Thousand Autumns - Chapter 74
—THE REASON WHY XUETING-CHANSHI WAS INCLUDED in the top three strongest masters in the world was absolutely not because he was good at bringing everyone together to gang up against his opponents, but because he was actually pretty strong.
Shen Qiao did not doubt this. Ever since he had met Xueting-chanshi, he had almost always expected this fierce battle that they would have today.
Xueting was not that much younger than Qi Fengge. However, once you have studied wugong to a certain extent, your appearance no longer ages. The effects of old age are much more gradual as well, especially when compared to that of ordinary people. Just before Qi Fengge passed away, for example, he looked around thirty to forty years old. No one would have imagined that his true age was close to one-hundred.
Therefore, when ordinary people catch sight of Xueting-chanshi, they find him quite handsome. Were it not for the fact that he did not have a single hair on his head, he would certainly have the wealthy and elevated look of some young master. However, he looked so calm and composed, so regal and dignified. One would be unable to detect the slightest trace of the mortal world on him.
It was true that Shen Qiao was also as distantly elegant as an immortal; however, his heart was still soft. The sight of those weaker than he would compel him to reach out to help them. Sometimes, he seemed even more empathetic than most ordinary people. He and Xueting. One who follows Dao, one who follows Buddhism. The latter was like a Buddhist statue in a temple—resolute in heart and his words, without any mercy to speak of. While the former was like that of a pool of azure waters—tranquil at first sight. Yet when a swan skims over its surface, ripples would form, filled with tender sentiment.
The Acala Seal’s first repetition: all forms are emptiness, as all forms are countless, all possessing false decoration. Many people of this world are unable to recognize this, and thus, amongst those who become victim to such vices and unable to free themselves, only those who stand by a heart as clear as glass would be able to distinguish truth from false, to disregard demons of temptationand simply pursue their true intentions.
The Seals came in all directions, leaving layers of palm marks all over the surrounding area. The strength of his right hand, as white and unflawed as snow, was infinitely amplified. The dignified and solemn Vajra Seal overcame all evil—it was unavoidable, even if you tried.
However, Shen Qiao did not move from where he stood. His left hand remained behind him, while the wrist of his right hand flicked outwards somewhat. The Shanhe Tongbei sword was unsheathed with a tremor. Like that of a song of weeping—an ode, a cry—drawn out and distant, it split apart the countless seals, having been able to find truth amidst false with but a glance, and took direct aim at Xueting’s right hand!
Xueting now changed his palm maneuver. The tips of his fingers resembled the leaves of a willow tree blown by the wind—so graceful and flexible that one would be unable to take their eyes from them. Compared to the previous maneuver, this took a more offensive position, as though preparing to release an overpowering force that would split even bamboo. At once, like that of a cold wind freezing over a great field of snow and, in the next moment, suddenly turning itself over to the open skies and high clouds over a river in spring—geese and orioles, peach blossoms hanging over the water. So lithe and graceful it was that it escaped language.
But Shen Qiao did not take advantage of this moment to attack him, but instead immediately began to retreat. However, Xueting extended his palm and swept it over the area. The bluestone flooring began to crack inch by inch, while true qi filled the area. Even Ah-qing, who stood several chi away, felt as though a sharp blade was coming in the direction of his face, and experienced a sharp stab of pain.
Shen Qiao used his Tiankuo Hongying and rushed forwards several chi, his body so light it resembled floating dust. Suddenly, he leapt up, suspending himself upside down in midair. As he did this, his jianshen was like that of a great white cloth; his jianqi spilled down from above like that of water that flowed endlessly without a source, like that of millions of snow lions surging forward in waves and rushing forth accompanied by the fury of a thunderous hurricane! Its prestige, threatening; the edge of its blade relentless!
This series of changes had actually taken place within the blink of an eye. Xueting’s attitude was like that of water—unsurprised by great waves. But up until this point, his expression betrayed the slightest astonishment. Jianqi enveloped him from above like that of a tornado, entrapping him within.
And at that moment, Xueting seemed to have a number of choices. However, these choices did not include breaking free of this envelopment of jianqi. As the jianqi drew ever closer to him, he lifted up his left hand, so that his golden staff met the jianqi, both of them releasing a great, booming sound. Its essence seemed to have stopped in mid-air. Neither of them advanced towards the other; instead, both forces, having been shaken apart, began to retreat several steps.
“It has yet been several months, yet Shen-daozhang’s wugong has once more advanced another level. This is truly worthy of celebration!” Xueting-chanshi’s expression was dignified and imposing. Finally, he no longer paid any attention to Lian Sheng and Lian Mie, but rather, focused completely upon Shen Qiao.
But, in Shen Qiao’s case, this wasn’t exactly good news. Though he had certainly progressed, this did not mean that the others hadn’t.
If an already high-ranking teacher and master like that of Xueting-chanshi wanted to advance their skills any further, it would naturally be very difficult. However, because they have practiced wugong, they will similarly achieve a sort of understanding of their frame of mind. If their frame of mind continues to remain proficient and flawless, it will externally manifest, with great certainty, in the increased and formidable strength of their wugong.
Shen Qiao once wondered this. Back before he had sustained his injuries, he could have reached a draw in a match with those like Guang Lingsan and Duan Wenyang. However, against Xueting-chanshi, he would certainly have to admit that he was somewhat inferior–not to mention his present state. Yes, he was certainly lent the help of the Zhuyang Ce’s great power. However, with regards to his foundation as a result of the reconstruction of his strength, it was made up of the strongest essences of the Confucianist, Buddhist, and Daoist schools combined into one. This foundation could be easily compared to the foundations of a house being significantly more secure than that of many others. However, this did not mean that the building of the house itself would be any faster. Shen Qiao had already reached the jianxin stage of the jiandao, only a step away from jianshen. But his neili was hardly seven-tenths of what it was before. There wasn’t any way for him to exhibit jianxin’s power in its entirety.
On top of this, having to face off with a master like Xueting was truly, completely unlucky.
But Shen Qiao could not let him see these specific details. Otherwise, it would show that there was no one at present capable of stopping him.
Shen Qiao lowered the point of his blade. He stood in the same place and said, unhurried: “In the end, the Buddhist Sects and Huanyue Sect do not harbor any personal grudges against one another. Da-shi, you have also already killed Yan-zongzhu once. Why must you pursue him again like this, so mercilessly? Even if Yan Wushi were no longer here, and even if Huanyue Sect no longer existed, so long as Yuwen Yong is emperor another day, there will be some other party that supports him. With Da-shi’s farsighted wisdom, I am sure you wouldn’t miss this understanding, would you?”
At that moment, despite finding himself two against one, Yan Wushi somehow found the time to add: “Ah-qiao, those words of yours have really made progress under my care, haven’t they? This bald ass here was so taken aback by your words that he’s speechless! I’m sure he’s so ashamed he’s going to fly into a rage and torment you more intensely now!”
If this had been before, ten Lian Shengs and ten Lian Mie’s wouldn’t have been fit to be Yan Wushi’s opponents, let alone one of each. However, with the way things were now, this sort of circumstance was impossible. Xueting had certainly anticipated this, which was why he had brought these two disciples along.
Even if Lian Sheng and Lian Mie were unable to seize Yan Wushi within a short time, they would at least be able to stall him.
Xueting was able to see Shen Qiao’s intentions. He shook his head and said: “Shen-daozhang, you must know that this concerns the survival of Buddhism. It will not do any good to say anymore. The reason why this poor monk has come here was simply for Yan-zongzhu alone. If Shen-daozhang is willing to withdraw and not concern himself with this, this poor monk would not be able to thank you enough.”
What an interesting man. Though he almost completely had the upper hand, he still treated Shen Qiao with such courtesy. He was not indignant, nor was he angry; he was as indifferent as a light breeze, truly possessing the presence of a great sect scholar.
Had their paths not run counter to one another, unlike this present moment—the two of them with swords drawn and bows bent at one another, ready to go to war at any second—Shen Qiao would have wanted to sit and have a long talk with him.
Yan Wushi, on the other hand, seemed to find Shen Qiao’s new perception of Xueting-chanshi completely unbearable. Nevertheless, he found an opportunity to break through Shen Qiao’s realizations: “Ah-qiao. That question you asked was really just too stupid. Old bald ass knows very well that he just has to kill Yuwen Yong and all his troubles would come to an end, yet here he is chasing me down relentlessly. Naturally it’s because the Buddhist Sects want to maintain their just and honorable image. They don’t want to dirty their hands with the sin of killing a king! Even if they wanted to kill Yuwen Yong, then they’d rather have someone else go out and do it so that they can stay nice and clean, without a speck of dirt upon themselves. Old bald ass, just say it—am I right or am I wrong, ah?”
Xueting did not feel like wasting his words with Yan Wushi. He simply bowed his head and chanted a brief Amitabha, before continuing: “Shen-daozhang. Since you are not only unwilling to remove yourself and become an onlooker, but also insist completely on protecting Yan Wushi until the end, then this poor monk has no choice but to wrong you.”
Once he said this, he barely took a step before suddenly appearing right at Shen Qiao’s side, accompanied by the sweet, unending ring of a small jade bell. The golden staff lightly tapped against Shen Qiao’s chest.
Xueting’s movements were very slow; slow enough that someone could see every single detail. But at the same time, it was so fast—so fast that one could not react in time.
Shen Qiao came to the cruel realization that his own strength really was much too inferior. Even though he was able to make out the direction Xueting was going to extend his hand, he still could not react in time. The moment that he was able to raise his sword, something in his chest had become numb before a sudden intense pain spread within him. Shen Qiao flew backwards, his body unable to put up any resistance. A sweet, raw taste rose up in his throat. He was at a loss for a moment before he suddenly spit out a large mouth of blood, and was thrown against a pillar in the veranda!
But Shen Qiao could not remain there for even a moment. He used all the strength he had, and the blade of his word suddenly glowed like that of moonlight touching water, billowing upwards with the lurching waves of a river. In a split second, it took on a jade-like radiance—tens of thousands of times as beautiful as brocade, its light falling layer upon layer and surging directly towards Xueting-chanshi. Even with Xueting’s cultivation, in a moment, not even he could make out the sword from its user.
At that moment, both Lian Sheng and Lian Mie were working together in harmonious and solemn coordination, as if they were a match fated to be. Their intentions were mutually linked. Yan Wushi’s wugong was completely unlike that of before, and the flaw in his demonic core had also yet to be fully mended. His attacks would inevitably leave him somewhat vulnerable. The two monks took advantage of this opportunity. With Lian Shen on defense and Lian Mie on offense, they surrounded Yan Wushi. However, they did not intend to kill him; instead, they did not give him any room to escape, surrounding him with a force like that of Taiji and heaven and earth.
It seemed as though they were following some instructions Xueting had given them beforehand. they knew that with their abilities, it would still be somewhat difficult to kill Yan Wushi, even though his abilities had diminished significantly. They could only search for a way to stall him and wait until Xueting had defeated Shen Qiao before assisting them.
Such a shame that they ended up waiting around for so long. After exchanging several moves with him, the two monks were starting to work up a sweat on their foreheads, yet Xueting was still being held up by Shen Qiao and did not intend to separate from him right then.
Lian Sheng was becoming anxious. He could not help but take advantage of the moment that Lian Mie was attacking Yan Wushi and glanced in his shizun’s direction.
It was only a glance, and yet their circumstances suddenly changed so much!
Yan Wushi, who had been on the defensive this entire time, suddenly attacked them. He used the tips of his fingers as though they were the point of a blade and struck the center of Lian Mie’s palm. Earlier, Lin Mie had seen Yan Wushi’s indifferent expression, and could not help but underestimate his strength. He had even thought, the great zongzhu of Huanyue Sect is hardly anything to fear. In the end, just as he finished that thought, he felt a sharp pain in the palm of his hand, as though a scalding hot iron bar had stabbed right through him.
He could only give a horrible shout as he stepped away reflexively. In the center of his palm was a bloody hole, with fresh blood gurgling up and flowing out. Within this wound he could barely make out the sight of muscle and white bone.
Lian Sheng quickly ran back upon hearing this. Upon seeing the state of things, he was completely taken aback. But before he could act in time, the light of a blade suddenly flitted across his face.
“Let’s go!” Shen Qiao shouted harshly.
With this, he grabbed Yan Wushi’s arm and took off in the south-eastern direction.
Shen Qiao did not dare underestimate Xueting, so he used his Tiankuo Hongying technique to its utmost power.
To an outsider, Shen Qiao with Yan Wushi in tow looked like nothing more than shadows swaying in the wind. However, he still did not feel at ease. Worried that Xueting would chase after them, he flew forwards without stopping. The rows of trees on either side of them became phantoms, gliding past them at full speed. Yet he did not slow down the slightest bit.
Though he had yet to turn around, Shen Qiao could feel a menacing presence behind him—it felt both very close and far away, suspended at some distance from him, sending a chill down his back. That was clearly Xueting chasing them from behind, unwilling to leave matters as they were. Even though Shen Qiao was a step faster than him, being able to shake off Xueting’s entanglement was not necessarily possible.
Shen Qiao, with Yan Wushi in tow, exited the city, and made straight for Jianshan Mountains right by Weizhou.
At the foot of the mountains was a dense forest, where they could easily hide. Yan Wushi, however, said: “Head up the mountain.”
Shen Qiao did not even think. He did not stop, and swept up the mountains.
Right then, it was just the beginning of spring. The icy rivers were beginning to melt, and hundreds of flowers were in bloom; at the same time, birds were beginning to sing from within the mountain’s springs. All of this was filled with such life. But it was because of this that the forest trees were interlocked with one another, that the mountain rocks were that much more rugged, the path up the mountain precariously steep. There wasn’t a good area to place one’s feet at all. From halfway up the mountain looking down, there was a cliff that jutted straight out, entangled with misty clouds. The sight of this made it seem even steeper than it was.
Up until the halfway point of this mountain, Shen Qiao noticed a cave, concealed by a thicket. It was dark and winding within, with the sound of a stream rushing past it. The cave was actually quite deep. After entering it with Yan Wushi, they had walked several zhang inwards before happening upon a wide, bright area. It was lit by the glossy sheen of the neatly arranged rock walls, and the area itself was about the size of the hall belonging to a wealthy family.
And if you were to look upwards, you would see that there wasn’t a rock ceiling to cover it. Sunlight scattered down through the gaps of the thick foliage above and illuminated the dead leaves beneath their feet.
“Right around here,” Yan Wushi said. “Xueting knows that we will try to hide somewhere by the trees at the foot of the mountain. He certainly wouldn’t be able to imagine that we were up here.”
Shen Qiao, who was so focused earlier, was finally able to relax his mind. However, what followed was not the joy of relief, but his bending over to vomit a mouthful of blood.
This was from the internal wound he had sustained after having battled with Xueting. Afterwards, when he had taken off with Yan Wushi, his chest had been filled with an unbearable pain from start to finish. However, he was afraid that just opening his mouth would cause blood to gush out, so he did not speak at all, up until this point.
Not many people could withstand a strike from one of the top three masters in the world. Counting this with the fact that Shen Qiao’s inner strength had not yet fully recovered, that he was able to have such a long match with him and even escape with Yan Wushi was completely a result of his relying on his not-yet proficient level of jianxin. But this was nothing compared to the endless nature of neili and true qi. As a result, even before they had begun their match, Shen Qiao had already decided not to fight Xueting-chanshi to the bitter end, and instead decided to search for a good moment to retreat.
Wanting to disappear from Xueting-chanshi’s line of sight was no easy task, especially when he had another “burden” to shoulder. And yet Shen Qiao had done it anyway.
It was clear that, although neither of them had discussed the matter of retreating beforehand, Yan Wushi still had the very same thought himself. As a result, they did not need to speak to one another, and had reached a tacit agreement and common understanding.
Just as he vomited a mouthful of blood, Shen Qiao’s vision blurred, and he felt suddenly dizzy. He did not even have the strength left to stand. This was the result of having used up all of his strength and having sustained internal injuries. His sight faded to black, and his ears began to ring. He could only fall forwards.
Yan Wushi automatically reached out to hold him, even laughing as he said: “Ah-qiao, I know that you like me, but you don’t have to throw yourself into my arms like this, you know!”
His voice sounded as though it lacked zhongqi. It was clear that he had also sustained some injuries, but such injuries did not take away the wanton recklessness in Yan-zongzhu’s words.
As soon as he said this, Shen Qiao coughed up another mouthful of blood. With almost half of his body in the crook of Yan Wushi’s arm, Shen Qiao’s face turned stark white, as though he were gasping his last.
“You didn’t just cough up that bit because you got angry, did you?” Yan Wushi said, clicking his tongue.
Naturally, it wasn’t because Shen Qiao was angry that he had coughed up blood. But he did not have the energy to refute him. He could only say, weakly: “What will happen to Wu Bo and Ah-qing now that we’ve left?”
“Xueting isn’t Sang Jingxing,” Yan Wushi said. “After all, he has to keep wearing that Buddhist face of his. He also knows that threatening those two won’t be of any use to me. As such, he will not do anything useless.”
Shen Qiao nodded. Blood stained his lips. Against the stark pale white, it took on an even deeper hue of red.
With his thumb, Yan Wushi wiped away the residual blood from Shen Qiao’s lips.
Shen Qiao’s chest was filled with a strong, unbearable pain. It was difficult for him to even breathe. He had no way to focus his energy on anything around him. His senses had even grown sluggish. Even when the other man had pushed some sort of food into his mouth and gone so far as to prevent Shen Qiao from spitting it out, Shen Qiao had been caught off guard and unable to resist. His eyes widened, yet his body had reacted before him—it had taken whatever that food was and swallowed it completely.
His throat suddenly became so dry that it hurt. He had nearly choked to death, before suddenly flying into a coughing fit. His internal injuries had been affected somewhat. Even his eyes had become moist.