Saturday, August 13, 2011

Chapter 1: The Girl in White (3)

The young man’s eyebrows pulled closer together at the sound of fighting. There had never been any trouble this close to the temple before, but from the sound of it, bandits were now working the banks of the river. Fearing that a traveling merchant may be in trouble, he ran back towards the river.

Xialin still harbored the childish dislike of being left out of any sort of excitement. Seeing the young man heading back for the river alone was more than she could bear. “Brother Yang, wait! I’m coming with you!” she cried.

Glancing over his shoulder, the youth in green felt his heart stir at the sight of the smiling headstrong Xialin rushing to his side. Together, they sped towards the river.

They had run side-by-side for some distance when suddenly, along the path through the orchard, a burly man covered in blood and clutching a saber came flying towards them closely pursued by two older men. All three moved with the speed of shooting stars. The nearer of the two pursuers hurled a handful of silver darts into the large man’s back, but he did not break his pace. Catching sight of the two youths on the path, the large man called out, “Please! Fetch the abbot!”

He unconsciously slowed as he cried out, and his pursuers closed the distance. Four palms lashed out simultaneously with the force of an avalanche, splintering the trunks of two peach trees by the side of the path and hurling the large man eight feet in the air before sending him crashing to the ground. A bright ribbon of blood burst from his lips. The sky was briefly obscured by a shower of peach blossoms fluttering to the ground.

Though shocked by the power of the blow he had just witnessed, the young man in green nonetheless sprang to the fallen man’s aid, knowing from the man’s entreaty that he had some relationship to his master. Leaping from both feet, he to flew at the two older men to block their path. The two pursuers glanced at the form of the fallen man. Satisfied that the successive damage of their dragon whisker darts and Mountain Felling Palm technique had halted his flight, they paused in front of the youth who now blocked the path.

This young man in green was none other than Yang Menghuan, favored disciple of Yi Yang Zi, one of the three patriarchs of the Kunlun Sect and abbot of the Temple of the Unseen City. In the twelve years he had served his master, Menghuan had learned well the vast bulk of the two martial forms upon which the reputation of the Kunlun Sect rested: the Spectral Light Sword technique, and the Heavenly Air Palm technique. Despite his confidence in his training, he couldn’t suppress a twinge of fear as he eyed the two middle-aged men on the path before him.

One had dark eyebrows and deeply hooded eyes that peered from a face like a ying-yang symbol: roundish, the left half covered by a blue-black flush of birthmarks, the right half pale, all framed by a three inch tangle of hair. The other man could have been a long-dead corpse returned to life: his bone-white complexion revealed not a trace of living blood flowing beneath its flesh, and a yellowish beard hung limply from his chin. These ghastly men evoked shivers from all who gazed upon them, and Yang Menghuan was no exception.

Seeing Menghuan outnumbered, Xialin leapt to his side, only to cry out in shock once she glimpsed the monstrous appearance of the two men. Instinctively, she edged closer to Menghuan.

The man with the yin-yang face cackled, “And what relation would these little playthings have with the Temple of the Unseen City? Whoever you are, you’d best give way. Do not hinder us.”

Menghuan’s mind raced to deduce the origins of the two hideous men. Judging from their devastating palm strikes these were not ordinary highway robbers. Surely they were hidden masters of the Rivers and Lakes—the vast underworld where secretive guilds of beggars, boatmen, pugilists and ascetics vied for reputation and advantage, and the one place outside of myth and legend where esoteric knowledge and superhuman abilities were still cultivated and passed on—but without definite knowledge of their allegiances it would be best to avoid giving offense, all the more so since he was certain we was no match for them in a fight. All Menghuan could hope to do was use his wits to delay them until his master came. He spoke softly to Xialin: “Go swiftly, find our masters.”

Xialin turned and ran in the direction of the temple, while Menghuan remained. He bowed deeply to the two men, “Respected elders, I am a disciple of the Temple of the Unseen City. May I inquire by what honorable titles shall I address thee, so that I may properly welcome you on behalf of abbot Yi Yang Zi?”

The men erupted into laughter.

“You’re a clever boy,” said the yin-yang faced man. “No doubt you suppose that your master’s name is sufficient to freeze us to the spot with terror—“

The corpse-like man cut in. “Brother, don’t waste your words. Let’s get what we came for, then deal with him.”

Before he had finished speaking his body angled forward, then flew at the fallen man like an arrow. Menghuan no longer had any choice: he briefly circulated his internal energies, then unleashed Parting the River, a component of the Heavenly Air Palm technique which propelled him horizontally through the air on a collision course with the assailant. There followed a sound like the cracking of a whip. The force of the impact flung Menghuan’s body five or six yards. The white-faced man was unprepared for the attack and reeled backward.

Menghuan hit the ground and lights danced across his field of vision. He fought against the dark pull of unconsciousness and struggled to orient himself. His eyes fell upon the blood soaked body of the large man who had been pursued through the grove, who now lay some eight yards away, eyes locked wide in fury, blood still flowing from mouth and nose. In an instant, the two ghoulish men rushed the fallen man, one from each side, the yin-yang faced monster growling at Menghuan, “You seem to have a death wish, poppet. You must forgive your Uncle Wang for what comes next.”

Deflecting the first attack had drained nearly all of Menghuan’s energies. Now, the combined strength of the two fiends bore down upon the wounded man. If Menghuan attempted to interfere, he would invite grave wounds at best, and more likely death. However, it was clear that the man carried something important, something of significance to his beloved master, and in any event, Menghuan was already too deeply involved to back down, even if it meant forfeiting his life. He leapt to his feet and charged to meet the assault with arms extended.

In that instant a voice cried out: “Fall back Menghuan! Seek ye not death!”

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