little Star Town, his hand choking the life out of her.
Noticing the girl’s wary eyes on his son, Hu Ming tried to assuage her worries, making his voice as pleasant as possible. “This is my son, Hu Shenlong. I apologize to you on his behalf, miss. Shenlong has always been brash, but he has a kind heart. That night at Little Star Town, he did not mean to harm you. Sometimes, in the heat of a fight, innocent bystanders get injured. I already heavily punished him.”
Hu Ming glared at his son and ordered, “Shenlong, apologize to the young maiden.”
“What?” Hu Shenlong squawked disbelievingly, thinking his father had gone mad. “Father, you want me to apologize to her? Are you joking?” He jabbed his finger at Chunhua angrily. “She should be the one apologizing to me! Because of her, that maniac Shangguan Qiuyue nearly chopped off my leg!”
“Enough, Shenlong!” The Iron Fist Clan leader barked at his clueless son. “Apologize!”
Hu Shenlong snapped his mouth shut and glowered at Chunhua. Finally, he cleared his throat and mumbled through clenched teeth, “I’m sorry.”
Hu Ming nodded, satisfied. The Iron Fist Clan leader paused, taking a moment to phrase his next words very carefully. “Err, young miss, Shenlong told me about how he accidentally cut you with his dagger that night at Little Star Town. When I found out, I made him take me back to find you, knowing that dagger was laced with poison. We wanted to save you, but you had already fainted. Then Qianyue Dong leader Shangguan Qiuyue took you away. If not, I would have moved heaven and earth to save you. I couldn’t let an innocent maiden suffer because of wulin quarrels.”
“Father, what are you talking about?” Hu Shenlong interrupted Hu Ming, flabbergasted. Never had they ever discussed about saving Shangguan Qiuyue’s tramp, so why was his father wasting time lying to the girl?
“Silence, Shenlong!” Hu Ming roared, before turning back to Chunhua. A gentle, fatherly smile replaced his rage as he addressed Chunhua again. “Young miss, it’s so reassuring to find out that you are alive and well. Shenlong’s dagger was laced with a rare poison that only the antidote could cure. Without the antidote, the victim would die within hours.” His eyes sharpened as he prepared to ask his most important question. “It’s been about three days now since you were poisoned. Shenlong had accidentally spilled the only antidote available a long time ago. Therefore, without the antidote, how did you survive?”
Throughout Hu Ming’s speech, Chunhua had been urgently thinking of possible escape plans, but his intense interest in how she survived her poisoning caught her attention. Her eyes drifted down toward Hu Shenlong’s leg injury, and suddenly she knew why this father and son pair had come to look for Yang Feng and Yin Xue. They needed someone to heal Hu Shenlong’s injury. Hu Ming must assume that she was an exceptional healer and could cure herself, since she didn’t die from the poison.
Armed with this possible advantage, Chunhua straightened her posture and plastered on a condescending expression, unconsciously imitating Shangguan Qiuyue when he wanted to intimidate someone.
“Of course, I survived,” Chunhua boasted with a smug smile. “That poison is child’s play. Other than Noble Healer Yin Xue, no one else in the world can match my healing skills.”
The flash of interest in the Iron Fist Clan leader’s eyes intensified. “Does young miss know Noble Healer Yin Xue?” Hu Ming asked. “Is that why you are here on the Summit of Shifting Illusions?”
“Of course, I know Noble Healer Yin Xue.” She gave a little patronizing chuckle. “I am her new disciple, her one and only disciple.”
Hu Ming assessed Chunhua with shrewd eyes, trying to decide whether to believe her. His former mother-in-law, Yin Xue, had never accepted disciples other than her own daughter, his deceased first wife. Could this girl be lying about being Noble Healer Yin Xue’s new disciple? However, it was undeniable that this little girl now stood before them, alive and well, despite being poisoned by the Chameleon Crawl’s toxin. How could she possibly survive if she weren’t Yin Xue’s disciple and an accomplished healer herself? If she truly possessed healing skills, second only to Yin Xue, then taking her hostage would be extremely beneficial to him and his plans for wulin domination. Most importantly, she could help cure his son’s leg.
“Clan Leader Hu, my teacher is not entertaining guests or accepting patients right now.” Chunhua’s words intruded on Hu Ming’s thoughts. “Perhaps you and the young master should return another time.”
“Why should we do what you ask, little tramp?” Hu Shenlong blurted out rudely.
“Silence, Shenlong!” Hu Ming growled, wishing his son would just shut his mouth this one time.
After sending Hu Shenlong a warning glare, Hu Ming turned back to Chunhua, his smile back in place. “Ah, but we’re not guests, little girl,” Hu Ming countered slyly. “Yin Xue and Yang Feng are my in-laws. We are family. I’m sure the elders will be willing to grant us an audience.” He beckoned for his son, Hu Shenlong, and took a step forward.
“Clan Leader Hu is welcomed to try to find elders Yin Xue and Yang Feng, but as you can see, they have hidden their cottage for privacy.” Chunhua gestured toward the empty expanse behind her.
She observed Hu Ming surreptitiously to see if he believed that the Yin Yang Shadows were present but just hidden for privacy. She hoped he would be frightened by the possibility that the elders were close by and just leave with his wretched son.
Hu Ming’s gaze surveyed the vastness behind Chunhua. He was not an inexperienced idiot. The little girl was obviously trying to scare him with the hint that Yin Xue and Yang Feng were on the summit. However, Hu Ming knew his former in-laws well enough to know that the rash Yang Feng would have burst out of the cottage to scold him the moment the old man noticed him on the summit, and Yin Xue would have followed to glare disapprovingly at him. Since they have not yet appeared, they most definitely were not present on the mountain.
He narrowed his eyes calculatingly at the young woman in front of him and then at the empty space behind her, where he knew the cottage stood behind a curtain of illusion. Perhaps today’s climb up the mountain would not be wasted, as his eyes drifted back toward Chunhua. The elderly couple had never liked him. He knew they had only tolerated him in the past because of their love for their only daughter. Now that their daughter, his first wife, had died, the old couple had no reason to continue to tolerate him and save his son, Shenlong. Despite his relatively accomplished martial arts skills, he could not overpower his former in-laws and force them to help him. Therefore, this little girl might be more useful to him, if she really indeed was Yin Xue’s disciple and possessed superior healing skills.
“Young miss,” Hu Ming began with a smile on his face, “since elders Yin Xue and Yang Feng are not here, then maybe you could help us.”
“Me?” Chunhua squeaked slightly, starting to feel anxious.
“Of course,” the Iron Fist Clan leader widened his smile. “You are Noble Healer Yin Xue’s disciple, aren’t you?”
“Uh..,” Chunhua gulped, “of course, I am!”
“That’s great!” Hu Ming chuckled, but the insincere undertones could be heard clearly. “Then you should have no problem healing my son’s leg wound.”
Knowing full well that she, who actually had no medical knowledge, would fail miserably at tending to someone’s wound, especially one as severe and hopeless as the injury on Hu Shenlong’s leg, Chunhua feigned an aloof attitude and folded her arms across her chest. “Why should I help you after your son took me hostage? You should just leave now and come back another time when my teacher is willing to see patients.”
She waved her hand dismissively at the father and son pair and turned to walk away. Although she seemed composed and confident, Chunhua’s heart pounded, as she prayed that these two unwanted guests would quickly leave. If they insisted on having her heal the leg wound, she would be exposed as a phony doctor very swiftly.
She bravely continued walking as calmly as she could away from Hu Ming and Hu Shenlong, forcing herself not to look back to see what the father and son were doing behind her. When she counted at least twenty steps without anyone stopping her, a kernel of hope began blossoming inside her heart. Unfortunately, on her twenty-first step, a large hand landed on her shoulder, nailing her to the snowy ground.
“Little girl, I’m a very civilized, reasonable person. I am politely asking you to help my son. If you succeed, you will have my utmost gratitude. If you don’t…well, we will discuss the consequences if it comes to that.” The Iron Fist Clan leader’s breath brushed against her cheek as he leaned down to whisper threateningly in her ear. His voice, although quiet and cultured, caused her skin to tingle unpleasantly, as if being scraped by a thousand sharp needles.
Chunhua swallowed, frantically reviewing her options in her mind. Yin Xue indeed did just accept her as disciple earlier this morning, but the elderly healer hadn’t taught her anything yet. Her lie about being an accomplished physician will be revealed instantly if she attempted to treat the Iron Fist Clan young master’s wound.
What would her gege do in this situation? The obvious answer would be that he would threaten his opponent and most likely kill the offending character. She did not wish to take anyone’s life, nor did she have the ability to kill the father and son pair. However, she could certainly try to threaten them.
Pasting on a mocking expression, Chunhua swiveled around and looked Hu Ming straight in the eyes. “Clan Leader Hu, do you really want to make an enemy out of me today? I’m sure you are familiar with my gege Shangguan Qiuyue’s reputation. If you hurt me, then you also antagonize him. He will hunt you down.”
Hearing her words, the brash Hu Shenlong hobbled forward and retorted disdainfully. “You little tramp dare to say such words to my father? Do you know anything about our Iron Fist Clan?” He puffed out his chest proudly. “We are one of the largest and most powerful wulin clans. Do you think we are scared of Shangguan Qiuyue?”
Hu Ming sent his son a warning glance before he could say more. Directing his attention back toward Chunhua, the Iron Fist Clan leader spread out his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Little miss, I have no desire to anger Shangguan Qiuyue. I simply want to save my son. As long as you heal his leg wound, I will set you free.”
The older gentleman gestured at his son’s injured leg and stared expectantly at Chunhua. His words sounded reasonable, but Chunhua sensed that this man hid a cunning and sinister side underneath his cultured facade and was a thousand times more dangerous than his loud-mouth son. There was no guarantee that he would spare her life, even if she somehow managed to miraculously save Hu Shenlong’s leg. She darted her eyes furtively around, hoping to find some sort of escape route.
Hu Ming laughed slightly, as if reading her thoughts. “Don’t even think about running, little girl. You can’t outrun us. In addition, there is nowhere to go on this deserted summit.” He pointed at the miles of white vastness surrounding them. Nothing could be seen except for endless mist and swirling snow. “What will you do? Jump off the mountain? Young miss, your best option right now is to help my son. I promise I will not harm you if you cooperate.”
Chunhua realized the Iron Fist Clan leader will not give up until he forced her to treat his son’s wound. With no other option, she straightened and forced a smile onto her lips. “Fine,” she bluffed. “Since I’m bored right now, anyway, I will amuse myself by looking at your son’s injury.”
She took a step toward Hu Shenlong, but the irascible young master jerked back.
“Father,” Hu Shenlong began, his suspicious eyes watching Chunhua closely, “do you think this is a good idea? What if she tries to kill me?”
“Nonsense!” Hu Ming declared, as he sent Chunhua a warning glance. “With me around, this young miss will try her best to heal you. Won’t you?” He smiled coldly at the young woman beside him.
“Of course, I’m going to heal your son! Rest assured, the young master’s leg will be back to normal once I am done with him.” Chunhua laughed uneasily back at the Iron Fist Clan leader, even though she had no idea what to do. Then she shifted her eyes to the younger man, who was still observing her warily. “Well, Young Master Hu, do you want me to take a look at your wound, or not? Scared of me?” She lifted an eyebrow disdainfully at Hu Shenlong.
The young man straightened, obviously offended by her goading. “Afraid of you?” He spat, “You should be frightened of me, little tramp.” He glared at her and then hobbled over to a tree stump. After brushing off the snow, he plopped down heavily, as his injured leg had started to throb painfully after standing on it for so long. He gestured at his leg wound and looked up at her expectantly. “Well?”
Chunhua darted her eyes at Hu Ming one last time, as he loomed over her threateningly. Sighing silently, she wrung her icy, stiff fingers and slowly trudged through the snow toward Hu Shenlong. Her heart thumped, and her hands began to shake uncontrollably, not from the cold, but from fear that she will die today and never see Shangguan Qiuyue again.
She clenched her quivering hands and stuffed them into her clock pockets to hide her anxiety. Her knuckles knocked against something smooth and cold. Immediately, she recognized her perfume bottles containing the winterberry paralyzing solution she had collected from her bathwater earlier! She had been admiring her pretty bottles before going to the main cottage for food. She must have stuffed them into her cloak pocket absentmindedly. Her heart somersaulted with joy as a plan began forming in her mind.
Approaching Hu Shenlong, she knelt down in front of him and made a dramatic show of examining his leg wound. His cloth bandage, now soaked by the snow, plastered against his leg, and Chunhua could clearly see the outline of the gaping hole underneath the wrapping.
“I need to take off the bandage to inspect your injury,” she stated, trying to inject a tone of authority into her voice.
Without waiting for permission, she started to peel off the swath of fabric. As more of the injury became visible, Chunhua nearly choked from the nausea surging up her throat. The wound gaped open from where Shangguan Qiuyue had stabbed Hu Shenlong’s leg. She could see blackened flesh, muscle, and bone. The leg opening no longer bled, indicating a lack of blood circulation to the area of the wound. With the blood supply cut off, the flesh and tissues around the injury had begun to rot. From the amount of blackened tissues, Chunhua doubted the leg could be saved. However, she certainly wasn’t going to tell the father and son pair that predication.
“Well, can you do something about the leg?” Hu Ming leaned down to ask the young woman anxiously.
Hu Shenlong winced as Chunhua peered at the incredible amount of redness and swelling on the leg around the gapping hole. “Of course, something can be done!” She declared with feigned confidence.
She dug out one of the small flasks containing the winterberry solution from her cloak pocket and poured a few drops onto Hu Shenlong’s leg wound.
“What did you pour onto my leg?” The young man scooted back in alarm and nearly fell off the tree stump he was sitting on.
In the next moment, however, he calmed down suddenly, and his expression changed to surprise. “My leg…my leg feels much better!” Hu Shenlong glanced up at his father in disbelief that this girl may actually be able to heal his injury.
“Really?” Hu Ming asked hopefully.
“Yes, the pain in my leg has vanished!” Hu Shenlong affirmed joyously.
Upon hearing his son’s words, the Iron Fist Clan leader turned to Chunhua with renewed interest and a tinge of respect in his eyes. “Young miss, it seems that your skills are indeed extraordinary. What is that medicine?” He pointed at the flask in Chunhua’s hands. “I am willing to purchase it from you at whatever price you name if it can cure my son’s leg.”
“There is no need to pay me.” Chunhua replied magnanimously. “A healer’s duty is to help her patients. The tissue on the young master’s leg is dying, but this elixir can regenerate dead tissue.”
She handed the flask to Hu Ming. The older gentleman took the bottle from her eagerly.
“Well, since the young master’s problem has now been solved, I would like to leave. I still have other matters to attend to.” Chunhua declared those words with a rather shrill, anxious laugh.
Trying to appear nonchalant, she started inching away from the father and son. The numbing effects of the winterberry potion temporarily took away Hu Shenlong’s pain. However, soon they will discover that the solution not only numbed, it also paralyzed, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently, and then they will kill her. She had to get away now while the father and son duo still thought she was some miracle healer. She couldn’t descend the mountain herself, but perhaps she could hide amongst the thick groves of trees in the distance until either Shangguan Qiuyue or Yin Xue returned to rescue her.
“Leaving so quickly, young miss?” Hu Ming immediately clamped his hand down onto Chunhua’s arm as she tried to sidle past him. “If you don’t mind, I would prefer that you stay right here to administer the elixir to my son.” He sent a phony smile. “Besides, my son and I would like to thank you once his leg completely heals. We would like to invite you as our special guest to Hu Manor.” Hu Ming’s eyes bored into hers, clearly telling her that she would not be able to leave until he had definitive proof that his son was going to recover.
Chunhua responded with a fake smile of her own. “You’re too polite, Clan Leader Hu. There is no need to thank me. As I said before, it is my responsibility as a healer to help patients. Now if you don’t mind, I really have to go.”
She tried to scurry past Hu Ming again, but the clan leader tightened his hold on her arm.
“I do mind.” His steely gaze bored into her eyes. “Stay,” he ordered, his tone indicating that she would have to remain, whether she wanted to or not.
Chunhua chuckled nervously. “All right, then! I will stay!”
Hu Ming pushed Chunhua toward his son and extended his hand, indicating that she should take the flask of winterberry solution she had just given him. “Take it,” he commanded. “I want you to administer the treatment.”
Chunhua stared at the small bottle he thrust into her hand, as her mind raced to come up with a plan to get out of this situation. Any moment now, Hu Shenlong was going to start noticing that his injured leg, the one she had just poured a few drops of solution onto earlier, couldn’t move. If she poured any more winterberry toxin on his leg now, the paralyzing effects will only reveal themselves even sooner. Just when she was about to give up hope of escaping this perilous mess, an idea appeared.
With this new plan in mind, she pasted on a serene smile and handed the flask back to Hu Ming. “You don’t understand, Clan Leader Hu,” she explained. “You, not I, will need to apply the potion for your son.” When the Iron Fist Clan leader raised his eyebrows skeptically, Chunhua further elaborated, “I don’t have any martial arts skills and lack internal energy. Therefore, the few drops of medicated potion I applied to the young master’s leg merely helped with his pain. In order to release this elixir’s true healing potential and completely cure the young master’s leg, this medicated potion will need to be administered in conjunction with a dose of your internal energy.”
When Hu Ming narrowed his eyes at her suspiciously, she hurriedly blurted out the confusing martial arts jargon she had heard Shangguan Qiuyue talk about in the past when she had asked him about his internal energy injury. Before, she had only partially listened to her gege, finding his martial arts talk nonsensical and boring. However, now she wished she had paid more attention to him. Regardless, she had absorbed enough information from Shangguan Qiuyue to sound persuasive, as she looked at Hu Ming earnestly.
“Your qi, delivered along with the potion, will open the young master’s meridian channels, paving a smooth path for the medication to reach his inner core to facilitate healing and recovery.” She finished her lies with a convincing nod.
For a long moment, the distinguished-looking elder stared at her quietly, his expression unfathomable. Chunhua resisted the urge to shift worriedly on her feet, while she bravely stared back at the older man. Finally, to her immense relief, the Iron Fist Clan leader nodded.
“Fine,” Hu Ming took the flask from Chunhua and swirled the liquid inside. “What do I have to do?”
Chunhua nearly fainted from relief when Hu Ming did not see through her fibs. “Clan Leader Hu, just pour three drops of potion onto your palms and rub them together for a few seconds. Then, place your palms above and below the young master’s leg wound and channel your internal energy toward his leg.” Chunhua made up the lies as she talked, using random knowledge she had learned from being around Shangguan Qiuyue and her former fiance, Xiao Bai, to help her phony words appear more plausible.
“How long do I have to channel my internal energy?” The Iron Fist Clan leader asked, his initial suspicions slowly dissipating, as everything Chunhua had said so far seemed congruent with usual internal energy healing techniques.
“For as long as it takes to close the young master’s leg wound,” Chunhua answered promptly.
Already planning her escape, she surreptitiously glanced toward the thick grove of trees in the distance. Leafless, the trees’ old, gnarly branches curved and twisted around each other like demonic claws, grappling and strangling each other. Even though devoid of leaves, the trees grew so close to each other that their thick, tangled boughs weaved a dense wall that she could hide behind. Once the elder clan leader rubbed enough of paralyzing toxin onto his palms, his hands will become numb. Taking advantage of his shock, Chunhua planned to immediately run toward the grove of trees and hopefully be able to hide undetected behind the web of branches.
With that plan in mind, she watched anxiously as Hu Ming poured several drops of the winterberry solution onto his palms. Focusing his attention on channeling his qi toward his son’s leg wound, he barely paid Chunhua any heed.
“How do you feel, son?” Hu Ming muttered, concentrating on directing the potion, along with his qi, toward Hu Shenlong.
“I’m…I’m not sure, Father,” the younger man mumbled. “The pain is gone, but my leg is beginning to feel strangely thick and heavy.” He then tried to lift his injured leg, but to his alarm, he couldn’t move it. “Father!” He gasped, panic blossoming in his chest. “I can’t move my leg!”
Flabbergasted, Hu Ming’s eyes narrowed. “What? That can’t be! You were moving that leg well just a few moments ago!”
Pure fear caused Hu Shenlong to sob, “I can’t move it, Father! I can’t move my leg!” He tried with all his might and willed his leg to move, but it remained limply glued to the snowy ground.
As his son continued to wail in shock, Hu Ming whirled around, his furious eyes pierced Chunhua. “What is going on? You dare deceive me?”
Without answering, Chunhua swiveled around and raced off as fast as she could go in the knee-deep snow. Her previous plan of hiding among the thick grove of trees in the distance forgotten in the midst of her panic, she dashed haphazardly with no particular direction in mind, her thoughts only on her main goal to get away from the father and son pair.
Inopportunely, the blizzard increased in ferocity, as wind and snow slapped ruthlessly at her face, blinding her. By this time, night had arrived, her rapidly darkening surroundings further limiting Chunhua’s ability to see clearly. The deep snow slowed her escape further, making her every step feel like trying to slog through quick sand. Therefore, she did not run far before she felt Hu Ming grab her shoulder and spin her roughly around.
Meeting the Iron Fist Clan leader’s murderous eyes, Chunhua gulped. “Listen to me explain, Clan Leader Hu.” She started making up lies that sounded rational. “The medicine’s effect is to first numb and paralyze to allow the limb to rest and cleanse away the dead tissue before allowing healing to start.”
“Really?” Hu Ming glared at her menacingly, his expression clearly doubtful.
Chunhua nodded furiously and desperately, “Really, really. I can really help the young master! If you kill me, your son’s leg cannot be cured!” Chunhua quickly bargained.
“Little girl, I have been slaying enemies for decades before you were even born,” the Iron Fist Clan leader chuckled coldly. “Do you think you can fool me twice? Do you think I will still trust you after that game you just played?”
Before giving her a chance to reply, he drew back his right hand and punched forward, aiming to kill Chunhua. However, mid-punch, his right hand dropped like a limp rag at the wrist joint, causing him to lose his ability to channel his qi through his right palm.
Furious, Hu Ming pointed an accusing finger at the young woman with his left hand. Then suddenly, his left hand also dropped at the wrist joint, too “You little brat! That ‘medicinal potion’ you gave me is obviously a paralytic solution. Give me the antidote, or I will kill you!”
Having no antidote to give the older man, Chunhua turned and ran as fast as she could. She knew she could not outrun him and may very well die today, but she refused to just stand there and let him simply kill her. Unfortunately, despite her brave conviction to fight until the very end, Hu Ming easily caught up with her with one airborne somersault.
He landed in front of her, blocked her path, and kicked forward, targeting her midsection, as internal bleeding from a gut injury would grant her the most slow and painful death.
Seeing the oncoming leg, Chunhua yelped and crossed her arms in front of her belly, trying to protect her baby, yet knew her actions would be useless. Miraculously, however, something seemed to suddenly knock her attacker away.
Chunhua could only gawk as Hu Ming staggered backward.
Expecting an effortless kill, the sudden solid wall of qi emitting from the Chunhua’s midsection area shocked Hu Ming speechless. The inexplicable internal energy scorched his sole and aggressively pushed him away, forcing him to stumble several steps away from the girl. Finally steadying himself on the slippery, snowy ground, the Iron Fist Clan leader blinked and stared at Chunhua in disbelief.
From the way she walked and moved and from the absence of an aura of internal energy surrounding her, Hu Ming knew definitively that the girl lacked cultivation and martial arts skills. Yet, the unusual burst of internal energy from her midsection area baffled and intrigued him. Then, a distant detail in his mind leapt to the forefront, and he perused Chunhua with renewed interest.
“What is happening, Father?” Hu Shenlong called out in the background from his perch on the tree stump. Because he could not move his paralyzed, injured leg, he could not rush over to see what was happening. However, even in the midst of the howling wind, he could hear the impact of his father’s foot colliding with the wall of qi from Chunhua’s midsection.
Hu Ming ignored his son and instead focused his full attention on Chunhua. “I remember now! You are that girl who was rumored to have ingested the immortality nut and came back to life! I didn’t believe in such nonsense when I first heard the tale circulating around wulin, but now, I think there must be some truth to the rumor. If not, what could explain that odd internal energy radiating from you?”
Chunhua gulped and didn’t answer him. Instead, she backed away from the older man discreetly. The greedy and sudden fanatical gleam in his eyes alarmed her and reminded her uncomfortably of a hunter who intended to slaughter and tear his prey’s limbs apart, one by one, before consuming it.
“Did the immortality nut really make you immortal, girl? Is that why you survived the Chameleon Crawl’s poison? You’re alive, not because you are an accomplished healer, but because you consumed the immortality nut.” He fired the questions at her, his eyes becoming more maniacal with every assumption he made. “If I drain your qi, perhaps your immortality will transfer over to me!”
Hearing his creepy words, Chunhua shook uncontrollably, and summoning whatever strength she had left, she turned and darted in the opposite direction as quickly as possible. She could hear the Iron Fist Clan leader behind her.
“Gege, Gege, where are you? Help me!” Chunhua sobbed to herself, her heart pounding so loudly that she could feel the blood throbbing at her temples.
Her hand went to her right wrist, seeking the ice silk pearl bracelet Shangguan Qiuyue had gifted her. He had told her he would always be able to sense her location as long as she kept the bracelet on. Her heart lurched when she could not find the bracelet, and she frantically looked down at her bare right wrist.
“The bracelet is gone!” She panted in alarm, as she continued running. “I must have dropped it somewhere unknowingly!”
Unsure what to do now, Chunhua darted blindly through the thick curtain of snow, unaware that she was heading dangerously close to the edge of the cliff.
“Come back here, little girl.” Behind her, Hu Ming’s raspy grunting sounded like death knells.
She could now practically feel the older man’s hot breath on the back of her neck. Chunhua freaked and turned back to see Hu Ming’s obscene grin leering back at her barely a few paces away. Before, she thought the Iron Fist Clan leader looked quite handsome and distinguished, despite his age. Now, however, he appeared demonic, deranged, and terrifying, like a cannibal licking his lips, ready to sink his teeth into human flesh. His previous words about draining her qi echoed in her mind, and her overactive imagination conjured up an image of herself being dismembered and consumed.
Nauseous, she scrambled faster, but her feet kept slipping on the slick ice near the cliff’s edge that had formed overnight. One moment, her feet slid on the ice sheet uncontrollably, and then the next moment, she lost contact with solid ground and plummeted over the mountainside. As she dropped, she could see Hu Ming’s crazed expression change to shock as she fell off the cliff, and then his figure quickly disappeared as she plunged faster and faster downward.
Everything felt surreal, as the icy wind slashed at her cheeks on her rapid descent from the summit. She wanted to scream but couldn’t emit any sound. She flailed her arms, panicking as she grasped at nothing but air. Her heart seemed to lurch out of her chest, and she started to hyperventilate. Not long later, her vision grayed, and she passed out from sheer fear.
With the blizzard roaring in full force, wind howled across the base of the Summit of Shifting Illusions, magnifying the night’s iciness exponentially. The white-robed man shifted his two travel bags more securely over his shoulder and glanced up at the night sky. Blinking at the constant onslaught of snow flurries, he squinted, hoping to see up the mountain, but spied nothing but complete blackness in the moonless, starless night.
Wu Tiankai sighed, knowing the unfavorable weather conditions would make his ascent to the peak very dangerous. As another frigid gust of wind and snow blasted him in the face, he huddled deeper into his fur-lined cloak and briefly considered finding accommodations for the night and then continuing up the mountain in the morning when visibility improved. However, without any lighting, he could barely see his own hands in front of him, let alone search for an inn in the distance. With very little chance of locating accommodations in the snowstorm, he might as well start his journey to the peak tonight.
Sighing again, Wu Tiankai pulled the sides of his cloak more tightly together and prepared for a perilous climb up the mountain. As he trudged closer toward the base of the Summit of Shifting Illusions, he noticed a small hut nearby, hidden from view by the thick wall of snow and darkness. He almost missed it, had he not been looking carefully. Curious, he turned toward the dwelling, hoping he could seek refuge there for the night.
Suddenly, he sensed a shift in the air and jerked his head upward.
He was not alone anymore.
As soon as that thought popped into his mind, he spied something rapidly falling toward him from above. He almost missed the descending object in the complete darkness, if not for his heightened senses from his years of martial arts training. Reflexively, he somersaulted up into the air, and grabbing onto the side of the mountain, he scaled it quickly. About midway to the summit, he released his hold and kicked off the side of the cliff, using it as a springboard to launch himself toward the plunging form, snatching it midair. He immediately realized the object he caught was a small woman or a youth the moment he felt the petite, lightweight body in his arms.
With several more flips, he landed safely on the ground with his new companion. He glanced down at the person in his arms and breathed a sigh of relief, as he recognized Miss Chunhua. He had felt guilty about using the helpless young woman as a hostage in his quarrel with Shangguan Qiuyue and had worried constantly that he had inadvertently killed her. Now seeing that she had, so far, survived the poisoning, he silently thanked the heavens for keeping her alive.
“Miss Chunhua? Miss Chunhua?” He called to her several times, but she remained unconscious.
Concern started creeping into the recesses of his mind and replaced his initial feeling of relief at seeing her alive, as the Silver Tiger Clan leader wondered why Miss Chunhua had fallen off the cliff. Her presence here confirmed his guess that Shangguan Qiuyue had indeed brought her to the Summit of Shifting Illusions to seek help from the Yin Yang Shandows. However, was she thrown off the mountain? Where was Shangguan Qiuyue? If the former demon sect leader was around, Miss Chunhua would not have fallen over the cliff.
A gale struck him at that moment, nearly knocking him back a few paces. Seeing that the frosty blast had sent the unconscious Chunhua in his arms shivering uncontrollably, Wu Tiankai immediately chose to seek refuge in the hut nearby until the blizzard calmed. He didn’t think she would be able to survive the cold if he tried to piggyback her up the mountain. With that decision in mind, the Silver Tiger Clan leader headed toward the hut not too far away, hoping whomever lived there would be kind enough to offer them shelter.
After several steps, he suddenly stopped. The wind wailed and whistled, and yet, he could hear the subtle sounds of footsteps swiftly approaching from the distance. He estimated a total of approximately ten men, heavily armed, as he heard the distinct whisper of sword blades sliding out from their sheaths. Whether friend or foe, Wu Tiankai guessed that these men’s presence must be related to Miss Chunhua’s fall from the cliff.
“Miss Chunhua, are you awake?” The clan leader again asked the young maiden in his arms.
Unfortunately, she continued to slumber, oblivious to the approaching company. As muted sounds of footsteps gliding over snow grew louder, Wu Tiankai could make out the vague orange-red glow of firelight from torches in the distance. The dots of color danced and flickered like fireflies against the dark canopy of night. As more and more torches became visible, he realized that the group of people was much larger than the ten he had originally estimated.
Within seconds, a group of twenty men flipped through the air and landed in front of him, every person in the ensemble carrying a torch. They surrounded the white-robed man holding the unconscious maiden in his arms, trapping them within the circle of flames.
The firelight cast a dreamy, orange glow upon the snowy ground and washed over the pair standing within the center of the circle. The pale light accentuated the handsome, refined features of the tall man in the long, flowing robes. The maiden in his arms, the soft firelight kissing her delicate countenance, breathed gently in peaceful sleep, her daintiness further emphasized by the voluminous red cloak engulfing her. All around, lacy snowflakes twirled like miniature dancing fairies. The scene exuded a sense of serenity and romance. However, the unfriendly, cold eyes of the men encompassing the couple clashed with the idyllic illusion.
The men, dressed in the red uniform of the Iron Fist Clan, brandished their swords, standing at attention, as a tall man of medium build stepped forward. He appeared to be the leader of the group, as he wore a deep burgundy-colored robe instead of the red uniforms the others wore. He observed Wu Tiankai for a long moment, stared up at the mountain, and then redirected his attention back to the young man carrying the maiden in his arms. As the eldest disciple of the Iron Fist Clan, Zhou Li had been specifically tasked by Hu Ming to guard the base of the Summit of Shifting Illusions while he and the young master ascended the mountain to seek medical help. In addition, Hu Ming had commanded him to detain any suspicious characters until he descended the mountain. Tasked with such grave instructions, the burgundy-robed Zhou Li was determined to not disappoint his clan leader’s trust in him.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” Zhou Li asked rudely, obviously not recognizing Wu Tiankai as the Silver Tiger Clan leader.
Wu Tiankai merely smiled, ignoring the other man’s obnoxious tone. Very few people in wulin knew him as the Silver Tiger Clan leader. Before taking over his father’s position as the Silver Tiger Clan leader, he, mostly an introvert, rarely made public appearances. After becoming clan leader, he spent the majority of his time cultivating and refining his martial arts skills, while Uncle Wang San helped him handle the clan’s daily affairs.
“Hey!” The eldest Iron Fist Clan disciple boorishly questioned Wu Tiankai again. “I asked who you are!”
Unfazed, Wu Tiankai scanned the group of Iron Fist Clan disciples, noting the absence of Clan Leader Hu Ming. “My…,” he paused and looked down on the slumbering Chunhua for a moment before looking back at Zhou Li, “…little sister and I were initially lost in the snowstorm, but I have figured out our way home now. We will take our leave.” Wu Tiankai nodded politely to the group and took a step to the side, intending to casually stroll out of the circle formed by the Iron Fist Clan members.
Unfortunately, Zhou Li stepped in front of Wu Tiankai, extending his arm out to block the white-robed man’s path. “You and your little sister will have to stay here until I say you can go.” His teacher, Hu Ming, had asked him to detain all suspicious characters, and this “brother-sister” pair certainly seemed dubious, coincidentally wandering around “lost” during a blizzard in the middle of nowhere.
Wu Tiankai’s polite smile remained firmly intact, unbothered by Zhou Li’s unreasonable demand. “Hero, I am afraid my younger sister will not be able to withstand this numbing weather. She is already so cold that she has passed out. If we stay here any longer, she will freeze to death. We are just harmless common folk. Surely, you can let us leave.”
However, Zhou Li refused to move out of the way. “Your sister’s livelihood is not my concern. You two must stay.”
“Then I must respectfully decline.” Wu Tiankai countered.
With those words, the Silver Tiger Clan leader suddenly leapt into the air and kicked at the torches held by three of the Iron Fist Clan members, causing the three men to jump out of the way to avoid getting burned as their torches tumbled from their hands. In the confusion, Wu Tiankai stepped onto their heads and somersaulted out of the circle formed by the Iron Fist Clan disciples.
Zhoul Li gaped, shocked that this scholarly man, who looked like he couldn’t hold anything heavier than a calligraphy brush, could escape so quickly. The Iron Fist Clan eldest disciple swung around, only to see Wu Tiankai’s white robes rapidly vanishing into the night.
“Go after them!” He ordered the rest of the Iron Fist Clan students. “Teacher wants us to apprehend everyone loitering around the base of the summit!”
The Iron Fist Clan students scrambled and chased after Wu Tiankai and Chunhua. Four of the disciples threw their torches at the fleeing pair, but the white-robed man adroitly kicked at them midair, sending the flaming sticks hurtling back at the Iron Fist Clan members. One student managed to roll out of the way, but the other three didn’t move fast enough, and the torches struck them, causing them to screech in panic as flames engulfed them.
In the ensuing chaos, a few of the other pupils ran to their fellow Iron Fist Clan members’ aid, while Zhou Li led the remaining disciples and flew after Wu Tiankai. However, Zhou Li and his junior martial brothers could not match the Silver Tiger Clan leader’s speed, and as a last resort, he ordered his fellow clansmen to fling their swords at their escaping target.
The oncoming rain of blades did not deter Wu Tiankai. Ripping one of his travel sacks off his shoulder, he dumped the clothes out, and using the long swath of fabric making up the sack, he strapped Chunhua securely on his back, freeing up both of his hands. From his waist sash, he removed two long wooden sticks and tossed them into the air. The sticks separated, pulling the strings between them taut. He swung around to face the pursuing Iron Fist Clan students, and with his guzheng levitating in front of him propped up by qi, Wu Tiankai strummed at the strings. The melodic notes echoed through the night, and from the midst of wind and snow, a sudden wall of qi formed and shoved back the Iron Fist Clan disciples. Zhou Li skidded backward but managed to remain standing, while his junior martial brothers keeled over each other from the impact. Unwilling to give up, Zhou Li again charged forward. This time, Wu Tiankai plucked at the guzheng strings in rapid succession, creating a series of high pitched tones. Immediately, his opponents shrieked in pain, slamming their foreheads against the ground in a desperate attempt to stop their excruciating headaches. Observing the bedlam in front of him, Wu Tiankai smiled slightly before turning around and flying off with Chunhua.
Two hours after Wu Tiankai’s departure, two figures could be seen slowly descending the mountain. The older man landed first and turned to help the younger one safely to the ground. He then turned to his disciples sprawled across the snow in various states of distress.
“What is going on?” Hu Ming roared.
Locating Zhou Li, his eldest disciple, Hu Ming propped him up into a sitting position before applying pressure to a series of meridian points on his student to stabilize his qi. Zhou Li breathed a sigh of relief as the pain subsided.
“Teacher,” Zhou Li panted.
“What happened? Who did this to you?” Hu Ming demanded, his eyes noting his other students still rolling back and forth on the ground in agony.
“Teacher, we found some man wandering around the base of the mountain, and following Teacher’s instructions, we tried to detain him.” Hu Ming’s eldest disciple explained. “Unfortunately, he escaped.”
“One man was able to injure all twenty of you?” The Iron Fist Clan leader asked incredulously.
Zhou Li nodded, still gasping for breath. “Please forgive me, Teacher. I underestimated him. He appeared like a pretty boy scholar who knew nothing of martial arts, but he was so fast and managed to knock us all back with a weapon that looked like a guzheng.”
“Guzheng?” Hu Shenlong hobbled over and whacked Zhou Li on the head. “Zhou Li, you bring such shame upon our Iron Fist Clan. How could you be defeated by a weak scholar brandishing a guzheng? What did he do? Kill you with boredom with his poor instrument playing skills?” The Iron Fist Clan young master rolled his eyes sarcastically.
“Silence!” Hu Ming glared at his son, jabbing his finger at him.
The Iron Fist Clan leader narrowed his eyes at what his elder disciple had told him: a lone man who could swiftly defeat twenty of his well-trained students with a few flicks of the guzheng. Hu Ming rapidly scanned his mind for skilled pugilists fitting the description of a handsome scholar with a weaponized guzheng. Only one person in wulin fit that description.
Hu Ming directed his attention to all his students. Some have finally pulled themselves up to a sitting position, while some still writhed painfully on the ground.
“I’ve repeatedly told all of you to not jump to conclusions and underestimate your opponents by appearance alone!” Hu Ming yelled at them, including his son. “Do you know that ‘weak scholar brandishing a guzheng’ is actually the Silver Tiger Clan leader, Wu Tiankai? He had defeated numerous skilled pugilists in the past with a few plucks of his guzheng.”
“Then…then…should we chase after him, Teacher?” Zhou Li stammered, trying to appease his teacher.
“Chase after him?” Hu Ming laughed bitterly. “How? He’s gone.” He stared off into the distance, muttering to himself. “Why was Wu Tiankai here at the Summit of Shifting Illusions?”
“Maybe like Teacher, he was seeking medical help from the Yin Yang Shadows for his younger sister?” Zhou Li suggested.
“Younger sister?” Hu Ming blinked. “Wu Tiankai does not have a younger sister. As far as I know, he is an only child, unless his father, Wu Zhong, had a child out of wedlock. If he did, news would have spread throughout wulin long ago about this illegitimate daughter.”
“Then who is the young maiden in Wu Tiankai’s arms tonight? If she is not his sister, then why would he bother protecting her? He could have dumped her, easing his own escape.” The eldest Iron Fist Clan disciple murmured.
“Young maiden in his arms?” Hu Ming immediately jerked his attention back to his eldest disciple. “He had a young maiden with him?”
Zhou Li nodded. “Yes, he was carrying some woman in his arms. She appeared unconscious.”
The Iron Fist Clan leader processed this information and guessed that Wu Tiankai must have rescued Chunhua after she had fallen off the cliff. He clenched his right hand, which had recovered sensation by now.
“Gather all the disciples,” Hu Ming ordered Zhou Li, “and conduct a search for Wu Tiankai and the girl.” The old clan leader’s eyes narrowed, a glint of greed flashing across them. “That girl has something I want.”
hi there ms. melanie!
yeheyyyy! a new chapter is here..
thank you again ms. author
Thanks for being always present and encouraging. Sorry it took such a long time to post. I was actually done with this chapter for a while but didn’t have time to proofread. This chapter is originally really, really long. Therefore, I cut it, so that I wouldn’t bore anyone to death with the long length. So the good news is that the next chapter (the part that I cut off) is already almost done!
Happy new year!
whoa! that’s great news. actually after reading chapter 12, i’m already craving for the succeeding chapters.
i’m already hooked to this drama and i really can’t wait until the end, hoping chun hua and shangguan qiuyue will have a happy ending.
thank you again dear author. and please keep in mind that we, your fans, love it and will be looking forward for the succeeding chapters.
Finally, the long wait paid off. 😄
We missed you Melanie!
Hi Melanie, woohoo! I was so happy to see the the new chapter, I think my heart stopped! 😆
Thank you so much for continuing to write this – it must be so much work. Please know that we love it and are rooting for you. Can’t wait to read the future chapters!! 😍
Hope you have a wonderful new year!
Hello, Ms. Melanie! Thank you for this wonderful update. As always, I’m looking forward to reading the next chapters. I will always wait for them. I hope someone will pick up your work and make it a reality because this could be a blast. Salute!
Happy New Year everyone! 🎉Thank you for the update Ms Melanie 🥂, always support your fanfic here and looking forward for next chapters . Take good care and Godbless 💜
New reader here. I love your fan fic! It is well written, plot is engaging, and characters are very interesting. I especially love the romance but I thoroughly enjoy the growing relationship between the old man and his disciple. I’m looking forward to see where that will go!
Thank you for taking your time to write this amazing story. I will wait patiently with the rest of your readers for the subsequent chapters.
hi ms. melanie,
i hope all is well.
just droppin by to check new post, and of course, a happy valentine’s day everyone!!
as always, patiently waiting for the next chapter, which i hope will be released the soonest.