Jianghu Demolition Squad

Jianghu By May 23, 2024 No Comments
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Chapter 4: Blackened Heart

Fanyun Fuyu Thirteen Fortresses(Part Four)

The gloomy sky weighed heavily, oppressive and dull. Yu’er, hindered by her uncooperative legs, had already run out of breath by the time she reached the city’s outskirts. The piercing cold wind of early spring chilled her to the bone, and the muddy road sullied her snow-white boots.

Yu’er ran on, her eyes darting around, fearing she might miss something. Her heart was heavy with grievances, yet she couldn’t identify their source. All she knew was that her panic stemmed from the fear of leaving those people behind. She was aware that she and they were from different worlds, and this parting might last a lifetime.

She couldn’t understand why she had impulsively run after them. If she had stayed in that household, she would undoubtedly have returned to her days of tranquility.

Yu’er ran intermittently, not knowing how long she had been running. With the sun hidden behind clouds, telling time was impossible. When she finally stopped, exhausted, she was surrounded by vast farmlands, her clothes soaked. She couldn’t tell if it was sweat or the light rain that had drenched her.

As the sky darkened and the area became desolate, Yu’er wiped the water droplets from her face and prepared to move forward. Suddenly, she spotted a black snake slithering out of the field ahead.

The snake, pitch-black and thin, coiled and twisted its way to the center of the road and curling into a ball.

From the distance, it looked like a bundle of black twine, but Yu’er couldn’t find any comfort in that illusion.

She was terrified of snakes, to the point of almost fainting at the sight of one.

Yu’er wasn’t afraid of scorpions or spiders, but the sight of this writhing snake made her legs weak and her stomach churn with cold fear.

At that moment, the hair on her arms stood on end, and cold sweat trickled down her forehead.

Looking at the road ahead, Yu’er realized that any delay would only increase the distance between her and them. If she couldn’t get past this snake, she would have to stop here forever.

She surveyed her surroundings, finding the path too narrow to safely go around the snake, worried it might strike unexpectedly. She also couldn’t bear the thought of crossing through the fields – the very place the snake had emerged from!

Suppressing her racing heart, Yu’er took a step forward but immediately whimpered involuntarily due to her overwhelming fear. Pressing her lips together tightly, her whimper resembled the cry of a young animal.

Anxiously and fearfully looking ahead, Yu’er shouted at the black snake in the middle of the road, “You, you move away!”

“Move away!”

She took a small step forward, but her body involuntarily recoiled.

After a brief standoff, the black snake began to slither towards her. Yu’er panicked; she didn’t dare to turn and run, only managing to step backward. When the snake hissed, she was paralyzed with fear, breathing in short, frantic gasps.

The twisted black silhouette of the snake and the memory of a furry hand tearing at her mother’s clothes were the two greatest nightmares of her life.

Just then, a figure on horseback appeared on the road ahead. The sound of the horse’s hooves grew rapidly closer, transforming from a blurry figure into the clearly discernible shape of Qing Jiu, who she hadn’t seen in a long time.

Qing Jiu reined in her horse with a swift movement and hurled something at the black snake, smashing its head to pieces.

The snake’s body continued to writhe. Yu’er saw that Qing Jiu had thrown a chestnut, now deeply embedded in the ground, crushing the snake’s head and pinning its body. Yu’er hurriedly looked away and stepped back.

Qing Jiu approached slowly on her horse, asking, “How did you end up here? Didn’t you see the owner of that house?”

Yu’er nodded, then shook her head. Holding the straps of her bundle with both hands, she opened her mouth twice before finally speaking in a soft voice, “Can I… can I follow you… all of you?”

“Follow us? Why would you want to follow us?” Qing Jiu laughed in disbelief.

Qing Jiu’s had saved Yu’er as a matter of convenience, partly motivated by a desire to inquire about the Thirteen Forts, but she had never intended to keep Yu’er with her. What would a group of wandering martial artists do with a little girl? Last time when Yan Li asked her, Qing Jiu had decided to take care of the girl by finding her a good family in the city.

She had found a trustworthy family for Yu’er, yet just a day after they left, the young girl had run away.

The horse grew restless, moving ahead of Yu’er. She had to jog to keep up. “I can cook for you,” she offered.

“I prefer to cook for myself,” Qing Jiu replied with a smile.

Yu’er bit her lip, “I can wash clothes.”

“There are people at the inns who do laundry.”

“I…” Yu’er grabbed the horse’s reins, her eyes filled with the panic of potential rejection. “I can lead your horse.”

Qing Jiu looked down at her, her eyes deep and piercing, as if possessing the power to see through one’s soul. “Little girl, what is it that you really want to do?”

“That family is a decent and honest household, they will take good care of you. You won’t have to worry about food or clothes. We are wandering martial artists, constantly on the move, surrounded by danger. Who knows when we might meet a violent end. Why would you leave such a comfortable place to live a life of constant fear and hardship with us?”

“I want to…” Yu’er stopped herself from saying more. She knew her reasons sounded too feeble for a stranger to believe. But how could she convince Qing Jiu? In a rush of thoughts, she said haltingly, “Today, that place is safe, with people to care for me and a roof over my head. But who can say if another Thirteen Forts or a band of bandits won’t come along, seize my home, kill my family, shackle and whip me, beat me whether I work or not, whether they are happy or angry? Today I am a person, but tomorrow I could be no better than an animal. I… I don’t want to be bullied anymore. I want to decide when I sleep, when I get up, where I go, what I do.”

“Oh?” Qing Jiu’s tone was elongated, clearly intrigued.

Yu’er took a deep breath. She had always avoided Qing Jiu’s gaze, but now she forced herself to look directly into her eyes. “You said I have extraordinary potential. I want to learn martial arts from you.”

Qing Jiu raised an eyebrow with a smile. “Why choose to become my disciple when there are numerous prestigious sects throughout Jianghu? Why seek out a nobody like me for discipleship, instead of those highly skilled masters?

“I don’t know them,” Yu’er replied.

“That’s true,” Qing Jiu laughed.

“Besides, you easily subdued that person. Your martial arts must be good. And…” Yu’er continued, “I haven’t repaid your kindness. So, can I follow you… all of you?”

Qing Jiu was silent for a long time, seemingly contemplating, as her horse slowly circled Yu’er. In the misty rain and light breeze, Qing Jiu’s ink-black hair was dotted with sparkling droplets, her white tassels gently swaying. She looked ethereal, like a dreamlike, surreal figure from a moonlit night. Yu’er’s heart tightened with tension, beating rapidly.

After a long moment, Qing Jiu spoke, “I’m not against the idea, but…”

Her gaze intensified, her eyes and expression sharp as a drawn sword, exuding an indescribable aura of fierceness. “We value fate and sincerity in our recruits. So, if you can reach Ning City by nigthfall and locate the Laiyue Inn, I will allow you to follow.”

Yu’er’s face lit up with joy, “Really?!”

“If you can’t make it back in time, then return obediently to that family,” Qing Jiu said, concluding her words. With that, she turned her horse around, spurred it on towards Ning City, and truly left Yu’er alone, leaving her to make her own way back to the city.

Standing in the misty rain, Yu’er watched Qing Jiu’s departing figure. In the blink of an eye, she disappeared into the thin fog.

The distance to Ning City was more than thirty li, and with only a little over an hour left before the city gates closed, even an adult running at full speed would find it challenging, let alone Yu’er with her limited mobility. Having already spent much of her energy, the thought of covering that distance back was quite daunting.

The cool rain mingled with her sweat as it fell on Yu’er’s cheeks. She looked down at her feet, pursed her lips, bent down to rub her calves, and then started running, her figure staggering into the distance through the curtain of fog.

As dusk approached, the rain and fog cleared, but the sky remained dark, save for a faint red glow where the sun met the horizon.

Cold sweat beaded on Yu’er’s forehead, and each breath felt like a knife cutting her throat. The taste of iron filled her mouth. Her legs were weak as if walking on clouds, and moving forward was a struggle. She felt on the verge of collapsing as she entered the Laiyue Inn.

The person she had been searching for stood up and approached her, a look of surprise in their eyes that quickly turned to a smile.

Yu’er’s throat burned as if on fire, and she could only say intermittently, “I… I found you… you promised me…”

Upon seeing the person, Yu’er’s body and mind relaxed, her vision darkened, and she fell forward, unconscious.

When she awoke, she heard a muffled voice say, “This little girl is really stubborn!”

Blinking her blurry eyes open, her vision gradually cleared, and she heard a clear voice above her, “Oh? Little Yu’er is awake.”

Yu’er immediately sat up and saw Hua Lian leaning against the bed with his arms crossed. Mo Wen was sitting beside the bed, holding Yu’er’s ankle. The injured leg had its pants rolled up to the knee, revealing several silver needles inserted around her knee and ankle. Yu’er was startled at the sight.

Looking around for Qing Jiu, she saw her and two others enter from the outer room. Seeing Qing Jiu, Yu’er finally relaxed, assured that their encounter outside the city and the promise made were not just a dream.

Qing Jiu, with a half-smile, said, “You really ran all that distance back here.”

Qing Jiu had actually assumed Yu’er wouldn’t make it back, hoping she would give give up and return to the comfortable life with the family. After returning to the city, she had Hua Lian follow Yu’er discreetly. When Yu’er reached the inn and fainted, Hua Lian informed everyone, “Little Yu’er truly ran every step of the way back here.”

Everyone then understood her extraordinary perseverance.

Yu’er clutched the bedding tightly, “So, can I follow you now…?”

Qing Jiu sighed, “I’ve never seen a girl like you. If you wish to follow us, then follow.”

Hua Lian, leaning against the bed, suddenly leaned in close to Yu’er, his handsome eyes curiously examining her, “I heard from Qing Jiu the reason why you want to follow us. Aren’t you afraid we are bad people? What if we were murderers or arsonists, capable of any evil? If you join us, what if we sell you to some old man? Wouldn’t that be awful?”

All five people in the room were looking at her, some casually, some inquisitively. Yu’er looked at Qing Jiu and said: “I think she is a good person.”

“A good person?” Hua Lian’s eyes widened in disbelief, and he couldn’t help but burst into laughter. The more serious Yu’er was, the louder he laughed. The others maintained their composure. Hua Lian moved swiftly and lightly to Qing Jiu’s side, “Little Yu’er, are you praising her just because of her face or the few meals she cooked?”

In the end, Hua Lian teased Qing Jiu, saying, “Qing Jiu, your face really does give you an unfair advantage.”

With his folding fan in hand, Hua Lian pointed at the others in the room, “Among us, she’s the worst. Her heart and guts are pitch black. Little Yu’er, don’t be fooled by a little bait on the hook. Think about it. If she’s a good person, why didn’t she bring you back directly? Instead, she left you alone in the wilderness, making you run all this way in a panic, nearly hurting yourself. See, isn’t she completely wicked?”

Qing Jiu smiled without denying it, her plain clothes adding to her elegance and simplicity.

Yu’er looked down, a bit afraid to see such a smile on Qing Jiu, as it made her heart race with unease.

“She saved me.”

“She’s saved many on a whim,” Hua Lian lowered his voice, as if to intimidate, “Of course, she’s also killed many on a whim.”

Yu’er didn’t fully understand these people; she only remembered how Qing Jiu had approached her that night, like a celestial, kindly inviting her to share a meal. She would forever remember her kindness. She knew it was difficult to summarize a person with the term ‘good person,’ but due to her limited vocabulary, that was all she could say: “She is a good person.”

Hua Lian’s smile continued, genuinely amused, “I don’t know whether to call you naive or just stubborn.”

Yan Li waved her dust whisk, “You should rest well.”

Yu’er seldom spoke with Yan Li, so she felt nervous when addressed directly, quickly responding, “Yes!”

Yan Li then left the room, followed by Qing Jiu.

Mo Wen, who was removing the silver needles from Yu’er’s leg, advised, “You can’t strain your body like this again. If there’s a next time, your leg may never recover.”

Yu’er, who had been looking towards the door, paused, a flicker of hope in her heart, and cautiously asked, “Can my leg really be healed?”

She had thought her leg was permanently damaged and that she would have to live with the limp. While she could accept it, it was still a source of sadness. After all, who would want to live as a cripple their whole life?

Hua Lian tapped his folding fan against his palm, smiling, “There’s nothing she can’t cure in this world.”

Mo Wen finished with the needles, “Just be careful in the future.”

The third floor of the Laiyue Inn housed the guest rooms, while the second floor was a teahouse, reserved for guests to enjoy tea and storytelling. Given the inn’s remote location and the late hour, there weren’t many people around.

Yan Li and Qing Jiu were sitting at a table near the railing on the second floor, with Qing Jiu pouring tea for Yan Li, “You had something to say earlier, go ahead.”

Yan Li, always straight and slender, spoke, “It’s one thing for you to spontaneously save people, but why change your mind and keep her with us? It will be inconvenient to have such a girl with us as we search for Meiren Gu.”

“I wanted to do it, so I did.”

Yan Li rarely showed a smile, “I heard from Linzhi about you stopping this little girl from seeking revenge. What? Do you think she’s like you, so you felt compassion and wanted to follow in the footsteps of Daoist Yiye and Venerable Kuyuan?”

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