The light gradually broke through the clouds and cleared away the fog in the valley.
Cheng Qian didn’t know how long he’d remained on his knees, nor did he know how he should pick himself up or even where he should go.
Inside his brain were flashbacks of his master sheltering him from the rain, his head-wagging chant, and the Fuyao Wooden Swordplay. Those sword moves just kept repeating in his head, whether he wanted to watch or not.
And in the end, all that was left was the numbness and helplessness which came from the loss of a loved one.
Cheng Qian was like a little bird that had come back from its first attempt at flying and joyfully wanted to be praised, only to find that the nest was gone. From this day on, he would never receive that praise he had yearned for, even if, someday, he became an exceptional master of his abilities.
Cheng Qian did not want to admit his fright. It was only loneliness, he thought.
It was not until this moment that Cheng Qian felt deep in his core that he needed an enemy, something that, for the next decade, the decades after that, or even for the rest of his life, would give him some kind of clear and strong direction, and let him draw from this hatred an inexhaustible strength that would anchor him, unswervingly, to his course.
Sadly, he didn’t have one.
His master had seen through him. He’d anticipated what Cheng Qian would instinctually do in a time of helplessness, so he didn’t give Cheng Qian any chance.
Not a single word had slipped his mouth regarding the entanglements between him, Jiang Peng, the nameless Lord Beiming, and the Four Saints. He’d buried all those stories in the earth along with that copper coin, leaving not even a seed of hatred for Cheng Qian, thus forcing him to throw away everything he could possibly rely on to pick himself up after crying.
At the same time, however, Muchun Zhenren did leave a little tail to him—his junior sister who was howling until she was out of breath.
With Puddle’s current intelligence, she couldn’t quite comprehend what had just happened. She was famished, so she looked around for her master but couldn’t find him. There was only her senior brother who didn’t pay attention to her at all.
Though she might be a sturdy child without a demanding temper, she could no longer hold back her hunger, and so she cried. But she soon discovered that her cry didn’t work; therefore, she switched to gnawing on the wooden sword created by her master.
When Cheng Qian finally thought of his junior sister, she had dug several pits in the wooden sword using her only five milk teeth.
They were truly milk teeth worthy of the Heavenly Monster!
Cheng Qian teetered, and he picked himself up by pressing on his knees. Then he forced apart Puddle’s mouth with his hands. “Spit it out!”
“Ah ah!” Puddle spat out two chips of wood at him.
After that, she was carried to a riverside by her senior brother and was forced to rinse her mouth. It was Puddle’s first time seeing her third senior brother’s exasperated side. Then she threw a tantrum.
Cheng Qian shot a fierce glance at her. “Stop crying.”
“Ah ah ah!” Puddle screamed in protest.
Cheng Qian just passively let her cry and stared at her with a steady gaze.
Puddle cried for a while by his side. Then she found that there was no use in crying like that at all. She didn’t know where Master had gone. Since it was just the two of them, she didn’t even have anyone to whom she could tattle on her senior brother. Therefore, she ceased to sob and sat there silently, hoping that her third senior brother’s conscience would have him find some food for her.
Even a fatty worm would also do!
Cheng Qian rescued the wooden sword whose edge had been bitten from Puddle’s teeth and washed it clean in the water. He was not in the mood to coax the child to not cry, so he just placed her by the river and warned her seriously, “Sit still, don’t move.”
With that, he rolled his trousers up to his knees and fumbled to catch fish.
Puddle had one merit, and that was that she knew how to act when it came to her own benefit. She quickly saw the prospect of a meal from Cheng Qian’s actions, so she sat quietly by the riverside like a well-trained dog.
However, fish were not so easy to catch. Cheng Qian had never played around when he was at home, let alone after he had gone to Fuyao Sect. So he was truly bad at such activities. Every time those scaly creatures slipped away from his hands, and would occasionally whip their tails, leaving a few lacerations on Cheng Qian’s hands.
The day was getting dark. Eventually, Puddle couldn’t wait anymore. She curled up and fell asleep with a finger in her mouth, feeling thirsty and hungry.
Standing barefoot in the cold water, Cheng Qian took a look at her. He straightened up his sore back and licked the wounds on his hands.
Master had said that one day he’d be able to soar up to the sky and dive into the sea. But the cruel fact was that he couldn’t even catch a fish.
He didn’t know what plants in the Worriless Valley were poisonous, so he dared not to pick the fruits and leaves. He didn’t have the courage to provoke those beasts either, as he didn’t have a weapon with him and didn’t want to become their dinner.
He’d always held others in contempt, feeling that he’d surely be a powerful cultivator in the future. But now he had gotten stuck while simply trying to get himself some food.
Gradually, the day had fallen completely dark. The surroundings were alarmingly quiet. From far away in the forest came the roars of beasts. Cheng Qian listened for a while and suddenly frowned. He scurried to the shore, held up the sleeping Puddle, and clenched his wooden sword, wondering where he should go to be safe in the night.
In the blink of an eye, the roars of the beasts had gotten closer. This wave after wave of roars made Cheng Qian feel he was under fire from all quarters, making him tense up from head to toe.
Cheng Qian didn’t dare to hesitate anymore. He carried Puddle and ran upstream. But unfortunately, at that moment, a black shadow jumped out of the forest and landed in front of Cheng Qian, getting in his way. The heavy breathing sound was increasingly clear in the dark. A pair of green eyes shot a sinister stare at the two delicious kids.
Cheng Qian came to a sudden halt right away. He stepped back with his wooden sword in front of his chest.
The shrub around him stirred, and several other wolves quickly whipped out, encircling Cheng Qian and Puddle closely. Every wolf was as large as a foal, and they all eyeballed the two kids squarely with their fangs bared.
Puddle huddled up in Cheng Qian’s bosom, not daring to utter a sound. Her lineage of the Monster Queen didn’t work as a deterrent at all. Presumably, even though she was the descendant of an ancient mythological animal, these hideous beasts wouldn’t be afraid of a cub who hadn’t been weaned at all.
Cheng Qian stood emotionless in the encirclement of the wolves and lifted his sword. He knew he should not show any trace of timidity in the face of these creatures, for a mere second of hesitation would give them an opening for tearing him and his junior sister into shreds.
Cheng Qian moved his wrist to get the opening move of Fuyao Wooden Swordplay ready as he whispered to Puddle in his arm, “Where are your wings? Fly us out of here.”
Puddle’s face reddened with bated breath. But perhaps because she was so starved that she had lost strength or because she was just terrified by those wolves, only a pair of palm-sized wings sprouted from her back, so small that they could only be used as a fan when they flapped.
Cheng Qian’s heart sank. As expected, upon the sight of Puddle’s wings, that leader wolf perceived the weakness and vacillation in Cheng Qian’s heart. Suddenly it crouched and growled as though giving an order. Seeing its move, Cheng Qian tightened the muscles in his arms to the extreme. Next, he heard a gust of sinister wind blowing from behind, then he swiftly turned around without thinking and exerted the third move of the Roc’s Long Flight in an altered form. The broken wooden sword made a sharp arc in the air and precisely evaded the beast’s claw to hit a fierce chop in the jaw of that wolf.
Cheng Qian had worked hard on his swordsmanship. At least in terms of the two forms he’d practiced, he far exceeded his first senior brother, who only practiced without thorough understanding.
The leader wolf’s eyes gleamed with cunning as it gave another command. Two wolves lurking aside cropped up and blocked Cheng Qian’s escape.
From the beginning, Cheng Qian had already been in a half-dead state from his grief, pain, and despair, and now in face of the wolf’s rapacious gaze, his fury finally overflowed.
On a wild impulse of anger, Cheng Qian went up to meet it head-on. This impulse accidentally aligned with his insight of being fearless.
His frame of mind and the swordplay brought out the best in each other. It almost seemed as if a light glinted at the edge of the wooden sword and as soon as the Roc’s long Flight finished, and then the sword hilt went out of Cheng Qian’s hand—that was the Tide Swordplay he’d been practicing for fun. He hit the hilt with his elbow and pushed the sword straight into the wolf’s mouth.
The relentless sword tip resoundingly clashed into a fang. Cheng Qian’s arm scraped against the wolf’s teeth, his sleeve being torn into two parts and a one-cun deep laceration forming from his wrist to his elbow.
That wolf howled to its death, and Cheng Qian’s wooden sword broke.
However, another wolf’s claws had arrived, coming at Puddle’s head. Cheng Qian shifted Puddle to the other hand with the suddenness of a thunderbolt, and despite his sword being broken, he swiped at the wolf’s nose with the remaining half. Heavily mauled, the wolf toppled on its back, the impact sending Cheng Qian several Chi backwards.
The blood which ran from Cheng Qian’s wounded arm stained Puddle’s body, its smell making her face dreadfully ashen as she trembled with extreme fright. But before Cheng Qian could comfort her, he felt the weight in his arm grow heavier, and the next thing he knew, he had been lifted into the air—Puddle had managed to unfold her wings in the nick of time.
Without any delay, the Heavenly Monster rushed into the sky, flapping her great wings, the wind throwing that leader wolf into the air.
The leader wolf hadn’t thought this would happen. It snarled and sprang toward Cheng Qian’s leg, but pitifully, it was already out of reach. The leader wolf sank back and circled around in anger.
With the thought of killing still over his head, Cheng Qian cast his gaze down at the leader wolf by the moonlight. The wolf was scared stiff for a bit and then withdrew its front legs with its tail tucked in, whining.
Puddle didn’t fly too far with Cheng Qian. She was too young after all, and shortly after passing the valley, she got worn out, and they plunged toward a hill, floundering.
Biting his teeth, Cheng Qian propped himself up against the remaining half of his wooden sword and tore a piece of cloth off from his garment to stem the bleeding, lest it call more beasts over.
Right now, Cheng Qian had an acute pain in the wound, a body chilled by dew, and a junior sister who couldn’t take care of herself, yet he still had to make fire, find food, decide on a place where they could spend the night, and constantly stay alert to the environment.
As he walked through the crisis-ridden Worriless Valley, Cheng Qian found himself robbed of time to mull over the entanglements between master and those demonic cultivators or to dwell on the sense of loneliness and vagueness of future.
The pressing matter of the moment was to walk out of this valley and take junior sister and the Sect Leader’s Seal back.
On the shore of East Sea, people from Azure Dragon Island had finally arrived late, after the tumult had already subsided.
As Muchun Zhenren had never told his apprentices what kind of organization people from Azure Dragon Island were, nor did he introduce any powerful cultivators to them, the idea of pandering to them, or at the very least greeting them, didn’t come to Yan Zhengming at all.
The stormy sea hadn’t calmed down. Yan Zhengming asked Taoist children to send out all the small boats on the ship to search.
Li Yun and Han Yuan gathered in the cabin, rifling through the piles of books that Cheng Qian had taken out with him, while Yan Zhengming fretfully paced around while instructing, “Look for books about charms. Han Yuan, not that stock; that’s still bundled, he may not have read it. Hurry up!”
“Don’t rush me. I find it, likely…” Li Yun lifted a hand. “First Senior Brother, is it this one?”
Yan Zhengming immediately threw aside the book in his hand and went up to grab that book, inspecting the exposition regarding tracking charms carefully. “What the heck… is this it?”
“What does it say?” said the worried Han Yuan.
Just then, a Taoist boy burst in, panting, “Young Master, there’s a Zhenren asking for you.”
“What’s the fuss! I’m busy looking for people!” Yan Zhengming waved his hand without looking up and read to Li Yun and Han Yuan the annotation on that book, “It says that the tracking charm and its maker share a connection. I carved it myself, but it might as well be like a fart since I felt nothing at all after finishing it. What the hell is that connection?”
Li Yun’s face changed color when he heard that. “Senior Brother…”
“Speak straight! What do you want to say?”
“Have you ever considered, that the tracking charm we made was unsuccessful?”
Yan Zhengming was brought up short. After a good while, he mumbled, “But Copper Coin…”
With a gesture of chagrin, Yan Zhengming smacked himself on his forehead—It was all Cheng Qian’s fault, he’d always been acting like, “though I never showed off, I’m reliable,” causing him to trust this novice brat without even thinking!
Had this bastard been reliable, would he be missing now?
At this moment, another Taoist boy ran in with a tattered ribbon in his hand.
“Young Master, they found this…” said the Taoist child in utter panic.
“I tied this around junior sister’s waist—the tracking charm that had been wrapped inside it is missing!” Li Yun grabbed it over, his pupils contracted.
These young boys gazed at each other in speechless consternation inside the cabin.
Suddenly, a gruff female voice interposed, “Tracking charm? What tracking charm?”
Li Yun turned back and saw the Tang Wanqiu Zhenren, who looked like a drowned rat as she glanced at that ribbon.
What was she coming here for?
Slightly astounded, Li Yun greeted her with the etiquette of a junior, “Tang Zhenren.”
Yan Zhengming goggled ferociously at the first Taoist child who had come to inform him, rebuking him as he walked past Li Yun, “Why didn’t you notify me of senior’s arrival? What good are you?”
Tang Wanqiu waved him off indifferently and took the ribbon from Li Yun’s hand. She was silent for a moment before asking, “This isn’t your master’s, right?”
At this juncture, Yan Zhengming had no patience to chat with her. But as Tang Wanqiu was sort of a senior to them, he had to hold back the fret which had manifested in his knitted brows and said, “That’s our junior sister’s. She’s too young and we were afraid that she might get lost, so we tied that to her just in case—please forgive us for being bad hosts, as our master is missing right now. Or would you fancy a cup of tea?”
The tone of the last sentence sounded almost like an order for the guest to leave.
Luckily, Tang Wanqiu was a careless person without a subtle mind. So she didn’t hear the discourtesy in his voice at all.
Tang Wanqiu said, “I suggest you give up. A charm made by you should have already been blown into bits by those two demons.”
Yan Zhengming: “…”
She had to rub it in. Did this woman purposely come here to mock them?
Sometimes there was some truth to judging people on the basis of appearance. When talking about a person, especially a woman, who disregarded their image—unless they had some kind of story behind them, they were mostly people of Tang Zhenren’s type: maverick and incapable of reading faces.
Looking at Tang Wanqiu’s square face with a jaw wider than her forehead, Yan Zhengming was overwhelmed by moodiness, pondering how he could send her away as soon as possible. But before he could decide how to start, Tang Wanqiu cut straight to the point without saying any sympathetic platitudes, as though she were even more impatient than him, “The Lord of Azure Dragon Island asks me to take you to him; come with me.”
Yan Zhengming: “…”
Li Yun knew his senior brother’s temper well. Fearing that he would make impertinent remarks, Li Yun hurried forward and warned Yan Zhengming in an undertone, “Senior Brother.”
To his surprise, however, Yan Zhengming didn’t hop about mad or show any sign of anger. After a moment of thinking with his eyes downcast, he asked, “Why would the lord of the island see us juniors? Does he know our master?”
Tang Wanqiu’s bushy eyebrows cocked, every single hair rising as if saying, “Obviously. Why else?”
Yan Zhengming’s heart thumped. He hastily said, “But our master is now missing. May I ask the lord of the island for a favor…”
“Already looking. Let’s go.”