Chapter 18: Heroes don’t die
The second month, the twenty-seventh.
Outside of Chang’an, on a wild, desolate mountain.
There was still some time left before daybreak. A sheet of darkness covered both heaven and earth.
Beneath the light emanating from the scores of Kongming lanterns, the shadows of two people appeared like ghosts, accompanied by singing. One carried a pipa, the other, a bamboo flute.
The shadows were indistinct, the singing plaintive. Even in one’s peripheral vision it could be seen that these two were the same two who had been at Chang’an Restaurant that night. It was the white-haired old blind man, accompanied by the heartbreakingly pitiful young blind girl.
Why would they have suddenly appeared here? Did someone make special arrangements for them to come sing their sad melody?
“Beautiful hair combed and wrapped into a bun, makeup lightly applied to the face; Dark blue smoke and purple fog cover the gracefulness, catkins and gossamer strands float by with no set destination.”
It is not until the silkworms die, that they stop producing strands of silk.
It is not until the candles burn out, that they they cease to shed their tears.
The ardor and bravery in Zhu Meng’s face suddenly transformed into gossamer threads.
Because he had caught sight of someone.
Someone suddenly appeared from within the darkness, like the specter of a butterfly in a dream, her face covered with fine gauze, wearing a dancer’s outfit as sheer as a cicada’s wing.
The dancing outfit fluttered.
Zhu Meng shed no tears, because he had none.
Even his hot, righteous blood had run dry.
He knew it was not Die Wu, but her dancing had led him into the fantasy of a butterfly. It seemed to be real and not real. It seemed to be a fantasy and not a fantasy.
What was it: real or fantasy?
What if it was real? What if it was a fantasy? Life is so temporary, and emotions are so important; is there really a need to take things so seriously?
Let it go! Let everything go! Go with the butterfly. That is the best.
He knew that right now, anyone could draw a sword and lop off his head, but he didn’t care.
He was already prepared to give up everything.
But Sima Chaoqun wouldn’t allow him to. The song was still being sung, the dancer still danced. Sima Chaoqun pounced forward like a cat, ready to destroy the butterfly with its sharp claws.
The dancer did not try to flee, but instead stepped forward. She used an indescribably graceful dancing movement to move forward, sidestepping his attack. And then she suddenly whispered two words into his ear. No one could hear these two words, but everyone could see Sima Chaoqun’s reaction.
These were the two words she had spoken. Two words that had no meaning at all.
Anyone that heard these two words would have no reaction whatsoever. But to Sima Chaoqun, it seemed these two words were like lighting striking from mid-air.
In an instant, he became motionless. His limbs grew stiff, and his eyes filled with shock and dread. He took two involuntary steps backwards.
The two words seemed to be some type of magical spell that in the twinkling of an eye had absorbed Sima Chaoqun’s soul.
How could this be?
Who was this unknown woman, this dancer who came from nowhere? How could these two seemingly completely meaningless words make Sima Chaoqun act in this way?
No one could offer an explanation. But, there was something else that could be seen by anyone.
—Sima Chaoqun and Zhu Meng were finished. Their heads could be taken by anyone at any time.
The blind, white-haired old man could see nothing, but the sound of his playing already contained a feeling of desolation and harshness.
There suddenly existed an impermeable killing air. Even the lamplight seemed to have become pallid and wretched. It shone on the pale faces of Sima and Zhu Meng, as well as the sword gripped in the hand of Gongsun Baojian.
His sword would soon unsheathe, and a head would soon fall to the ground. Within the wretched lamplight, something flashed. Within the flickering lamplight suddenly shone forth a radiance even more tragic than what had shone before.
It shone for a moment and then disappeared. A sword pierced a chest and then disappeared.
Gongsun Baojian’s sword was still sheathed. It had been knocked to the ground by another sword.
This new sword had not flown down from heaven, but had stabbed forth along with a flying person.
The person and the sword had appeared so quickly, it was as if they were one entity.
Had the sword stabbed forth with the flying person? Or had the person flown forth with the stabbing sword?
No one could distinguish this point; no one could see clearly what had happened.
But everyone could clearly see the person.
At first sight, it appeared to be a young version of Sima Chaoqun; dashing, tall, elegant, powerful. He wore a colorful, well-tailored set of clothing, cut from the finest cloth. His eyes shone with confidence.
At first sight, no one could possibly realize that this was the once down-and-out, nameless Jianghu swordsman, Gao Jianfei.
The music had stopped. The dancing had stopped. The dancer lay curled up on the ground, as if unwilling to lift her head to see the blood of the dead.
Little Gao held his unsheathed sword. No traces of blood could be seen on the long, beautiful blade, only tear stains.
Gongsun Qi’er stared amazedly at this person and his sword. Even though he already held the rod in his hand in a spear-like attack position, he was not brave enough to strike.
Zhu Meng and Sima Chaoqun still stood there dumbly, as if they hadn’t seen anything.
Gongsun Qi’er suddenly shouted, “Where is everyone? Are you all dead? Why don’t you come out?”
From beyond the lights came a soft voice: “You’re right. All your men are dead. The people holding the lanterns now are mine.”
A person stepped out casually from the darkness. He was dressed magnificently, with a violet marten coat. He held his hands clasped behind his back.
Gongsun Qi’er’s facial expression changed. “Zhuo Donglai. It’s you.”
“Yes. Of course it’s me,” he said casually. “Only I would be able to use your own methods to deal with you. Zhu Meng’s men are all dead, and so are yours. The method you planned to use to kill people, I use to kill you.” He smiled. “You should know that I always do things extremely fairly.”
Gongsun Qi’er suddenly shot forward. His long rod stabbed toward Zhuo Donglai’s face like a red phoenix.
The staff flew forward. But it had already left his hands. He flipped backwards, flying into the air like a sparrow hawk, fleeing from the light toward the unseeable darkness. His reaction was very fast, his ability to adapt to the situation quite formidable. It was the essence and accumulation of a lifetime of experience in martial arts.
But sadly he was just a little bit too slow.
As soon as his body flitted into the air, he saw the dazzling aura of a sword flying up like a rainbow. In an instant, it was in front of him, the shocking coldness of the aura so bright that he couldn’t open his eyes.
By the time he was able to open his eyes, he could not see the sword aura any more. All he could see was a sword hilt, protruding from his chest.
Even as his body collapsed to the ground like a stone, he stared at the sword hilt in shock and terror. It was as if he couldn’t understand how a sword hilt could be protruding from his chest. And yet, he definitely knew where the blade of the sword was.
In his chest.
A flying sword, a deadly attack.
“Such a fast sword. Such a fast move!” Zhuo Donglai bowed and raised his clasped hands respectfully toward Little Gao. “Based merely on the might of this sword, you are already qualified to lead the Great Protection Agency.”
“Lead the Great Protection Agency?” It seemed has if Zhu Meng had just been pulled out of a dream. He slowly turned around, staring at Little Gao with eyes that seemed about to burst from his eye sockets.
“You lead the Great Protection Agency?”
Little Gao said nothing.
“Good. Very good, Gao Jianfei.” Zhu Meng laughed. “It seems you’re already gradually flying up.” (1)
His laughter cracked. “If you’ve come to take the head off my neck, then by all means take it.” Zhu Meng laughed hoarsely. “I’ve wanted to give it to you all this time. More than anyone else.”
Xiao Gao didn’t laugh, and seemed to have no reaction whatsoever. In these few days, he had trained himself to become like a rock. His face was devoid of even the slightest expression.
“Why are you here?” shouted Zhu Meng. “What are you waiting for?”
“I’m in no hurry,” said Little Gao calmly. “Why are you? If I’m willing to wait, so should you.” He suddenly turned and faced Sima Chaoqun. “You should be even more aware what I’m waiting for.”
A long time passed, and then Sima Chaoqun raised his head. It was as if this was his first time seeing Little Gao, as if he had already forgotten everything and everyone.
More time passed. Finally, in a very strange tone of voice, he asked Little Gao, “What are you waiting for?”
“I’m waiting to settle accounts with you.”
“Good. Very good.” His voice seemed to be filled with an unspeakable sadness. “It’s time to settle accounts. What people owe me, what I owe people, it must all be settled.”
“Considering your current situation, I shouldn’t force you to make a move,” said Little Gao coldly. “But when you defeated me last time, my situation wasn’t much better.”
Sima Chaoqun suddenly laughed.
“I never blamed you, there’s no reason to say so much.”
“Hold on,” Zhu Meng suddenly shouted. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten our agreement?”
Sima Chaoqun’s face sank. “You’d best step back a bit. This is between me and Gao Jianfei. If anyone get between us, I will be forced to end my life.”
Zhuo Donglai let out a soft sigh. “When heroes reach the end of the road, they are still heroes. Clan Leader Zhu, you also are a hero of the age. You should understand him. Why let the reputation of another hero be dragged into the dust?”
He didn’t cast another glance at Zhu Meng, but instead walked forward and pulled the sword out of Gongsun Qi’er’s chest.
There was no blood on the sword, only tear stains. He gripped the blade of the sword between his thumb and forefinger and handed it hilt-first to Gao Jianfei.”
Little Gao didn’t take it.
“I know it’s my sword. But I also know that he has no sword.”
“He doesn’t. But you do.”
Little Gao laughed. “Correct. He doesn’t, but I do. It seems that’s the current situation.”
Zhuo Donglai calmly said, “There are many things in the world that end up like this.”
“I understand,” said Little Gao. “I completely understand.”
He finally reached out and took the sword.
In this moment, the smile disappeared from his face, replaced by a murderous look.
In that moment, he stabbed forward with the sword.
The tip had been less than an inch from Zhuo Donglai’s chest, and was pointed straight at his heart. He had used his own hand to grip the blade and hand it over. This was a mistake that could not be made. People who made this type of mistake ended up dead.
Zhuo Donglai couldn’t be an exception.
Under these circumstances, he had no way to escape or defend himself.
Gao Jianfei had been waiting, waiting for just this type of opportunity.
His eyes were fixed on Zhuo Donglai’s face, because everything he had done had been in preparation for his split second.
The time when the tip of his sword would pierce Zhuo Donglai’s heart.
—In this split second, what was the expression on Zhuo Donglai’s face?
There was none. Because he had already predicted everything that could happen. His body moved backward.
The power of the sword did not cease, it continued to stab forward.
And he continued to move backward.
Power, unceasing energy, completely filled the sword.
He continued to retreat.
He still clasped the sword tip between his two fingers, and it was still the same distance from his chest.
Little Gao stopped.
Sweat drenched his clothes.
Zhuo Donglai looked at him coldly. In an exceedingly warm and quiet voice, he said, “You really went to a lot of trouble this time. It took a lot of scheming to gain this opportunity, a lot of effort. You did very well. I really should let you kill me.”
His voice contained no trace of sarcasm, because he was simply stating the facts.
“But you should know that killing someone like me isn’t an easy matter. I can’t let you succeed so easily. Otherwise, killing me would be meaningless.”
Gao Jianfei listened.
He only listened.
At the moment, everyone had no choice but to listen to Zhuo Donglai. Other than him, who was there that could say anything?
And then he said something that left everyone shocked.
“If you kill me, then your death is also certain. If your sword stabs me in the chest, then in that instant, your death is fixed. You might even die faster than me.”
Zhuo Donglai seldom told lies, but this time what he said was hard to believe.
Little Gao couldn’t hold back from asking: “You’re saying that if I stabbed you with my sword, my death would be faster than yours?”
“Because I know that in the world there are at least 5 types of hidden weapons that can truly seal the throat and kill someone in an instant. And there are at least three people in Jianghu who use those types of weapons.”
“And the most important point of all is that I happen to know that one of those people is here, and one of those weapons is pointed straight at your back. If you stab me, it would be a very exciting moment, and you would be extremely proud of yourself. In that situation, it would be difficult for anyone to avoid being distracted. You’re no exception.”
This was a fact.
“At that moment when you were the most happy and proud, you would suddenly feel a prick on your back like the bite of an insect. Then you would fall down, and as you fell, your heart would stop, and you would be dead.”
Cold sweat poured down Little Gao’s back.
Zhuo Donglai casually continued, “But you can relax. Because I’m not dead, and for the moment you don’t dare to make a move. Because that person is like me, never willing to do anything unless 100% confident of success.”
“Who is this person?”
“If you want to know who it is, then you first need to realize three things.”
“What three things?”
“First, how did the Gongsun brothers gain foreknowledge? How did they find out five days ago that there would be such huge changes in the Great Protection Agency? How did they arrive here so promptly? Second, this dancer, her face covered in gauze… where did she come from? Just now, Sima Chaoqun was going to kill her to protect Zhu Meng. Why did he suddenly retreat after hearing her say two words? Why did he suddenly change?”
Little Gao couldn’t figure out either of these two things.
“Actually, these two matters are actually one in the same,” he said, providing somewhat of a hint. “Similar to the way that some rooms have two doors, but one key to open them.”
Little Gao laughed bitterly. “Unfortunately, I don’t have the key. And I don’t know where to find it.”
“Keys are usually held by living people. Dead people don’t need keys. But as for this key,” he said coolly, “it wouldn’t hurt to look on the body of a dead person.”
“Which dead person?”
“The Gongsun brothers have no gift of foreknowledge. For them to arrive promptly was because someone asked them to come. But,” he asked, “who is it that, five days ago, could possibly predict that the thirty years of friendship between Sima and I would be destroyed in an instant?” He answered his own question. “Only one person. Our falling out was because of one person.”
“A dead person?”
“Yes. This person should be dead,” said Zhuo Donglai. “She knew that after she died, Sima would not let me go. Because when she was alive, she had already placed a poisoned dagger between Sima and I.”
Little Gao’s eyes suddenly flickered, and he asked, “A woman could disguise another woman as herself. But could she really fool her own husband?”
“If she was alive, she couldn’t,” said Zhuo Donglai. “But after a few days of death, the situation would be different. After a person has been dead for a few days, the muscles become twisted and hard. The facial features change. And if she hung herself, the changes would be even greater, more horrible. Anyone would be fooled.”
Little Gao sighed. “If someone returns home to find that his wife and children had all died tragic deaths, he would most likely be unable to see anything clearly.”
One word at a time, Zhuo Donglai asked, “And if he suddenly found out his wife wasn’t dead, how might he change?”
“He would probably become a completely different person.” Little Gao let out another long sigh. “But why? How could a women be so cruel? How could she do something like this?”
“In the world there are some types of people who will do anything. It doesn’t matter if the person is a man or woman. You don’t understand, because you aren’t that type of person.”
“And you?” Little Gao asked Zhuo Donglai. “Are you that type of person?”
Sima Chaoqun’s pale face completely lacked any color. Seeing him, Zhu Meng felt horrible.
The dancer, overwhelmed by emotion, still lay on the ground, as if she hadn’t heard a word Zhuo Donglai said.
Zhuo Donglai looked at her coldly. “Actually, I don’t blame you, because we both are the same type of person. You clearly knew long ago that there are three people in the Great Protection Agency who oppose me. And only those three could possibly deal with me. You conspired with them secretly, and that is how they could arrive so promptly.”
The dancer was speechless.
“You did everything to protect yourself,” continued Zhuo Donglai, “and for that, I wouldn’t hurt you. But sadly, you made a mistake.” His voice suddenly changed. He used his unique tone, one word at a time, to say, “No matter your reasons, you should not have treated Sima Chaoqun this way.”
Based on his outward appearance, Zhuo Donglai did not appear to be a brutal and vicious person. But when he spoke in this tone of voice, anyone listening would feel their hair stand on end, and would tremble with fear.
And the person who understood him the most was, of course, Sima Chaoqun.
Whenever he spoke in this tone to someone, it meant that person had been sentenced to death.
“Don’t touch her.”
Sima lurched forward, placing his body in front of the mysterious dancer. “Whatever she did,” he said harshly, “I don’t blame her. All these years, I never treated her well. Even if I die under her hand, I do not permit you to touch a hair on her head.”
Zhuo Donglai’s expression suddenly changed. His pupils constricted, and he shouted, “Watch out!”
But his warning was just a bit too late.
The dancer leaped up from the ground, crying coldly, “You must die. Die!”
Along with the shout, three shining stars shot forth, flying toward Sima’s back.
Zhuo Donglai used his left foot to hook Sima and pull him to the side, then struck Little Gao’s ribs with his right palm. His left hand, which still gripped the sword, wrenched backwards, and then the sword was in his right hand. These movements all occurred in a split second, so quickly that it seemed almost unbelievable.
And yet again, he was just a bit too late.
Sima had been pulled to the side, and two of the flying hidden weapons had been deflected, but the third was embedded into his left upper arm.
Zhuo Donglai did not take time to think. The sword in his hand shot forward. The sword aura glittered, slicing Sima’s arm clean off.
When a viper bites the hand, a brave man will lop it off.
Little Gao knew that the weapons would contain poison. This was the only way to prevent the spread of the poison, and to save Sima’s life.
But he had to ask himself—If he was Zhuo Donglai, would he be able to make such a decision so quickly?
The wind from the sword lifted the dancer’s gauze mask.
The mysterious dancer really was Wu Wan.
The severed arm fell, blood spattered, but Sima Chaoqun still stood there, as straight as a javelin, towering like a giant.
The sword aura shone, seeking Wu Wan.
But Sima, using his remaining bare hand, grabbed hold of Zhuo Donglai’s sword.
“Don’t touch her,” he said, his voice miserable and hoarse. “I said, it doesn’t matter if I die or live, you can’t touch her.”
His arm had been severed, but not his spirit.
Zhuo Donglai’s sword was restrained by his spirit, and he could make no move.
“Wu Wan, I still don’t blame you,” said Sima. “Leave.”
Wu Wan looked at him, looked at her husband with an indescribable expression.
“Yes, I should leave,” she said softly. “I should already have left.”
But she didn’t leave.
Instead, she suddenly threw herself forward and embraced him, pressing her face against his severed shoulder, using her face to stop the blood from pouring out.
Flowing blood covered her face, and flowing tears.
“I chose the wrong path in life,” she said. “And I can’t make the same mistake again. This time I will not make the same mistake.”
She’d already chosen her path.
The only path.
Zhuo Donglai still held the sword.
Wu Wan suddenly gripped her husband forcefully and shoved herself forward toward the tip of the sword. The sword stabbed into her back, piercing her heart, and piercing Sima’s heart.
The treasured sword truly was incomparably sharp.
“Tong tong,” Wu Wan said in a whispered moan. “Tong tong, at long last we can die in the same year, the same month, the same day. Die together.”
This was the last thing she ever said.
“The sword is ruthless, the hero sheds no tears.”
Sima Chaoqun still stood there as straight as a javelin. He shed no tears.
Until death, he did not fall. Until death, he shed no tears.
The tears of the hero had already transformed into righteous blood.
There was no blood on the sword, only some tear stains. But as of now, it seemed as if those mysterious tear stains had been dyed red by the blood of the hero.
Zhuo Donglai still held the sword, and he was looking at the tear stains.
He didn’t look at Sima, and didn’t look at Wu Wan.
His eyes were completely devoid of tears.
And yet, his eyes stared dumbly at the tear stains, as if they might contain some sort of mysterious and evil power, and that they were the source of all the misfortune that had occurred. A long time passed, and then he suddenly said, “Of the three people that came today, the truly fearsome were not the Gongsun brothers, but the third person.” His voice was ice cold. “This person really shouldn’t die, because he is extremely intelligent and very powerful. Very few people can compare to him when it comes to hidden weapons and face-changing ability. If he had quietly slipped away just now, I might have pretended not to notice, because I would most likely be able to make use of him later.”
“He didn’t leave?”
“No,” said Zhuo Donglai. “He knows that he made a mistake, and he knows that now I won’t let him leave.” He suddenly turned around and faced the blind, white-haired musician. One word at a time, he said, “Mr. Ji, you can’t possibly think I didn’t recognize you, do you?”
The white-haired musician had been standing just where the lamplight gave way to darkness. The light was dim, and his figure was also dim.
The young girl with the ponytail stood next to him, holding a pipa. Her pale-white face was filled with neither sadness nor terror. Perhaps it was because she could not see, or perhaps because she had already grown completely numb to everything.
The white-hair musician carried a flute in one hand. His other hand rested on the girl’s shoulder. No expression existed on his face.
“Mr. Ji,” said Zhuo Donglai. “Three flashes to rob life, two steps to change disguise, one strategy to deprive offspring. Mr. Ji, your face-changing ability is brilliant, and your methods are even more amazing.” (2)
The white-haired musician finally spoke. “You flatter me. Thank you, thank you.”
“Mr. Ji, you had Wu Wan dance Die Wu’s dance. In an instant, it destroyed the fighting spirit of Clan Leader Zhu Meng of the Lion clan and Sima Chaoqun. It was an incredible move.”
“Thank you, thank you.”
“The white-haired musician and his beautiful young granddaughter sing on the street to make a living. Who would take notice of a blind old man like that? So you disguised yourself as him and brought his granddaughter here with you. You covered up the faults in Wu Wan’s dancing with the blind man’s music, and used her dancing to capture everyone’s attention. In fact, no one would know anything about the old musician’s facial features, but you could never possibly match the desolate nature of his music. This point, everyone could hear. Except, under the circumstances, no one was paying attention.”
“You’re right,” admitted Mr. Ji. “That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
“Mr. Ji, you really are a rare talent. An amazing talent. I’ve always admired you.” And then Zhuo Donglai’s soft and polite voice suddenly changed. In his unique tone of voice he said, “But you really should not have given your Offspring Depriving needles to Wu Wan. That was truly a mistake.”
Mr. Ji sighed. In a very sad voice, he said, “I admit I was mistaken. Even though I never imagined that Wu Wan would use them on Sima, he did die because of it. I should have known that Mr. Zhuo would call me to account for it.”
“Perhaps because you thought it would only be deadly to someone else, you forgot that those needles were your best way to defend your own life.”
Mr. Ji had to acknowledge the truth of this. “No matter the situation, I shouldn’t have given the needle tube to someone else.” He sighed, and then, in a whisper-soft voice, said, “Luckily, I have several more tubes left.”
His voice was low, as if he was telling a deep secret to a trusted friend.
Zhuo Donglai surely must listen carefully to be able to hear.
Even as he listened, Mr. Ji’s Offspring Depriving needles shot forth. They flew from within the emptiness of his sleeves. Three tubes of needles were enough to cut off any route of escape for Zhuo Donglai.
One tube with three needles was enough to chase a soul and take a life. What about three tubes? Not to mention that his needle tubes and the needles themselves were carefully hand-crafted. Their speed was greater than almost any other hidden weapon in the world.
Yet, Zhuo Donglai was even faster. He did not evade. The sword in his hand spun into a circle of light. The sword’s aura raged in a circular motion, like a raging whirpool-like vortex in a pool of water. In the twinkling of an eye, nine flashes of light were sucked into the vortex. By the time the sword aura vanished, three tubes worth of needles were nowhere to be seen.
Mr. Ji’s heart sank.
Gao Jianfei was a student of the sword, and he could not hold back his praise. “Great sword skill!”
Zhuo Donglai smiled. “Your sword is amazing. Extremely amazing.”
He suddenly turned again toward Mr. Ji. “When I was speaking just now, it was also a good chance. Why didn’t you seize the opportunity to attack me with your remaining two needle tubes?”
Mr. Ji’s hands clenched into fists. They were filled with cold sweat. “How did you know that I have two needle tubes left? How could you know something like that?”
“Regarding you, I know something about everything. I know more than you could even imagine.”
Mr. Ji let out another long sigh. “Mr. Zhuo, you are far more powerful than me. You are far more powerful than everyone. You will definitely prevail.” In a sad voice, he said, “From today on, I will never again betray you.”
“From today on?” Zhuo Donglai appeared to be astonished. “Do you really believe that you will have another day after today?”
There was no change in Mr. Ji’s facial expression. When a person uses a face-changing ability, their facial expression usually will not change.
But his body changed, the same way a viper will change when it meets a celestial crane. It became tense and distorted.
“What do you want from me?” he asked Zhuo Donglai. “I’ll do anything you want.”
Zhuo Donglai nodded. “I don’t want much from you. I just want you to do something extremely simple. It’s something that anyone can do.”
Mr. Ji didn’t notice that his pupils had constricted. He asked, “What do you want me to do?”
One word at a time, Zhuo Donglai said, “I want you to die.”
Death. Sometimes it is an extremely simple thing.
Mr. Ji met death quickly. The sword in Zhuo Donglai’s hand flashed radiantly, and then he died. The sword aura flickered, and then the sword was buried in his throat.
Gao Jianfei could not hold back his praise. “Excellent sword technique. Such a fast sword!”
Zhuo Donglai smiled again. “Your sword is an excellent sword. Better than I ever imagined. Actually, I’m starting to think that I can’t bear to give it back to you.”
Zhu Meng didn’t move at all. Instead he thought quietly.
This was definitely not like him. Sima’s death should have sent his blood pumping with righteous fury, caused him to raise his arms in the air and roar crazily.
But he didn’t move. Because Sima’s death had caused him to think of many things, and each one stabbed into his heart like a long spear.
—Why would Wu Wan do this? For revenge? Or to protect herself?
When a person makes a mistake, but places the blame on another, then their heart fills not with guilt but with the desire for revenge. And then they will seek retaliation. This behaviour is one of humanity’s most primitive of weaknesses.
To make a mistake and then hurt others to protect yourself is just as bad.
Selfishness. Even sages and holy men, immortals and buddhas, can have trouble overcoming this hurdle, let alone ordinary men.
But Zhu Meng’s thinking was different.
He suddenly thought that perhaps the reason Wu Wan did it was because of her deep love for Sima, a love she could not control, that left her helpless.
When you love to that degree, in that way, love can reach the ultimate level: destruction.
And so she destroyed herself. Not only herself, but everything she loved.
Sima could understand this, and so he did not blame her.
What about Die Wu?
When Zhuo Donglai ordered his men to attack the Lion Clan Hall that night, why did she flee? Why would she rather flee and be used by Zhuo Donglai?
Did she leave because of “love?” Or because of “lack of love?”
If she loved him deeply the way Wu Wan loved Sima, but believed that Zhu Meng didn’t care at all about her, then of course she would leave.
If she didn’t love Zhu Meng, then she would of course have even more reason to leave.
But if she truly didn’t love him, then why did she care so much about him? Why did she have to die?
Lack of love is hate. Extreme love will also become hate. There is a very thin line between love and hate.
Was it love, or hate? Who could tell the difference? Who could understand it?
Zhu Meng finally laughed crazily.
“Sima Chaoqun, you died well. You died extremely well.” His laughter was as sad and shrill as the call of an ape. “You deserved to die, because you really were just a hopeless fool.”
When he finished laughing, Zhuo Donglai coldly asked him, “And what of you?”
“I’m even more deserving of death,” said Zhu Meng. “I wanted to give my head away, but no one wanted it. Instead they wanted me to die under your hand, which is really not acceptable.”
Little Gao suddenly said, “You can’t die.” In a step he reached Zhu Meng, stood next to him and clasped his arm forcefully. “Anyone who wants to touch him must first kill me.”
Zhuo Donglai looked at Little Gao, and it was as if he were looking at his own child whom he had spoiled. A little bit angry, but full of pity. “Regardless of how you treat me, I haven’t done anything to you. When you wished me dead, I also did nothing. I think you can understand what I’m talking about.”
Little Gao couldn’t deny it. “Of course I understand,” he said. “You want me to become the new Sima Chaoqun.”
Zhuo Donglai sighed quietly.
“He was the only friend I ever had in my life. No matter how he treated me, nothing can change that.”
“I believe it.”
“Do you believe that I can kill you at any time I want?”
“I can’t compare to you in martial arts or sword skill,” said Gao Jianfei. “And your scheming can’t be matched by anyone under heaven. Just now you said that Mr. Ji was an amazing talent, but the truly amazing talent is not him, it’s you. Who cannot admire you?” He stared at him. And then, using Zhuo Donglai’s unique tone, said, one word at a time: “But trying to kill me is pointless. Even if I die, I still won’t let you touch Zhu Meng. As long as I have spirit left, just one bit of spirit, you won’t be able to defeat me.”
What kind of spirit? Energy? Chivalry? Bravery? Loyalty? Or would it be a mixture of all of them, combined with manly courage to create uprightness?
Zhuo Donglai’s pupils began to gradually constrict. “I can’t deny that you do have some spirit left. But,” he asked Little Gao. “Where is your sword?”
“In your hand.”
“In my hand, so it’s mine. Do you have another sword?”
Zhuo Donglai laughed. “You have nothing, but I do.”
The sword was in his hand, unsheathed.
This sword could split hairs in two. The hands that held it were fearsome, even more fearsome than the sword itself.
When these hands killed someone, they left behind no blood, and not even the slightest tear stain.
“If you really want to do this, then so be it,” said Zhuo Donglai. “Perhaps it’s destiny. Who has the ability to change a person’s destiny?”
This man, these hands, this sword; in a flash they could definitely decide a person’s fate and destiny.
Zhu Meng suddenly tilted his head back and laughed again. “What joy can true men find in life? What fear do they find in death? As of today I, Zhu Meng, finally understand.” His laughter gradually faded. “Gao Jianfei, to have made friends with a person like you, I can die without regret. But you’re still young. It’s not worth it for you to risk your life for me.”
Having said this, he used the tip of his foot to flip up Gongsun Baojian’s sword. His hand shot out to grab it, and then his arm twisted toward the back of his neck. By exerting a bit of power, his head would fall to the ground.
But Little Gao had already grabbed his arm with one hand, and the blade of the sword with the other. A dinging sound rang out, and the sword blade snapped off the hilt.
“Why won’t you let me die?” Zhu Meng said harshly.
“Why do you want to die?”
“So that you can live,” said Zhu Meng. “I should already be dead. Once I’m dead, there’s no need for you to risk your life by going up against Zhuo Donglai. I can die a worthy death, without regret. I can die knowing my life was worth living.”
“You’re wrong,” said Gao Jianfei. “Your life or death has nothing to do with the battle to be fought today. And whether you live or die, it will be fought.”
“Because Zhuo Donglai won’t let me go. If I don’t die, then he will die by my hand. And if I’m able to kill him, he won’t live to see sunrise.” He grasped Zhu Meng’s arm. “Those two sentences you just uttered were incorrect. True men are born into the world, and they must live. They must live happily. When they die, their death must have value. If you die now, you’re just delivering up your life along with mine, and your death will not be worth a copper coin.”
Zhuo Donglai suddenly laughed. “He’s correct. If you wait until he’s dead, it won’t be too late for you to die as well. Why be so anxious to throw away your life? Do you think I will offer you my thanks if you do?”
Zhu Meng’s hand relaxed, but Little Gao gripped it even more tightly.
“If I live through today,” said Little Gao, “I’ll not only help you revive the Lion Clan, but I will reform the Great Protection Agency. There’s plenty of time for everything, and many bright prospects. As long as we are still living, there’s no need to say the word ‘death’ so lightly.”
Zhuo Donglai let out a sigh. “He’s correct again. If you are alive, why die? Why look down upon your own life?” With another sigh, he continued, “Unfortunately, when the time has arrived for one to die, then death truly is difficult to avoid. There are no exceptions.” He looked at Little Gao, his pupils already constricted. “As of now, the time of your death has arrived. Because, you made another mistake.”
“You shouldn’t have broken that sword. With a sword in your hand, you might be able to defend against me for about thirty stances. But now, I can take your life in ten.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, they heard a cold, arrogant voice ring out: “I’m afraid that this time, the one who made the mistake is you.”
The light of early dawn gradually approached, making the lantern light seem more and more gloomy. Between the mountain tops, white, milky strands of morning sunlight began to appear.
Within the dense fog could suddenly be seen the shadow of an unfathomable person, carrying an even more mysterious box.
“Xiao Leixue, it’s you.”
“Yes, it’s me,” said Xiao Leixue, ever so coldly. “You must have thought I wouldn’t arrive, considering how much confidence you have in your Fragrance of the Gentleman. But you should know, that type of gentlemen isn’t always completely reliable.”
Zhuo Donglai let out a long sigh. “Xiao Leixue. Mr. Xue. Why do you always appear at times when you shouldn’t?”
“I’m just that type of person, I suppose.”
“I don’t like that type of person. Not at all.” His voice had regained its calm tone. “I’ve met people like that before.”
“And they’re all dead under your hand?”
“Are you trying to provoke me into attacking?”
Zhuo Donglai faced the shadow in the fog without the slightest hint of fear. “I said before, when the time has arrived to die, who can escape?” His voice seemed very similar to Xiao Leixue’s, just as cold and arrogant. “I truly believe that, unfortunately, it’s hard to say who will die under whose hand today.”
Zhu Meng looked at him, surprised, as if he had never someone like this before.
It was because he had never imagined that Zhuo Donglai was this type of person, so arrogant.
It was, in turn, because he didn’t know that when a man’s heart is filled with inferiority, he will often result to arrogance.
In any case, Zhuo Donglai still held “Tearstains.”
Some people believe in destiny, some do not.
But most people will admit that within the underworld exists a cold, ruthless, and mysterious power, and that many of the inexplicable events in the world occur because of it.
—When the treasured sword was forged, it was the envy of gods and demons. It required a sacrifice by he who forged the sword, the blood of a relative, to be able to cleanse the sword of the tear stains, to rid it of the demonic fiend.
He who forged the sword most certainly believed in destiny, and therefore left behind the tear stains.
And Xiao Leixue?
As to whether or not he believed, this shadowy, unfathomable figure within the fog, who is there that could possibly guess what existed in his heart?
And then, he unexpectedly asked, “Gao Jianfei, do you still have your sword?”
“I don’t. I lost it. He has it.”
“Opportunity,” said Xiao Leixue. “Losing your sword quite the good luck. And snapping the other sword was truly a great opportunity.”
“Opportunity?” said Little Gao. “I don’t understand.”
“Because I can only pass down my Technique of the Broken Sword to someone without a sword. Even if it was just a snapped sword in your hand, then I still wouldn’t give it to you.”
“Give me… what? Technique of the Broken Sword?” Little Gao still didn’t understand. “What is the Technique of the Broken Sword?”
“There is no sword technique under heaven that cannot be broken, and no sword that cannot be snapped. Even less likely to find is an unbeatable swordsman.” Xiao Leixue continued, “If the weaponry and stances you use are suitable, then when you meet a sword wielder, you can break his technique, break his sword, break him. This is the Technique of the Broken Sword.” (3)
His voice seemed to carry a sort of mysterious power.
“Twenty years ago, I viewed the sword wielding masters under heaven as scorpions and vultures. But now, I view them as nothing more than dung and dirt. As far as I’m concerned, none of them can withstand a single blow.” He suddenly asked Little Gao, “Gao Jianfei, is your opportunity still here?”
“It seems it is.”
“Then come here.”
“And Zhuo Donglai?”
“He can just wait for a bit. I won’t keep him waiting too long.”
Zhuo Donglai watched Little Gao walk over. He didn’t try to stop him, nor did he seem to have any reaction whatsoever. He seemed perfectly willing to wait for Little Gao to learn the Technique of the Broken Sword.
But he wouldn’t learn it, Zhuo Donglai told himself: Even if Xiao Leixue really did have some sort of Technique of the Broken Sword, he couldn’t teach it to Little Gao in such a short time.
But perhaps there really was some mysterious understanding or relationship between the two of them, some sort of spiritual communication ability.
Perhaps Little Gao really could use some type of special inspiration to master the profoundness of the Technique of the Broken Sword.
Even though Zhuo Donglai continued to try to reassure himself, deep in his heart he felt extreme pressure.
He carried in him an inexplicable dread of Xiao Leixue, because Xiao Leixue seemed to have some innate power over him—a mysterious power bestowed by gods and demons, a power both profound and evil.
Xiao Leixu had already opened his box.
The sky was light by now. The sun had just risen, and a ray of sunlight shot forth through the accumulated clouds.
At that moment the only thing that could be heard was “click, click, click, click,” four sounds. Then a mysterious weapon appeared in Xiao Leixue’s hand.
As the first ray of sunlight shot forth from the east, it landed on the weapon, and transformed into a flash of mystery and evil.
No one had ever seen a weapon like this before, and no one knew what mysterious ability it contained.
But everyone could see that it contained a mysterious and evil power.
Zho Donglai’s eyes shone.
In his heart suddenly rose the possibility of an opportunity. He had conceived a plan which with 90% certainty would be able to send Gao Jianfei to his death.
And then a power suddenly filled him, an enormous power that he had never felt. Even he was shocked by it.
The feeling carried with it something like a supernatural curse, with the ability to take control of his hand in order to rid the world of a certain person.
It was as if within the box had been locked away some sort of evil spirit which could capture souls and take lives. As soon as the box opened, someone’s life would be snatched away and locked inside the box, lost forever.
Zhuo Donglai had never believed in gods and ghosts and immortals and Buddhas. But he believed in this; he believed that there existed powers in the world which men did not understand.
Because as of now, he was experiencing such a power.
Xiao Leixue handed the weapon to Little Gao.
“You might as well go over now,” he said. “Go take Mr. Zhuo’s life and bring it back here. This weapon has never been seen before in the world, and it will never appear again.” His voice seemed to be a curse from the underworld. “Heaven required me to create this weapon specifically to deal with Mr. Zhuo. When it appears, it is the stamp of death for him. Regardless of whose hand wields it, he will die just the same.”
The dense clouds once again blocked the sunlight. The lanterns had burned out, the sky was overcast, murderous intentions stirred. Even gods and ghosts would find redemption impossible.
Gao Jianfei flitted forward like a bird.
Zhuo Donglai’s needle-like eyes gazed at weapon. He suddenly shouted and tossed “Tearstains” directly at Little Gao. “This is your sword, have it back!”
No one could have expected this move, not even Little Gao.
This sword had been with him for many years. From the beginning until now it had always been by his side. It had become an extremely important part of his life, almost an extension of his body, fused with his bones and blood.
And so without even thinking about it, he grabbed the sword—he grabbed it with his sword hand, as if he had completely forgotten that in his sword hand was a sword-breaking weapon.
It was as if in that moment he had absolutely no thinking ability, and couldn’t control himself at all.
After all, a rational person would never in these circumstances do something so stupid.
Zhuo Donglai smiled.
Now Little Gao had a sword again, but the sword-breaking weapon was his.
He was man of sky-high intelligence, with eyes sharper than almost anyone. Xiao Leixue had spoken just a bit too much, and had given him enough time to take a very clear look at the shape and construction of the unique weapon. He could clearly see that the weapon had many ways to control the sword of an opponent. He had also discerned the methods to use it.
Regardless of the opponent.
Only Xiao Leixue could create a weapon like this, and only Zhuo Donglai could do something like he just had.
They were two completely different types of people, but in some ways they were completely the same, as if they were thinking the same thing.
A tragic expression appeared on Zhu Meng’s face.
He’d never imagined Little Gao would do something so stupid, and what happened next left him even more astonished.
Gao Jianfei flew up like a bird, then, his sword blurring into the shape of a flower, stabbed down toward Zhuo Donglai.
Generally speaking, Little Gao should not have been the one to make a move first. However, in this situation, his best chance would be to attack Zhuo Donglai before he had time to truly understand the construction and use of the weapon.
He clearly underestimated Zhuo Donglai’s intelligence and discernment.
From within the dazzling sword aura could be seen the shapes of countless flickering swords. But there was really only one sword.
Within the countless sword shadows, of course there was only one true stance.
Zhuo Donglai took one glance and knew which was the true stance. When it came to this type of attacking skill, using false stances to disguise true stances, his understanding was far beyond that of most people in the world.
He also saw that the weapon had at least four or five sections. Any of them could neutralize the power of the opponent’s sword, or even take the sword away completely, then follow up instantly with a fatal attack. But he didn’t want to do something so final.
He still was not completely familiar with how to use the weapon, so why not try it out first on Little Gao?
He was already quite confident that he could take Little Gao’s life at any time.
Therefore, he wasn’t the least bit anxious.
Little Gao’s sword stabbed down, and he extended the weapon up to meet it, using a ring hook on the top side to snag Little Gao’s sword.
A dinging sound rang out as the sword and the hook met. And then the weapon produced an almost magical effect that no one could predict. Another section of the weapon popped up to combine with the hooked ring, and, just like pincers, clamped Little Gao’s sword down, holding it.
Zhuo Donglai was surprised and quite happy. He never thought that the weapon would be so powerful.
And then something even more unthinkable happened. Little Gao’s sword suddenly passed forward through the weapon.
This was something that should not be happening.
Why create such a complicated and ingenious weapon that would let the opponent’s sword stab right through its middle?
Could it be possible that the weapon was actually created to allow a sword to pass through it? Could Little Gao have intentionally allowed his sword to be latched, just to be able to use this lethal function?
Zhuo Donglai had no chance to contemplate the matter further.
In the time it takes for lightning to flash, or sparks to fly off rocks, Little Gao’s sword had stabbed into his chest, piercing in an inch and a half. That was as far as it could stab.
But it was long enough. An inch and a half was long enough to be fatal. It had stabbed directly into Zhuo Donglai’s heart.
—The weapon truly had been created to defeat Zhuo Donglai.
—Only Zhuo Donglai could, in a mere moment, understand the construction of the weapon. Only Zhuo Donglai would think to switch the sword in his hand for the sword-breaking weapon. No one else could think of it, let alone do it. —Unfortunately, what Zhuo Donglai had thought of, Xiao Leixue had already thought of for him, and prepared for.
—The weapon was a carefully prepared trap, just waiting for Zhuo Donglai to step into.
And now, Zhuo Donglai understood.
“Xiao Leixue. Mr. Xue. It turns out I was right. You are my nemesis. I calculated long ago that I would eventually die under your hand. Otherwise,” he said wretchedly, “how could I have been fooled by you?”
Xiao Leixue looked at him coldly. “Don’t you remember? I said that regardless of who wields the weapon, it would be fatal to you. Even if the hand that wields it is your own!” His voice grew even more cold and detached. “You should know that I always speak the truth.”
Zhuo Donglai laughed sadly.
His laughter caused vibrations in his heart and the edge of the sword. He suddenly felt as if were being stabbed again; the sword pushed in just a bit further. The distance between life and death was now just a thin line.
Little Gao slowly pulled the sword up, and carefully slid the weapon off of it.
The clouds suddenly parted again, and sunlight shone through, illuminating the sword.
Zhuo Donglai looked at it, and his face suddenly filled with an expression of nearly infinite horror.
“The tear stains?” he asked hoarsely. “Why are there no tear stains on the sword? Don’t tell me that …”
There was one question that if he did not ask, he could not die peacefully. And yet, he didn’t ask it.
—Could it be that he was a relative of Grandmaster Xiao? Could it be that the father he had never laid eyes on was none other than the Grandmaster? And therefore, when he was slain by the sword, the tear stains disappeared?
—Or was it that the utterances of gods and ghosts were untrustworthy, and the tear stains had disappeared merely because their time had expired?
No one could answer these questions, except perhaps the old man in the pavilion. But he was dead, slain by Zhuo Donglai himself.
Perhaps the question Xiao Leixue had wished to ask the old man was this question. And if the old man had given him a certain answer, perhaps he wouldn’t have sent Zhuo Donglai to his death.
But sadly, it was already too late.
Zhuo Donglai’s heart had been pierced, and he died never understanding.
This result was instigated by him, was it not?
In the sunlight, the sword’s looked like limpid autumn waters. (4) The tear stains on the blade had disappeared.
Gao Jianfei stared dumbly at it, trying to wrap his mind around everything that had happened.
He didn’t understand.
Time passed, and he finally realized that he could ask Xiao Leixue.
But Xiao Leixue was gone. Zhuo Donglai’s corpse and the weapon were also gone.
Zhu Meng said, “Mr. Xiao left already. He took Zhuo Donglai with him.” His heart was also filled with shock and uncertainty. “What is going on?”
Little Gao stared off into the distance. Clear skies abounded.
“It doesn’t really matter,” said Little Gao. “From today on, we most likely will never see Mr. Xiao again.”
The lantern lights had been extinguished, and those carrying them had dispersed. The only person left was the young blind girl with the pipa.
Sunlight illuminated heaven and earth, but her eyes could only see sheets of darkness.
Gao Jianfei’s heart suddenly filled with an unspeakable pain. He couldn’t hold back from asking the young girl, “Your grandfather, is he still alive?”
“I don’t know!”
Her pale white face was completely blank. It contained no emotion whatsoever, not even grief.
But anyone who laid eyes on her would feel a prick of pain in their heart.
“Where is your home?” asked Little Gao. “Do you have a home? Do you have any relatives there?”
The little girl said nothing. She just held the pipa tightly, like a drowning person holding tightly to a piece of driftwood.
—Could it be that the only thing that existed in her life was her pipa?
“Where are you going to go?” asked Little Gao. “What are you going to do?”
Even as he asked the question, he regretted it.
This type of question should not be asked. How could a little girl with no relatives, no purpose in life, no one to rely on, be able to contemplate such matters?
How could she think about it? How could she bear to? How would you, dear reader, expect her to answer?
Who could ever imagine that this young girl, fated to live her whole life in darkness, would suddenly respond in a bright voice, “I want to keep on singing. I want to sing forever, until I die.”
Who could imagine the feeling in the hearts of Little Gao and Zhu Meng as they silently watched the young girl walk into Chang’an Restaurant, carrying her pipa?
“I think she will keep on singing,” said Zhu Meng. “As long as she is alive, she will sing.”
“I think so too,” said Little Gao. “And I think that if anyone tried to stop her from singing, she would probably die.”
She was a singer, so she would sing, sing for others. Even if the songs she sang were all sad, and caused people to shed tears, well how can people truly understand happiness without understanding sadness, or truly treasure life?
Even though she had nothing, she would live on.
If she couldn’t sing, her life would become meaningless.
“What about us?” asked Zhu Meng. “What do we do now?”
Little Gao didn’t answer, because he hadn’t even thought about it.
And then suddenly he noticed the brilliant sunlight and the glorious earth.
“We should also keep singing.” Gao Jianfei suddenly straightened his back and said, “Even though our singing is not like hers, we can still sing. Sing until we die.” The singing of the singer, the dancing of the dancer, the sword of the swordsman, the pen of the scholar, the fighting spirit of the hero… as long as life exists, these things will never be cast aside.
The shining sun rose, the snows had melted. A person carrying a solitary box quietly left the ancient city of Chang’an.
A quiet, ordinary person. An old-fashioned, ordinary box.
(1) This is a play on words because his name “Jianfei” contains the characters “gradually” and “fly.” If you remember when he introduced himself a long time ago, he explained his name in this exact way.
(2) In the sentence “one strategy to deprive offspring” the word for strategy being used in Chinese is 计 ji, which is the same as Mr. Ji’s surname. 计 is also a Chinese surname.
(3) I need to explain briefly about this. After his explanation, the technique sounds pretty cool. But in Chinese, when he first says it, it makes it sound something like “Crappy Sword technique.” The word 破 po has multiple meanings, and thus the reason that Gao Jianfei doesn’t understand at first. It’s an intentionally clever use of words.
(4) For anyone who read my translation of 7 Killers, yes this the same word that appears there quite frequently. 5 Best Chinese Romance Books of 2020 So Far