Volume 7 Unraveling the Enigma-Chapter 166 Reacquainting the Champions
With the dawn of a new year looming near, so too the day of the Crucible of Heaven approached. Our adventures brought us to another theater of battle that was taking place because of the Crucible – beasts related to the Wudaxians (the Five Zoomorphic Deities) were waging war against one another, contesting their claims for fertile grounds on which they wished to train and meditate in preparation for the Crucible. Unbeknownst to most, if not all parties, the ripples of another plot, insidious and meticulous, were beginning to surface from these conflicts.
An unknown hand was behind the weasels of Yizhou City, driving them to encroach into the vicinities of the Yellow Soil Ridge near Zunhua City. They were here to seek out hallowed grounds suitable for training and study of magic. The weasels, prior to coming here, were not aware that the regions of the Yellow Soil Ridge were being guarded by the Mountain Deity Lao Tao. It was he who authorized and assigned different areas to different parties for their use. The weasels came and demanded the grounds now assigned to the foxes of the Ridge, and this triggered a huge uproar. This culminated in several clashes between the foxes and the weasels, but with the latter being stronger in force and powers, the foxes' prospects were beginning to look bleak.
Furthermore, there were bad apples amongst the weasels, who had been rampantly involved in petty crimes and thefts, contrary to the rule of conduct that their upper echelon had set – to spread kindness and compassion in the land of others, while persuading others to compensate us better. But the foxes remained adamant and rigid, refusing to relinquish their claim of their grounds. The weasels summoned for help, and then came a benefactor who began instructing them not only in high magic and summoning rituals, but also supplied them with weapons and other instruments of war, fashioned by the heir to the skills of Lu Ban, the famed engineer and inventor from the ancients.
The foxes began to suffer a series of successive defeats, and with no other options, they came to Wu Zhong to seek help from the young lordling of the foxes, namely, me. Heretofore uninformed of the whole story, I lent my spirit cat Smoky to the foxes, and this allowed me to somehow encounter a senior of the weasels of Yizhou City. Smoky's triumphant exploits in battle almost compelled the weasels to retreat, but the hidden force behind them prodded them on, and instigated the weasels to implore help from another party whom they were allied to, determined to defeat me in battle.
The duplicitous weasels went to their ally and sought their help, feeding them lies about how they have been wronged and terrorized by us and the foxes. The skirmish between the reinforcements of both parties ensued, although none of us knew that everything was but only an intricate scheme hatched by the unknown figure still shrouded by mystery. So too were his motives, which remained an enigma even until now. By now, each and every party in this conflict were but mindless chess pieces, oblivious to the hand moving us all.
Back to the present: I began withdrawing the noxious haze back into my Spirit Gourd and we finally reunited with Edelweiss, who was in a gripping horseback duel against a stranger. Edelweiss was riding atop a blood-red stallion from the herd kept by the foxes in their underground settlement, which had been thriving in secret, away from the eyes of the common folk. But the stranger was riding upon a bulky, strong destrier; one that I vaguely remembered, including its rider!
With a head full of white hair, armed with a little wooden bow, and in his hands were the wooden spikes that we have been looking around for! Who else would it be, but Lu Bugong, one of the Champions of Yishui!
Lu Bugong's nostrils flared angrily as he glared at Edelweiss, who whipped out her golden dagger in a precarious curve near his head. Chongxi and Lin Feng together with me, raced as quickly as we could towards them. Just as Lu Bugong was about to release his arrow, I screamed, "STOP!"
Unexpectedly, my voice was so strong and thunderous that everyone stopped in their tracks. Even Chongxi shuddered when I yelled, his neck nearly retracting like a tortoise withdrawing back into its shell! But my voice surprised Lu Bugong that he inadvertently released the wooden bolt from its string! The bolt shot straight at Edelweiss' throat, as if it had grown eyes. But there was only so much that we could do from such a vast distance. Not even the Shiyan Blade would be able to make it there on time! Still, in desperation and panic, I ripped the sword out of its sheath and recited the words of command, willing the sword forward with my mind. As if sharing my anxiety and emotions, the Shiyan Blade charged with all the speed it could muster, howling as it chased hysterically after the wooden bolt now aiming at Edelweiss!
Nevertheless, the Shiyan Blade was one millisecond too late. It pierced through the strands of the bolt's tail, missing the bolt itself by mere millimeters. And at that very instant, an overwhelming dread and trepidation gushed in our stomachs.
But what happened next left us all astounded! The bolt was at a mere hair's breadth from splitting Edelweiss' throat, when her golden dagger blocked its way! With an ingenious move, she parried the incoming projectile, striking cleanly at its head, and deflected it away from her! The projectile careened off-course, although it still retained much of its momentum. Beads of cold sweat trickled down my forehead. But I knew what I saw. The bolts that nearly got me and had struck Chongxi's shoulder, must be parried away in the same manner by Edelweiss earlier. But the unnatural movements she made seemed more like the dagger was moving with a mind of its own, rather than Edelweiss' skill!
By now, we finally got between Edelweiss and Lu Bugong, standing in the middle of the two horses to stop any more aggression, although they were both surprised to see us. "SHIYAN?!" They yelped aloud, before they looked at each other incredulously, out of shock. Another figure emerged from the thick of the woods, cursing with a string of expletives as he came nearer. "Dammit! Lu! How are you! What's going on?!" The noxious haze had been fully redrawn back into my Spirit Gourd, and the visibility at the crest of the hill was back to normal. The man saw Lu Bugong, and his eyes then traveled to us. "WHAT IN THE GODDAMNED WORLD?! SHIYAN?!" Yan Jishi shrieked in disbelief.
Correctly guessing that we knew each other, Edelweiss returned her dagger to her sheath. She vaulted gracefully off her saddle, and came to me, clutching at my arm demurely, while tacitly indicating to everyone who she was. Lu Bugong and Yan Jishi stared at her in silence, their eyes as large as eggs, as their dubious gazes wandered to me, as if seeking for answers.
"Heavens, what a terrible twist of luck that this turned out to be a huge misunderstanding. I did not realize that you three were the help that the weasels have summoned!" "Does that mean... you are the young lordling of the foxes they were speaking about?" Lu Bugong uttered in complete surprise. I nodded heavily and sighed. "Please accept my apologies. This is my girlfriend, and also my betrothed, Alatan Qiqige." Lu Bugong and Yan Jishi's eyes grew even wider as if they were about to pop out of their sockets. I scratched the back of my head apologetically, "She was once a marauder in the wilderness, the goddaughter of my foster mother. Please don't mind her fiery temperament." But I realized that Zhang Zhigui was missing. "What about Zhigui?" I asked, "Could he still be lost because of the haze earlier?"
Lu Bugong and Yan Jishi traded quick looks before they both shook their heads. It seemed that they have not seen Zhang Zhigui since they decided to split up in the darkness. Then I remembered about Edelweiss having caught one of them earlier, and my head turned to look at her.
Edelweiss noticed my gaze, and her eyes met mine. Then a dawning thought loomed over her as she finally understood. "The man I caught earlier?" We said nothing, merely fixing her in a stare, which indicated the predicament we were in. "Please tell me you have not slaughtered the man, Edelweiss," I begged in my heart, "Please, or his death would haunt me forever!"
But Edelweiss broke into a bashful giggle. "That man, you mean? He's a useless one. I chanced upon him when I was riding through the fog, and I immediately fished him out and dragged him all the way uphill, and gave him to the foxes who are now holding him captive." Everyone was dazed and bewildered when we heard this, although I was partly thankful that things had not turned dire. Zhang Zhigui might still be at a loss at to what was going on, before he was taken captive by Edelweiss just barely moments after splitting up with his companions.
We led Yan Jishi and Lu Bugong up the hill to the crest when I suddenly heard the shrill cry of my spirit eagle. Heavens, I have completely forgotten about the spirit eagle and the Forest Sprite! I took out my Spirit Gourd and muttered a spell of command, bidding my eagle to return. With a screech, it swooped down and immediately vanished into my Gourd. With the sun still hanging high over us, Yan Jishi and Lu Bugong could not see it. Then a black, shadowy silhouette tore forth from the depths of the forest behind us, and zipped past them, before being drawn back into the Gourd with a loud wheeze like a popped balloon. Unlike the spirit eagle, the Forest Sprite has a corporeal form; Yan Jishi and Lu Bugong saw a dark flash flitting past them, and that made them totally amazed. Hardly, I griped quietly to myself, Considering that it took six of my wolves to defeat only one ruddy hound of yours.
We quickened our pace and raced further uphill, myself and Edelweiss going ahead of everyone on the horse to save Zhang Zhigui. Yan Jishi informed us that he would catch up later; there were still humanoid minions and hound familiars of his, still roaming about the forest and they might injure others if he did not retrieve them. Lu Bugong flipped himself off his horse, leading his steed, as he walked together with Lin Feng and Chongxi.
When we got up to the top, we found Zhang Zhigui under a tree, bound by ropes and being watched by two testy little foxes who looked at him, as if he was a maximum-security inmate. He recognized us when we arrived, and grinned weakly at us.