The response of the person in the cave was a thundering roar which boomed in their ears. Cheng Qian suddenly felt his chest tighten, as well as some disgust that almost made him vomit.
Through the aftersound, he struggled to recognize what she said.
A concise and wrathful “Scram!”
That was an aged woman’s voice, rough and gravelly with a tinge of gruesome viciousness, highly resembling the image of an old hag, who fed on humans and kept their hearts, from folklore.
Kneading his ears, Cheng Qian was unsure about which words enraged her, “Fuyao Sect” or “his master”?
Didn’t first senior brother say he paid her a new-year visit? Did he bow to her at a distance of three Li1 back then?
Surprised and bewildered, Cheng Qian glanced over his shoulder at Yan Zhengming.
To be honest, Cheng Qian and Li Yun, one thought a great deal of himself, and the other had a rich stock of wicked ideas. But they did have one thing in common – neither of them acknowledged their first senior brother as something.
But judging from the current situation, they had to agree that in the event they had to fight, first senior brother was the only person they could barely count on.
He was the oldest and the tallest, and he had learned swordplay for the longest time; on top of that, he had energy feel.
Too bad the strongest man’s sword hadn’t even been unsheathed when the old monster’s mere feather sent it into the air.
Yan Zhengming looked livid. Beads of cold sweat broke out on his temples and were running down his cheeks. For the sake of decency or something, he didn’t withdraw even a half step, and moreover, he even forced a haughty smile.
Even though he was gallant, Cheng Qian preferred him not to smile. Because his smile always made Cheng Qian want to slap him with the sole of his shoe, and if that smile angered the big monster, they would be absolutely screwed.
“Since Zhenren is unwilling to meet guests, we as juniors shouldn’t have visited. But last night, a thoughtless disciple stumbled into the valley and has been missing for a whole night.” After a pause to make himself sound more justified, Yan Zhengming continued, “According to my master, seniors in the cave have been neighboring our sect ever since it was founded, and we’ve been at peace all these years. Senior, you are the bigger person, you surely don’t want to hurt the harmony between both sides just because of a little kid, do you?”
Although his statement wasn’t very fluent, it still inspired wonder in Cheng Qian.
For one thing, Cheng Qian didn’t expect that the first senior brother who couldn’t even remain seated, had the guts to reason with a big monster. For another, he discovered that this young master wasn’t untactful, but he simply preferred to be constantly indulged on master’s love.
Nevertheless, his reasonable lengthy speech touched Cheng Qian, yet it failed to persuade the hen inside. Zipeng Zhenren’s reply remained the same, the single word, “Scram!”
Yan Zhengming almost bursted with anger, but he suppressed it – although embarrassed, he didn’t get into a huff on the spot.
Young master Yan was only headstrong, but he didn’t like asking for trouble. Any fifteen or sixteen year old teenager, as long as he wasn’t a complete dunce, would be able to distinguish between those he could afford to provoke and those he couldn’t.
It wouldn’t take more effort for Zipeng Zhenren to kill them, than to trample several ants. Yan Zhengming gritted his teeth while feeling really confused and agitated. He did make dealings with this old hen on his master’s behalf before. Although she didn’t have a good temper, she wouldn’t lower herself to the same level as several mortal youngsters either.
Even if Zipeng Zhenren was very lukewarm on her treatment, she had never snapped at him.
A conclusion flashed into Yan Zhengming’s head: something terrible had happened inside.
At that moment, Li Yun murmured from behind, “Senior Brother, since she won’t let us in, how… how about going back to bring master here?”
In face of Zipeng Zhenren, Yan zhengming didn’t dare to be rash. But to deal with his dipshit junior brother, he wouldn’t show mercy.
Young master Yan answered off the top of his head, “It took us nearly an hour to come here, and now you ask us to return and bring master. Do you mean to bring him to identify your little junior brother’s body?”
Li Yun shuddered in cold sweat, his forehead was feeling dry by the sinister blowing wind. Once again, he had one foot in the trap of cowardice. Considering they were confronting a real monster – a monster who didn’t welcome them, it was already hard enough for Li Yun to not stand on his knees.
But Han Yuan…
A hole was forming on Li Yun’s conscience. He wavered for a long time and eventually said sorely, “But we couldn’t even get inside, and how do we fight with those monsters in there? I… I mean, fourth junior brother entered here last night and master said he was still safe; maybe we don’t need to hurry now, we can…”
Standing in front of the cave which was dripping with the smell of blood, actually Yan Zhegnming was also secretly trembling. Meanwhile, he was internally furious because of Zipeng Zhenren’s incivility. So he was in an awkward situation, in which he came close to losing his temper while trembling with fear.
But once Li Yun spoke, the balance was easily broken.
Yan Zhengming’s fear was overpassed by his fury at Li Yun’s remarks. He doubled the embitterment he got from the hen and took it all out on Li Yun.
“Li Yun, what should I say about you?” Yan Zhengming sneered. “You are really something.”
Cheng Qian knew that he had to declare his position, so he picked up first senior brother’s sword, walked to his side and said to Li Yun, “Second Senior Brother, you can go back alone.”
Having received support, Yan Zhengming’s sneer grew even more revolting. He was really good at cynical smiles. With an arch lift of his eyebrow and a squint, he didn’t even need to humph and people at a distance of three Zhang2 would perceive his scorn.
“A little kid is better than you.” Yan Zhengming said. Then he turned to Cheng Qian, whose name escaped him again. “Little… um, li… little Copper Coin3, come with me.”
Zipeng Zhenren could only repeat “scram” again and again, perhaps she was only a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Maybe her freedom was restrained or she was just terribly injured and couldn’t move – otherwise it was totally unnecessary for that old hen to block them outside the door.
For the sake of not letting the little underbite4 become the stuffing for dumplings at some big monster’s dinner, Yan Zhengming decided to gatecrash.
Cheng Qian followed up and said with resignation, “Senior Brother, I am Cheng Qian, not Copper Coin.”
First senior brother sniggerred, probably to show there was no difference between “Tong Qian” and “Cheng Qian” to him. He took his own sword over and said to Cheng Qian with his chin slightly up, “Although master is not here, you’ve got his water-summoning charm in hand. I don’t believe we cannot flood this shabby cave!”
Hearing that, Cheng Qian nearly fell flat on his face – wa… wasn’t that a lightning-summoning charm? How did it change to a water-summoning charm?
Do the charms of our sect have special powers and can arbitrarily change their property between Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth5?
Then Cheng Qian’s eyes fell upon first senior brother’s hand holding the sword, and was surprised that it was constantly shivering.
“Very good. Even though first senior brother was almost scared silly, he didn’t forget to bluff.” Cheng Qian thought despairingly.
The two lads had a good measure of themselves. So they were only posing as heroes, but actually in a cold sweat.
Right at this moment, the wind blew again.
When Yan Zhengming was panic-stricken with veins bulging on the back of his hand, the stone gate slowly opened inward with a creak.
That old hen believed first senior brother’s bluster!
It was easy for Cheng Qian as he had been accustomed to putting on an act, whereas it took Yan Zhengming tremendous effort to uncurl his lips that were ready to curve jauntily. He pretended to be dusting himself and gracefully wiped the sweat in his hands on his clothes. With eyebrows dancing, he said, “Thanks, Senior.”
Li Yun didn’t know what happened and was awed by senior and junior brothers’ courage. Seeing that they left him and walked in, he didn’t know what to do. He was very scared, but he couldn’t flee either. After some hesitation, he finally got enough courage and ran in.
On the other side of the stone gate was an abode. There wasn’t a men-eating old hag but a giant bird paralysed in the corner.
In fact, it wasn’t an “old” hen. It had feathers as gorgeous as a phoenix’s, however, they were withering away while spread on the ground dully. A blurry image of a woman was hanging over the giant bird’s head. Although her voice was hoarse, she didn’t look aged. Judging only by her appearance, she was probably in the bloom of youth.
Looking at the tablet in Cheng Qian’s hand, Zipeng asked, “Whose charms? Present it to me.”
Yan Zhengming was about to bullshit to fool her when Zipeng Zhenren snapped, “Shut up, you whelp! You really think your petty tricks can deceive me? Give it to me!”
Immediately Cheng Qian felt himself being sucked, and before he reacted, he was walking to the giant bird involuntarily. Yan Zhengming reached out his hand to stop him, and Cheng Qian’s chest crashed into first senior brother’s elbow. He couldn’t help letting go of the tablet. The white handkerchief fell onto the ground and the tablet flew over to Zipeng Zhenren.
As the proverb says, “A starved camel is still larger than a horse.” Only now did Yan Zhengming realize that even though his guess was right on the button, that Zipeng Zhenren was badly injured, it remained a piece of cake for her to kill them all.
When she reached a hand out of nowhere to catch the tablet, a strong light bursted out in the dark cave. None of the three lads saw what happened as they all closed their eyes out of their own accord. They heard a scream and when they opened their eyes again, the tablet was lying on the ground.
Zipeng Zhenren seemed to be shocked. The image became weaker and recoiled fearfully as it mumbled, “No, it’s not your master… it… it’s lord… Lord Beiming6!”
- Li: a unit of length, equivalent to 500 meters.
- Zhang: a unit of length, equal to 10/3 meters.
- the pronunciation of “copper coin” is “Tong Qian” in Chinese, similar to “Cheng Qian”.
- underbite: here it refers to Han Yuan.
- the five-element theory of Chinese philosophy: see here.
- Beiming: it literally means “the dark sea in the north where the sunlight can’t reach”.