Chapter 180 Foiling of the Windchaser
Anyone who knew about the history of China might have heard of the Black Ironclads. The elite armored cavalry that was instrumental in laying the foundations of the prosperous Tang Dynasty was famous for their trademark jet-black armor which became their namesake.
“But if this rider in jet-black armor is a ghost of the Black Ironclads, then these riders clad in fur clothing and curved scimitars can only be barbarians from ancient Turk!” But there was hardly time for me to think. Another black-armored rider appeared out of nowhere, brandishing his long saber as he stormed at us!
The side wing of the saber came dangerously close. Edelweiss and I immediately ducked, barely evading it by inches. Showing greater aptitude in dealing against mounted adversaries, Edelweiss immediately sprang from her crouched position like a tigress and pounced forward, drawing her golden dagger. The magical weapon sang as it escaped from its scabbard and sank its edge deep into the legs of the spectral horse! The weakest point of riding cavalry were the legs of the horse since most of the top parts were all heavily-shielded. The golden blade of the dagger sliced through the shriveled bones that were the horse's legs and the legs melted into nothingness like wisps of vapor! The ghostly war horse crashed to the ground. The rider lost his balance and fell off the horse!
Edelweiss lunged forward. The black-armored rider was just getting back on his feet but she was too quick; her blade bit deep into his neck and sliced off his head and he crumbled, slowly vanishing into thin air too.
Knowing that the golden blade had the magical powers to slay even incorporeal beings like ghosts was one thing, but actually witnessing its awesome power was another completely different matter. I flashed Edelweiss a thumbs-up. “I see, Zhu Mei not only held back from helping us this time; he'd even removed the magical seal that restricted the strength of the malignant spirits in the canyon!”
With a backhanded stroke, I drove the Shiyan Blade into the neck of another horse galloping furiously towards us before drawing it back and delivered a powerful hack that bisected its rider at his waist. But there were simply too many ghost soldiers around here and we would be overwhelmed and exhausted in no time! Then I remembered: this was a war! In the chaos of battle, soldiers would surely swing their weapons at anyone clad in liveries and armors different to theirs! What made things worse was that our clothing was different from both sides of the battle! We were caught in the middle of a crossfire! Moreover, the grudge and hatred of these malignant spirits had grown rapidly through the centuries when they were trapped here, making their bloodlust insatiable and unrestrained!
But Edelweiss had invested hardly any thought before she threw herself into the fray; she bolted close to two riders locked in battle and single-handedly slew both their horses with just a couple of swishes! After being thrown overboard, the two riders renewed their attention in unison upon Edelweiss and attacked her together! I grimaced with panic and threw the Shiyan Blade into the air. With a deafening whoosh in the blink of an eye, the head of the evil spirit rider who aimed at Edelweiss's back fell to the ground. But this made all the heads around us turned to stare at us! Suddenly, every rider still on horseback, be they Black Ironclads or mounted barbarians, they all charged towards Edelweiss! She ducked and dove, evading as best as she could from any dangerous blow which could have easily cloven her into half. Still, a hoof came from nowhere, pummeling deep into her back and sent her reeling for several meters!
A sudden rage took me! I bolted forward and bounded, decapitating two riders who came in for the kill with two simple strokes and rushed to Edelweiss and took her into my arms.
Blood trickled down the edge of her lips and she was in delirium; she must have been badly injured! But before I could do anything, the furious sound of hoofbeats hammering on the ground, coupled with the nostrils of the horses flaring told me that I was surrounded! I looked up and saw us in the middle; to one flank was a troop of Black Ironclads and to the other were riders in fur. They eyed each other coldly while watching us closely and here we were, stuck between the anvil and the hammer!
We were tightly surrounded with nowhere to escape and the ghostly warriors all watched us intently. Incensed beyond measure, I took out my Spirit Gourd and shook it before tipping it over. Pouring out my last remaining pill, I fed it to Edelweiss. Then I laid her down on the ground gently. I got up slowly and looked at the riders of both sides. I lifted the Shiyan Blade, feeling the anger inside me boiling. Despite the empty sockets of their eyes, the ghostly warriors glowered at us smugly as if we were lambs waiting to be slaughtered! I screamed a long deafening "Arrrggghh!" and my hand released the hilt of the Shiyan Blade with another spell. It took into the air like a soaring eagle, its movements directed by a finger of mine like a magic wand and it spun violently like a predator circling for a target to sink its fangs into. At last, my finger stopped and the Shiyan Blade froze in mid-air as if time had stopped, like a cobra waiting to strike.
None of the riders moved an inch; they seemed to have been petrified by my loud bellow. Then the unbelievable happened: the horses between their legs began to shift restlessly before they writhed and squirmed with visible agony and they crashed to the ground. Within seconds, they faded and so did the spirits of the riders! But there was hardly time to bask in the shock of what happened. I bent down to look at Edelweiss and was relieved to see her recovering. She no longer looked in pain. Still, the elixir pill produced by the Spirit Gourd could only help to resuscitate unconscious people and heal wounds; they could do nothing to lift the fatigue and soreness of our wearied bodies. We were both spent and exhausted from the fight and we helped each other up, limping back to the shed. Before we slept, I stabbed the Shiyan Blade into the ground just outside the shed as insurance.
The sun was looming proudly over the canyon when we woke up. We packed our things and made ready to continue our journey. When we got out of the shed, the sun was beautiful and outside the shed, it was still the same serene and tranquil forest as if the battle last night had never occurred. We mounted our horses and we rode. Expectedly, we found ourselves back at the shed after an hour's journey. I chuckled. We tugged at the reins of our mounts and began trotting in the other direction which we found ourselves back at the shed again.
“This must be it,” I mused, “the ghastly battle last night and now this, the Windchaser magic, must be the tests that Shang Pei and Zhu Mei had left for me.” I set alight a cigarette and willed my horse to press on. We rode past the shed and the hearth of the fire we made last night and suddenly, I flipped myself off the saddle.
I began walking, taking small little steps, and I suddenly stopped after barely two paces. I had found it! Just a foot from where I was standing, I found a bizarre and unusual ripple in the air as if a wrinkle in the very fabric of space itself! I smiled. I took two brisk steps forward and took an abrupt step back! To my secret delight, another ripple broke the stillness of the air just in front of me again! This time, I cantered forward, taking two steps before I paused, my foot lifted just before I took a third, then I ran forward again for another few steps and lifted my foot again, only this time, I took a step backward. This weird and offbeat swapping of pace continued for almost half an hour and I finally jogged forward and backpedaled before running forward. At long last, I broke the pattern: instead of stepping forward, I stepped backward again!
Lo and behold! Just when my foot hit the ground, everything around us turned blurry as if we had fallen into the center of a giant kaleidoscope before a new scene opened before us! “I was right!”
Prior to the trip, I had consulted with Father. He said, "Zhu Mei's Windchaser enchantment has the ability to control the ground that one steps upon. But it has a weakness: the enchantment only works in one direction!" Hence, the enchantment would not work if Zhu Mei failed to predict my walking pattern and direction! Hence, my plan: walk, pause, continue forward; then, walk, and take a step backward. For half an hour, I maintained this very same sequence, then I finally broke the pattern to catch him off-guard by backpedaling twice in succession and this finally foiled Zhu Mei's Windchaser magic.
The scene before us changed and we found ourselves in front of the same little hovel with smoke gently sprouting from the chimney of Zhu Mei's home. I flashed a smile at Edelweiss and she too looked at me cheerfully. We got up our horse and we galloped forward.
Smiling, Zhu Mei was already waiting for us when we arrived. He burst into laughter and he helped us with our luggage. The stocky old man stood on the ends of his feet to pat me on the shoulder, exclaiming, "That was crafty, my boy!" I scratched the back of my head and giggled in a silly way. "Well, if you had not given me a handicap of yours, I'd never be making out of the Canyon alive!" He cackled, pleased at my flattery. He led the horses off and made sure they were well tied and invited us indoors.
Inside the house, Zhu Mei's surrogate son, the mute boy had already made tea. With a gentle smile, he filled our cups with suutei tsai before he left to prepare food.
He came back not long later with a huge slab of meat. All four of us took out our sabers and dug in ravenously. I reached for my knapsack and took out a small, tightly-sealed urn of liquor. I handed it to Zhu Mei. "I spoke to Dad when I got back after our last meeting, Uncle. He was pleased. Before I came, he had me bring this to you. You must be missing this, he told me!" Zhu Mei beamed when he saw the earthen liquor flask. He tore off the seal and took a swig. Enjoying the flavor of the draught, he slammed his fist into the table. "Heavens, many years have gone by, and your father's liquor has never lost its edge! It's still the very best!" As it turned out, Six Terrors of the Frontier had tasted Father's very own brewing masterpiece, the Draught of the Drunken Deities, in the earthquake event in 1976. Its unique flavor and taste had them all longing for it even after so many years. Zhu Mei then told me that the Draught was not meant for mortal men without magical powers; ordinary men might drink themselves to death.
But there was no way Zhu Mei would be instantly drunk; his magical powers were already nearing full immortal. Zhu Mei took another gulp. "That was quite a mighty roar last night, Nephew. I must say, even I was shocked by that dragon's roar of yours. Was that something your father taught you?"