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The Smiling, Proud Wanderer

The Smiling, Proud Wanderer 1 Chapter One: Massacre Part 1

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Spring was always a relaxing time of the year. The breeze gently brushed the willow trees and wild flowers, causing the air to be filled with the pleasant scent of the season.The West Gate Boulevard of Fuzhou[1] was a stone slab road that extended all the way to the west gate of the town. A huge mansion stood south of the street with a tall flagpole on either side of its gate. The flagpoles were about twenty feet tall, each with a huge green banner streaming in the wind. The banner on the left was embroidered in yellow silk, bearing the image of a majestic lion. As the banner fluttered back and forth in the wind, the lion seemed as though it had come alive and were about to jump down at any time. Just above the lion's head was a pair of bats, embroidered in black silk, waving their wings in flying motion. The banner on the right bore four huge words in black that read "Fortune Prestige Escort House," all written in a bold, vigorous hand.The house, itself, had a large vermilion gate. Teacup-sized copper studs on the gate shone in the bright sunlight. Above the gate, characters in gold lacquer were inscribed on a huge sign reading – "Fortune Prestige Escort House." And slightly below, the word "Headquarters" was engraved in a smaller font. Beyond the gate were two rows of benches bordering a path, and sitting upon those benches were eight guards in house uniforms, with their faces animated with excitement.Sounds of hoof beats came from the backyard of the court. All eight guards sprang up and rushed out of the gate. Five horses galloped out from the side-door on the west of the mansion and stopped directly in front of the gate. Leading the pack was a beautiful horse, white as snow, with a silver bridle and stirrups. A young man in silk clothing, roughly eighteen years of age, sat on the horse, with a sword hanging from his belt and a bow strapped onto his back. A hunting falcon perched on his left shoulder, as the horse strode along the street. The four hors.e.m.e.n following him were all dressed in tight, black outfits."The Young Master is going hunting!" three guards shouted in unison.The young man smiled and cracked his whip in the air c.o.c.kily. Answering the command, the white horse neighed happily and dashed along the stone slab road."Escort Shi," one of the guards yelled out, "how about bringing back a wild boar, so we can all have a feast!"A forty-year-old horseman, trailing behind, grinned back. "Don't worry! I will make sure to save the boar's tail for you. Just don't get drunk before we get back."Amid the loud laughter, the five hors.e.m.e.n vanished like the wind.Just after they exited the town gate, Lin Pingzhi,[2] the Young Master of the Escort House, spurred his horse lightly. The horse picked up speed and soon left the rest of the pack far behind. After riding onto a small slope, he set the falcon to work. Minutes later, a pair of yellow rabbits was flushed out from the bushes. Lin Pingzhi quickly grabbed the bow from his back. Pulling out an arrow from his saddlebag, he took aim and shot in one smooth action. One rabbit was down, with one more to go. But by the time he pulled out another arrow and was ready to shoot again, the other rabbit had disappeared behind the bushes.
Escort Zheng rode by with a smile. "Nice shot, Young Master!" he praised."Young Master, hurry, we've found pheasants here!" Henchman Bai shouted in the woods to the left.Lin Pingzhi rushed over and saw a pheasant flying out from the bushes, heading directly toward his head. He pulled out an arrow rapidly and fired at the pheasant but missed. Out of reflex, he lashed his whip at the pheasant. With a cracking sound, the pheasant fell to the ground, bright and colorful feathers scattering in all directions. All five cheered."What a swift lash! Even a large griffon wouldn't escape that," Escort Shi exclaimed.The party hunted in the woods for over four hours. Intending to let the Young Master have a good time, the two escorts, Shi and Zheng, and the two henchmen, Bai and Chen, always drove the prey toward the young man, even when they, themselves, had the better shot. By the end of the hunt, Lin Pingzhi had shot two more rabbits and two more pheasants. But Young Master Lin wanted to hunt more. Not realizing enough excitement from small prey, he yearned for larger game."Let's go a bit deeper into the woods, and see what we can find," he exclaimed eagerly.Escort Shi thought to himself, "If we go too deep into the woods, as the Young Master wishes, he probably won't quit until after dark. Surely, the Madam will complain when we get back. That won't be good." So he replied, "It is quite late already. There are lots of sharp rocks around that might damage the hooves of your white horse. Why don't we try our luck again early tomorrow morning?"He knew that it would be very hard to persuade the stubborn Young Master, but Lin Pingzhi loved his white horse so much that he wouldn't risk any chance to injure his precious pet. The horse had been given to Lin Pingzhi as a present on his seventeenth birthday two years ago. The colt had come from a foreign country, and cost his grandmother in Luoyang, a fair amount of gold.Just as Shi had expected, his suggestion worked."My Snow Dragon is clever enough to not step on sharp rocks, but I am not so sure about your horses. Alright, let's head back then. We wouldn't want Henchman Chen to crack his bottom somewhere on those sharp rocks, would we?" grinned Lin Pingzhi, patting his horse on the neck.Howling with laughter, all five turned around and started heading back home. Lin Pingzhi rode ahead of everyone else, but did not take the same route by which they had come. Instead, he turned north and sprinted forward. Satisfied after some rapid riding, he finally reined in the horse and let it trot slowly.The sign of a wine shop emerged from one side of the road, not far ahead."Young Master, how about a drink here? The fresh rabbits and pheasants we've got would go perfectly with some good wine," Escort Zheng suggested."So, you didn't come out for hunting, but rather for drinking, did you? I suppose if I don't bribe you with some drinks, you wouldn't want to come out again tomorrow." Lin Pingzhi grinned as he dismounted and started walking toward the wine shop.Normally, the owner of the wine shop, Old Cai, would have hurried out to take the reins and flattered Lin with some praise. "Well lookee thar, the Young Master's gotten so much game today! Ain't he great! There ain't many who can match his skills," Old Cai would exclaim. But today, when they came to the door, they were greeted with complete silence. A girl, dressed in green, stood by the wine vat, with her hair done up in two buns with a hairpin through each; she seemed to be busy with it. She was facing inside and seemed to have no intention of turning around."Where is Old Cai? Get out and tether our horses," Escort Zheng yelled impatiently.Henchmen Bai and Chen pulled out a bench, brushed off the dust with their sleeves, and let Lin Pingzhi sit down. The two escorts sat with Lin Pingzhi, and the two henchmen sat down at another table. Coughing sounds floated out from the backroom, and moments later, a gray-haired old man walked out."Welcome, sirs. Can I bring you some wine?" the old man greeted the group of five in a distinctly northern accent."Do we look like we are here for tea?" Escort Zheng retorted. "Of course we want wine. Get us three jugs of Bamboo Green. [3] Where's Old Cai? What's going on? Are you the new owner here?""Yes, sir! Coming right up! Wan'er, bring three jugs of Bamboo Green," the old man said to the girl. "To be frank with you misters, my name is Sa. I was born in this town, but I left to be a trader when I was young. Recently, my son and my daughter-in-law both pa.s.sed away. I figured that no matter how tall a tree is, its leaves will always fall to the roots, so I brought my granddaughter back to my hometown. But since I've been gone for over forty some years, my relatives and my friends had either pa.s.sed away or left town. Luckily, the previous owner of this wine shop, Old Cai, happened to want out, so he sold it to me for thirty taels[4] of silver. I am finally back, now. I feel happy just listening to the hometown dialect. But it's so embarra.s.sing that I've totally forgotten the dialect myself."The girl in the green robe came back with a wooden tray. She set down the bowls and chopsticks, and then placed three jugs of wine on the table. When she finished, she walked away with her head down, not even glancing at the customers. Lin Pingzhi watched as the girl walked away. She had a slim figure, but her skin was dark and rough. Pox marks covered her face, which made the face appear to be very ugly. Lin Pingzhi thought that the reason she was so rigid was probably because she had only started waiting tables not too long ago, so he paid no more attention to her.Escort Shi brought out a pheasant and a yellow rabbit, and handed them to old man Sa. "Clean them up and cook them well," he ordered."Yes, sir! Right away! Would you like some jerky and peanuts to go with the wine, sirs?" old man Sa asked.Wan'er placed some beef jerky and peanuts on the table, not waiting for old man Sa's order."Our Young Mister Lin, here, is the Young Master of the Fortune Prestige Escort House. He helps out needy people all the time. Money, to him, is like dirt. If you cook the two dishes well and make his stomach happy, you can easily make back that thirty taels investment you spent in a matter of months," Escort Zheng introduced."Oh, yes, yes! Many thanks!!" old man Sa answered cheerfully as he picked up the pheasant and the rabbit and went into the kitchen.Escort Zheng poured the wine into all three cups. Raising his own cup, he poured all of it down his throat, then after smacking his lips a few times, he said contentedly, "The owner changed, but fortunately the wine is still the same."He poured himself another cup and was just about to drink it, when suddenly, the drum of hoof beats rose from a distance and then came to an abrupt stop outside the shop. Two hors.e.m.e.n rode in from the north. Traveling at a blazing speed, they arrived at the small shop in no time at all."Hey, it's a wine shop. Let's go in for a couple of drinks," one of the riders shouted.Escort Shi recognized that the speaker had a distinct accent of western Szechwan. [5] He turned around and spotted two men in purple robes. They tied the reins of their horses to the big banyan tree outside the shop and walked in. Giving the escorts a casual glance, they made a big display of sitting down. Both had a strip of white cloth wrapped around their foreheads. At first glance, with their purple robes, they seemed to be fairly cultured people, but since both had bare legs showing in the open and bare feet in hemp shoes, they were unlikely to be so. [6] Escort Shi knew that most people from Szechwan dressed in this manner. The strips of white cloths worn on their foreheads were in mourning for the death[7] of Marquis Zhuge Liang. [8] The Marquis did so many great things for the people of Szechwan and was so well respected that even a thousand years after his death, people still wore white mourning cloths on their foreheads in his memory.Lin Pingzhi had never seen people dressed like this before. "Their dress looks neither civilian, nor martial. It's very strange indeed," he thought aloud."Wine, get me some wine! So many d.a.m.n mountains here. Our horses are really tired out!" the younger of the two yelled out."What can I get for you?" Wan'er walked to their table and asked. She looked down at the floor while asking the question, so that the two could not see her face. Her voice was low, but sounded very clear and pleasant. The younger man was dazed for a second. Unexpectedly, his right hand shot out and raised Wan'er's chin."What a pity!" He snickered.Wan'er gasped and quickly drew herself back.The younger man's companion burst into laughter. "Brother Yu, this chick has a nice body, but as for her face, look how pockmarked it is!! Just like the inside of a pomegranate!" The younger man laughed even louder.Lin Pingzhi's anger flared. He slapped the table hard and shouted, "What kind of creatures are you, you two blind scoundrels? How dare you to come to Fuzhou and behave so ill-mannered?""Hey, Jia Junior, somebody seems really upset. Who do you think this sissy is referring to?" the younger fellow, Yu, said with a smirk.Lin Pingzhi was fair of face, and looked much like his mother. Even under normal circ.u.mstances, he would have slapped someone just for staring at him. Hearing the word sissy, his temper flared. He grabbed a tin kettle from the table and hurled it at the two men. Yu shifted back slightly; the kettle missed him and sailed out the door, landing on the lawn outside. Wine from the kettle splashed everywhere. Escorts Shi and Zheng sprang up immediately and rushed up to the two men."This boy should play a little b.i.t.c.h in the opera. He would seduce quite a few men. But I doubt he's any good at fighting." Yu grinned sneeringly."This is the Young Master Lin from the Fortune Prestige Escort House. You've really got your nerve to offend him!" Escort Zheng hollered. As he spat out the last word, his left fist was already on its way toward Yu's face. Yu deflected the punch with his left palm, then grabbed Zheng's wrist and pulled hard. Escort Zheng lost his balance and fell toward the table. Yu then struck Zheng's neck with his left elbow. With a crash, the table collapsed to the ground, along with Zheng.Although Zheng was not in the top echelon of fighters at the Escort House, he was not at the bottom, either. Seeing that Escort Zheng had been knocked down by Yu with just one move, Escort Shi knew the two would make tough opponents."Friends, who are you?" he asked. "Looks like you know Kung Fu. Haven't you heard of the Fortune Prestige Escort House?""Fortune Prestige Escort House? Never heard of it. What the h.e.l.l is that?" Yu smirked."We are in the business of teaching manners to lowlifes, such as you," Lin Pingzhi leapt over with a roar. He struck out with his left hand, but before fully extending his arm, his right hand struck out from underneath his left hand. This maneuver was called "Cloud Concealed Glare" and was a move from the Lin Family's Kung Fu style of Universal Hands."Ho! This sissy boy actually knows a few tricks," Yu exclaimed mockingly, blocking the blow with his left arm and stretching out his right hand to grab Lin Pingzhi's shoulder.Lin Pingzhi lowered his right shoulder in evasion, and attempted to punch Yu with his left fist. Yu ducked his head from the punch, but to his surprise, Lin Pingzhi's fist opened and changed from a punch into a palm strike. With the move called "Flowers in the Fog," he slapped Yu hard across the face.Now Yu went berserk. He threw a kick at Lin Pingzhi, who stepped to the right and returned a kick at Yu. While the two fought, Escort Shi had already engaged in a fight with Jia, and Henchman Bai helped Escort Zheng up from the ground. Swearing at the top of his lungs, Zheng leapt forward and joined Lin Pingzhi in the fight against Yu."Go help Escort Shi! I can handle this punk!" Lin Pingzhi shouted.Escort Zheng knew that the Young Master always wanted to best others, and did not want extra help, so he picked up a broken table leg and swung it at Jia's head. In the meantime, the two henchmen had run outside. One took Lin Pingzhi's sword, which was hanging from the saddle, while the other grabbed a hunting fork, and then both started pouring out all manner of profanity at the top of their lungs. Retainers of the Escort House were not good fighters, but because they were the ones shouting out the escort songs during trips, they all had loud voices. They cursed in the local dialect. The two men from Szechwan had no clue as to what they were saying, but they knew that it must have been something quite uncomplimentary.Lin Pingzhi focused on using moves from the Universal Hands style to fight Yu. He had practiced this form with many escorts in the Escort House. Partly because this form of martial art was indeed excellent, and partly because no one from the Escort House, who valued his employment, was stupid enough to beat the Young Master. Thus, even though Lin Pingzhi had a good understanding of the form, he did not have much actual fighting experience. He had fought some local rascals in Fuzhou before; however, no street thug could prevail against the fighting style of the great Lin Family. In less than three moves, they all would end up running away, with either a swollen face or a b.l.o.o.d.y nose. But things were quite different, this time. After only a dozen or so moves, Lin Pingzhi had to swallow his pride and admit that his opponent was really tough.While the two exchanged punches, Yu kept taunting Lin Pingzhi with insults. "Hey, buddy! The more I look at you, the more you look like a girl dressed, as a guy. Look at those lovely cheeks of yours. Why don't we stop fighting, so I can give you a big kiss? What do you say?"Lin Pingzhi was enraged. He glanced over at Escorts Shi and Zheng, only to find that they were not faring well, even though it was two against one. Zheng had been punched hard on the nose; blood was all over his face and his clothes. Lin Pingzhi hastened his moves and, unexpectedly, was able to slap Yu in the face a second time. It was a heavy slap."Son of a turtle!" Yu snarled. "I was just playing with you, you loser f.a.ggot. You want to fight for real now?" He suddenly changed his tactics and sped up his moves. Punches poured down upon Lin Pingzhi like a thunderstorm.The two fought from the inside of the shop to the outside. Seeing a punch aimed directly at his solar plexus, Lin Pingzhi remembered the release-block technique his father had taught him, so he tried to block it with his left arm, but Yu's punch was so powerful that he failed to stop it. The punch sent a shock throughout his entire body, and before he was able to gather himself, Yu's left hand grabbed him by the collar.Yu jerked him down hard. Lin Pingzhi's torso caved in to Yu's strength and leaned forward. In the next second, Yu's right arm was already pushing down on the back of Lin Pingzhi's neck with a move called the Iron Threshold."You son of a turtle! If you kowtow[9] to me and call me Great Uncle three times, I might let you go." Yu laughed scornfully.Escorts Shi and Zheng were stunned. They wanted to rush over and rescue Lin Pingzhi, but were kept at bay by Jia's nonstop kicks and punches.Henchman Bai thrust the hunting fork at Yu's back. "Punk, let go of him! Who the h.e.l.l do you think you are…?" he yelled loudly.Yu threw a reverse kick with his left foot, which knocked the fork out of Bai's grip and sent it flying into the air. He immediately followed with another backward kick, using his right foot, sending Henchman Bai rolling to the ground."You stinking turtle egg! The h.e.l.l with you! Your grandma has no eyeb.a.l.l.s!" Henchman Chen started cursing. But with each curse, he took a step back, so after eight or nine of them, he was already far from the scene of the fight."Hey, sissy boy, are you going to kowtow or not?" Yu laughed. He pushed down even harder, pressing Lin Pingzhi's head almost to the ground. Lin Pingzhi tried to punch at Yu's stomach, but the punches always fell a few inches short. Lin felt unbearable pain from his neck as if his neck was going to break. Sparkles glittered in front of his eyes and his eardrums were filled with buzzing sounds. He clawed and scratched like a wild cat, when suddenly, his fingers came upon a hard object that was strapped on his shin. Without thinking, he pulled it out and stabbed it at Yu with all his might.Yu let out a sudden shriek and let go of Lin Pingzhi. Dread and terror covered his face as Yu stumbled back in disbelief. The dagger had pierced through his stomach all the way, leaving only the handle showing. He was facing west, and the golden handle of the dagger glinted crazily in the rays of the setting sun. He opened his mouth wide, but nothing came out. He reached for the dagger with his hand, but then paused, too afraid to touch the shining handle.Stumbling back several steps, Lin Pingzhi also looked on in shock. His heart almost jumped out of his throat. Jia and the two escorts stopped fighting and looked at Yu in astonishment. Yu finally gathered enough courage to grab the protruding handle. Blood gushed from the wound as he pulled out the dagger. The onlookers cried out in disbelief."Jia…Jia…Tell my father, se…seek…vengeance…for…!" Yu hissed before dropping the dagger and fell forward onto the ground. His torso twitched a few times and finally stopped moving."Brother Yu, Brother Yu!" Jia rushed to his side and cried out bitterly."Get your weapons!" Escort Shi whispered. He darted to his horse and drew out his long knife. As an experienced escort, he knew only too well that Jia would stop at nothing to avenge the death of his companion.Jia glared murderously at Lin Pingzhi for a few seconds, and then quickly retrieved the dagger from the ground and dashed to his horse. He mounted in a hurry, wasting no time in untying the rein. In a swift slash, he cut the horse loose with the dagger. Jia spurred his horse hard, and within moments, both the horse and its rider disappeared into the northern horizon.Henchman Chen walked up to the body and kicked it hard, sending it rolling over. Blood continued to gush from the wound."You big moron, how dare you insult our Young Master? Now you've learned your lesson."But Lin Pingzhi had never killed anyone before. His face turned pale in fright. "Escort Shi…what shall we do? I never…I didn't mean to kill him." His voice trembled.Escort Shi pondered to himself, "The Fortune Prestige Escort House has been around for three generations. Getting into fights and having people die while on the job is simply unavoidable. But normally the victims are either bandits or unorthodox members of the Martial World, and these fights usually happen in some remote mountains or deep forests. Afterwards, we simply bury the corpses and forget about the whole thing. Of course the bandits would never go to the authorities and report the killing. But this time, the victim was obviously not a bandit, and the scene is close to a populated area. Murder is no small crime. Even the son of a governor or mayor wouldn't be able to get off easily if they committed such a crime, let alone the Young Master of an Escort House." Reflecting upon these facts, he came to a decision."Let's move the body into the shop," he said with a frown. "It's too close to the road here. We don't want anyone to see this."Luckily it was already quite late, and there was no one pa.s.sing by. Henchmen Bai and Chen hauled the body into the shop."Young Master, do you have any money on you?" Escort Shi whispered to Lin Pingzhi."Yeah, I do!" Lin Pingzhi answered anxiously, as he took all of his money out in a hurry. There were about twenty taels of silver in all.Escort Shi took the silver and walked into the shop. Setting the money on the table, he said, "Old Sa, this outsider was hara.s.sing your granddaughter, and our Young Master was just trying to help. He didn't want to kill the man, but he had no choice. All of us witnessed the whole event. The incident originated because of you, so if anybody blows the whistle, no one will get away with it. Take the money and just forget about the whole thing. We'll get rid of the body and pretend nothing happened here. Do you understand?""Yes, yes," Old Sa nodded."Killing a few gangsters is a piece of cake for us when we escort cargos," Escort Zheng exclaimed. "These two Szechwan rats behaved so suspiciously, I bet they were either burglars or rapists. They must have come to Fuzhou looking for crimes to commit. Our Young Master saw through their disguises, and took care of them for the safety of the town. He should have gone to the authorities for a reward, but our Young Master does not want to go through all that trouble, and he doesn't really care about this kind of fame. You, old friend, better keep your mouth shut. If you let anything out, we will say that you are their accomplice and that you were just using this wine shop as cover to spy for them. From your accent, anyone could tell that you're not from here. People would say 'How did those two just happen to show up right after you took over the shop? What a coincidence!'""I won't say anything. I know nothing," Old Sa said hurriedly in compliance.Led by Escort Shi, Henchmen Bai and Chen buried the body in the garden behind the shop; they also cleaned up all the bloodstains in front of the door."If we don't hear anything unusual in ten days," Escort Zheng said to Old Sa, "you'll get yourself another fifty taels of silver. But if you really feel like telling stories…humph! Well, the Fortune Prestige Escort House has killed hundreds of bandits before. It wouldn't be any trouble to plant two more bodies in your garden, would it?""We won't dare! We won't dare! Thanks! Many thanks!" Old Sa complied yet again.It was already dark outside by the time everything was finally handled. Lin Pingzhi relaxed a little, but still felt uneasiness as he went back to the Escort House. When he entered the front hall, he saw his father sitting in a wooden armchair, his eyes shut, lost in thought."Dad!" Lin Pingzhi called."Went hunting? Caught any boars?" Lin Zhennan opened his eyes and asked with a smile."No," Lin Pingzhi replied.Lin Zhennan lifted the pipe in his hands and suddenly struck down toward Lin Pingzhi's shoulder. "Take that," he exclaimed.Lin Pingzhi knew that his father always liked to impulsively check up on his progress in fighting skills. Typically, he would have countered this Plunging Comic Star – the twenty-sixth move in the Evil-Resisting Sword Art, with the Buddha Blossom – the forty-sixth move. But his mind was so burdened by the incident at the wine shop that he thought his father had already learned about the incident and was bestowing his punishment with his pipe. He dared not move, crying out plaintively, "Father!"Lin Zhennan's pipe halted just about three inches from his son's shoulder."What's with you today? You think you'd still have the shoulder when you are actually fighting someone, if you were this clumsy?" Lin Zhennan asked. Although the words were harsh, a smile played about his mouth."Understood!" Lin Pingzhi responded. He dropped his left shoulder and rapidly spun his body around, stepping behind his father. s.n.a.t.c.hing up a feather duster from the tea table, he thrust it at Lin Zhennan's back. This was the move called the Buddha Blossom."That's the right move!" Lin Zhennan nodded in approval. He pa.s.sed his pipe across his back and parried the thrust, then countered with a move known as the Flute-Play on the River.Lin Pingzhi was much more focused now. He blocked the attack with "Purple Mist East Bound."The father and son fought until after roughly fifty moves, when Lin Zhennan swiftly poked his son on the chest just below his right nipple with the handle of his pipe. Not able to fend off the attack in time, Lin Pingzhi felt a sudden soreness in his right arm, and dropped the feather duster immediately."Good! Very good! You have shown progress every single day of this month! You lasted four more moves than yesterday!" Lin Zhennan smiled gleefully and sat back down. "Pingzhi, guess what! Our Escort House has received wonderful news today," he announced while filling his pipe with fresh tobacco leaves.Lin Pingzhi took out a firestone and lit the pipe for his father. "Did you just sign off on a big business deal today?" he inquired.Lin Zhennan shook his head."As long as our Escort House offers good services, business will come to us! Our only concern is our own ability – are we capable of fulfilling big contracts, when they do come to us?"He inhaled deeply, and then blew out a cloud of smoke."Escort Zhang sent us a message from Hunan. [10] Master Yu of the Pine-Wind Temple, the Master of the Qingcheng Sword School, in Western Szechwan, has accepted our gifts."Hearing the words "Western Szechwan" and "Master Yu," Lin Pingzhi's heart almost jumped from his throat. "Accepted our gifts?" he repeated in a mutter."I haven't really told you much about the business of the Escort House," Lin Zhennan went on. "You wouldn't have understood anyway. But you are growing up fast, and the heavy burden of running the Escort House will slowly shift onto your shoulders. It's time for you to start taking a larger part in the business of the Escort House. Son, we've been in the escort business for three generations. We have been able to expand to today's scale and become the largest and most renowned Escort House south of the Yangtze River. How did we accomplish this? First, because of the great fame of your great grandfather; second, because of the fighting techniques our ancestors have handed down, generation after generation. Anyone mentioning the name of 'Fortune Prestige Escort House' will give a thumb's up and say, 'What fortune! What prestige!' In the escorting business, reputation counts for twenty percent, real fighting skills count for twenty percent, but the final sixty percent has to depend on your relationship with both the unorthodox and orthodox members of the Martial World."Blowing out another cloud of smoke, he continued."Think about it. Our wagons have to pa.s.s through ten different provinces. If we had to fight every time we went on a job, how many men would we have lost? Even if we won every single time, it would be like in the old saying: 'To kill a thousand enemies, sacrifice eight hundred of your own.' If any of our escorts were injured or killed on the job, the money we earned wouldn't even be enough to cover the compensation to their families. Soon, we would run out of our own savings as well. That's why we escorts have to know all the right people and spare no expense to cultivate relationships. Connections are even more powerful than the fist power.""Yes, Father." Lin Pingzhi answered. Under normal circ.u.mstances, he would have become quite excited and would have asked many questions upon hearing about the business end of running the Escort House, yet today all he could think of were the words "Western Szechwan" and "Master Yu." His heart pounded wildly."Your father's Kung Fu is surely not as good as either your grandfather's, or your great grandfather's." Lin Zhennan exhaled another cloud of smoke. "But my management skills are definitely better than either of theirs. Your great grandfather founded the business in four provinces: from Fujian to Canton in the south, and north to Zhejiang and Jiangsu. I expanded the business to six more provinces: Shandong, Hebei, Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi and Guangxi. What's the secret here? Let me tell you: make many friends and few enemies. Our Escort House is called 'Fortune Prestige.' Remember, fortune comes before prestige; this means fortune is more important than prestige. Fortune will only come if you keep 'making many friends and few enemies.' If we change it to 'Prestige and Fortune,' wouldn't that mean we would ride roughshod over above others for glory? Hha!"Lin Pingzhi forced a hollow laugh, which was devoid of amus.e.m.e.nt.Lin Zhennan didn't notice his son's uneasiness and went on. "The old saying says, 'Covet Szechwan after capturing Gansu. '[11] But for us, it's 'Covet Szechwan after capturing Hubei.' Our escort route starts from Fujian, goes west through Jiangxi and Hunan, to stop at Hubei. Why shouldn't we continue all the way west, up the river into the province of Szechwan? Szechwan is called the Heavenly Kingdom. There are lots of rich people there. If we made it through to Szechwan, we could go either north to Shanxi or south into Yunnan and Guizhou; our business would increase by at least another thirty percent. But Szechwan is a place of crouching tigers and hidden dragons. To do business there, we would have to have connections with the two schools, Qingcheng and Emei. [12] For the past three years, I have been sending valuable gifts to the Pine-Wind Temple of the Qingcheng Sword School and the Golden-Peak Temple of the Emei School every spring and autumn, but neither school would accept our overtures. Priest Radiance, the Head Master of the Emei School, would at least greet the gift bearers, thank them and invite them to a vegetarian meal, then return the gifts without even breaking the seal. Master Yu of the Pine-Wind Temple was even trickier. His apprentices would stop the gift bearers half way up the mountain, claiming that Master Yu was in Exclusive Meditation[13] at the moment, and unable to see any guest. They would also claim that they already had everything they needed in the temple, so that there was no need for any gifts. Our escorts couldn't even tell which direction the gate of the Pine-Wind Temple faced, let alone meet Master Yu. When they came back, they were infuriated. If it weren't because of the specific orders I gave them before the trip to behave with restraint and respect, regardless of how they were ill-treated, they would probably have called them all manner of names and started several fights."After these words, Lin Zhennan stood up, a proud smile blossoming on his face. "And guess what? At long last, Master Yu has accepted our gifts, and has even sent four of his apprentices to return the courtesy and thank us in person….""Four apprentices? Not two?" Lin Pingzhi asked breathlessly."Yes, four apprentices!" Lin Zhennan answered. "Master Yu is really handling this matter quite solemnly. This will make our Escort House look especially good!! I've just sent messengers to our branches in Jiangxi, Hunan and Hubei, informing them of the news and told them to treat these four as our n.o.ble guests.""Father, when people from Szechwan speak, do they usually call others 'son of a turtle'?" Lin Pingzhi suddenly blurted out a question."Only b.u.mpkins from Szechwan speak that way. There are rustics everywhere, and of course they are not taught of proper manners. Listen to our own henchmen talk when they gamble. They're no better. Why do you ask?" Lin Zhennan chuckled."No reason," Lin Pingzhi replied quickly."When the four Qingcheng apprentices come, you should spend more time with them; watch and learn how students of prestigious schools act. Making friends with them will surely benefit you later on in life."The father and son chatted some more. Lin Pingzhi couldn't make up his mind if he should tell his father about the incident at the wine shop, and finally decided to tell his mother, first. After dinner, the family of three remained in the Back Hall to converse. Lin Zhennan was having a discussion with his wife, as to what gift to get for her brother's birthday in June. It would be tricky to find something appropriate that the Golden-Blade w.a.n.g family in Luoyang[14] would hold in esteem.A sudden uproar came from outside, and moments later several people rushed into the room."Where are your manners?" Lin Zhennan frowned.Three henchmen had burst in. The man in front muttered in a disturbed tone, "Chief…Chief Master….""What's the matter?" Lin Zhennan snapped in annoyance."Bai…Bai is dead," Henchman Chen blurted out the words.Lin Zhennan was slightly astounded. "Who killed him? Gambling must've let to the quarrel!" He became quite angered, thinking how hard it was to regulate the roughnecks of the Escort House. They would often fight and draw their knives for no reason. And, as they were headquartered in the capital of the province, it could be rather troublesome if someone were killed on their premises."No, it is not like that," Chen explained hastily. "Xiao Li was going to the outhouse just a minute ago and saw Bai lying in the garden nearby. His body was already cold, but there's not a single wound on the body. No one knows how he died. Must've been some kind of a disease."Lin Zhennan breathed out a sigh of relief and relaxed immediately. "Let me go have a look." He started walking toward the garden and Lin Pingzhi followed behind.When they arrived at the yard, a number of escorts and henchmen had already gathered around the body. Seeing the arrival of the Chief Master, the crowd moved back. Lin Zhennan took a close look at Bai's corpse. Bai's clothes had been unb.u.t.toned, and clearly, there were no bloodstains."No wounds at all?" Lin Zhennan asked Escort Zhu, who stood next to him."I've examined the body carefully, and there's not a single wound anywhere on the body. It does not look like poison either," Escort Zhu replied, which Lin Zhennan acknowledged with a nod."Tell Dong the bookkeeper to arrange a funeral for Bai, and don't forget to send a hundred taels of silver to his family," Lin Zhennan directed.The death of a henchman due to illness was not something Lin Zhennan would pay much attention to. "Didn't Bai go hunting with you today?" he asked Lin Pingzhi after walking back to the living room."Yes, he did. He looked fine when we got back. Who'd think he would catch a deadly disease so unexpectedly," Lin Pingzhi replied."Many things in this world are like that," Lin Zhennan commented. "Whether good or evil, they always happen in an unexpected manner. I've always wanted to open the escort trail through the province of Szechwan. I thought it would have taken at least another ten years. Who would have expected that Master Yu would somehow be prompted by some sudden impulse to not only accept my gifts, but to also send four apprentices, such a long way, to thank us?""Father, although the Qingcheng Sword School is a well-renowned school, our Fortune Prestige Escort House is fairly famous, too. We have been sending gifts to Szechwan year after year; it's only natural for Master Yu to send people our way to show his grat.i.tude, as well.""What do you know?" Lin Zhennan chuckled. "Qingcheng and Emei have been around for hundreds of years. They've had many outstanding disciples in their schools. Maybe they aren't as famous as Shaolin or Wutang,[15] but they certainly have enough fame to be placed next to Songshan, Taishan, Hengshan, Huashan, and Heng-Shan of the Five Mountains Sword Alliance. [16] Your great grandfather, Sir Yuantu, founded the seventy-two moves of 'Evil-Resisting Sword Art.' This set of sword techniques shocked the entire Martial Arts Society and gained him great fame. You can say that he had never met his match in swordplay. After this sword style was pa.s.sed on to your grandfather, its eminence declined. It was then pa.s.sed on to me, and I am afraid that it has declined, even more, in my hands. The Lin Family had only one child in each generation for the last three generations. We don't even have any apprentices. With only you and me, we really don't have the same kind of manpower that those other schools have.""We could gather all the people from our Escort Houses in the ten Provinces, then we could take on any of them – Shaolin, Wutang, Emei, Qingcheng, or the Five Mountains Sword Alliance," Lin Pingzhi declared.Lin Zhennan was amused. "Son, it's alright to say something like that when you are talking to me. But if you had said those words to an outsider, you'd get into a lot of trouble. The eighty-four escorts we have at our ten Escort Houses each has his own specialties. Of course, when we all gather together, we aren't afraid of anyone, but what do we gain by beating other people? It is well said that manners and amicability make great fortunes; this is especially true for us in the escort business. What are we going to lose by being humble, while the others go around showing off?""Oh no! Escort Zheng is dead too!" somebody suddenly yelled out from outside. Lin Zhennan and Lin Pingzhi were both dumbstruck.Lin Pingzhi jumped out of his chair and muttered, "They're back for re…!" It took him great effort to finally swallow the word "revenge" back down his throat. Lin Zhennan was already on his way out and didn't catch what Lin Pingzhi had just said.Henchman Chen rushed in and yelled incoherently, "Chief…Chief Master! Trouble! Escort Zheng…Escort Zheng's spirit is possessed by the Szechwan demon, too.""Stop this nonsense! What Szechwan demon?" Lin Zhennan roared with a stern face."Sir! The demon…the man from Szechwan was already ferocious when he was alive, so of course he would be more terrifying after death…," Chen said lamely. Seeing the Chief Master's hard countenance, he dared not continue, and only looked to Lin Pingzhi with a mixed expression of fear and grief."Did you say Escort Zheng was dead? Where's the body? How did he die?" Lin Zhennan asked impatiently.Several more escorts and henchmen rushed into the hall. "Brother Zheng died in the stable," one escort answered with a frown. "He died in exactly the same way as Henchman Bai. There wasn't a single wound on his body, and no bleeding could be found from any aperture. No swelling on his face either. Maybe…maybe they became haunted by some kind of demon when they…when they went hunting with the Young Master."Lin Zhennan snorted. "I've lived all my life without ever seeing either a ghost or a demon. Let's go have a look." He walked out of the hall and into the stable.Escort Zheng's body lay on the ground, his hands still holding onto a saddle. Apparently, he had been taking the saddle off before his sudden demise. There was no sign of any struggle.As it was already dark outside, Lin Zhennan asked a henchman to hold a lantern while he examined Escort Zheng. He carefully checked all parts of the corpse, including all the major bones, but failed to find any sign of injury – not even a broken finger. Lin Zhennan was not superst.i.tious. When Bai had died suddenly, it was just a strange occurrence. Now, that Escort Zheng died in the exact same way, it had to be more than a coincidence. If they died of plague or some kind of disease, why were there no red or black spots on the bodies? Could the two deaths have been related to something that happened during his son's hunting trip?He turned around and asked Lin Pingzhi, "Besides Escort Zheng and Henchman Bai, it was just Escort Shi and he who went hunting with you, right?" He indicated Henchman Chen.Lin Pingzhi nodded."You two come with me," Lin Zhennan said firmly. Turning to another henchman, he instructed, "Go ask Escort Shi to report to the East Hall immediately. I want to have a word with him."Soon, the three arrived at the East Hall. "What really happened?" Lin Zhennan asked his son. Lin Pingzhi hastily confessed and told his father all about the trouble he had at the wine shop: how they went in for some drinks; how the two men from Szechwan accosted the girl, which resulted in the fight; how the fight broke out and the man attempted to push Lin's head down to kowtow; how he pulled out a dagger and killed that person; how they buried the body in the back garden and gave old man Sa some silver to keep him quiet. He told everything there was to tell, without leaving anything out.The more Lin Zhennan heard, the more concerned he became. But still, getting into a fight with an outsider and having it result in his death was not the end of the world. He listened to the whole story from his son stolidly. When Lin Pingzhi finished, he pondered in silence for a moment and then asked, "Did these two fellows ever mention which clan or gang they belonged to?""Not a word," Lin Pingzhi answered quickly."When they spoke or did things, did you notice anything unusual?" Lin Zhennan inquired further."I didn't see anything unusual. The fellow Yu….""Did you say the man's name was Yu?" Lin Zhennan interrupted."Yes. I heard the other guy calling him Brother Yu. But it might have been something else. They had accents, so I couldn't understand them too well.""It can't be! It can't be a coincidence. Master Yu said he was going to send someone over; how could they have arrived at Fuzhou so quickly? They don't have wings," Lin Zhennan shook his head and muttered to himself."Father, you don't think those two were from the Qingcheng Sword School, do you?" Lin Pingzhi's voice quivered.Lin Zhennan did not answer; instead, he performed a move and asked, "When you attacked him using this move from the Universe Hands, how did he fend it off?""He couldn't fend off that move, so I slapped him hard on the face," Lin Pingzhi replied."Good! Very good! Excellent!" Lin Zhennan smiled.The room had been filled with foreboding, but now that Lin Zhennan showed a smile, Lin Pingzhi felt quite relieved and could not help smiling himself."When you hit him with this move, how did he respond?" Lin Zhennan asked again, performing more different moves as he spoke."I was infuriated at the time, and can't remember too well. I think I punched him in the chest," Lin Pingzhi replied.Hearing that, Lin Zhennan became even more relaxed. "Very good! Your move should have hit him that way. If he couldn't even block a simple move like that, he couldn't be a close relative to the famous Master Yu of the Qingcheng Sword School, Pine-Wind Temple."He kept saying "very good," but he wasn't complementing his son's fighting skills; he was just relieved. There must be many people named Yu in the province of Szechwan; if this particular Yu could not even beat his son, he must have been a terrible fighter. Such a rotten fighter definitely had nothing to do with the Qingcheng Sword School. He kept tapping on the table with his right middle finger as he pondered upon the situation."How did he grab hold of your head?" he asked, and Lin Pingzhi demonstrated how he couldn't move when his head was held.Henchman Chen also felt much encouraged. "Bai was trying to poke him with a hunting fork," he interrupted, "but the fork was knocked out by the guy's back kick and then Bai was also kicked down."Lin Zhennan felt a shock run through his body. He asked immediately, "He kicked Bai with a back kick and then kicked the fork out of his hands? How…how did he perform those kicks?""It was something like this." Chen grabbed the back of a chair and threw a reverse kick with his right foot, then jumped and threw another back kick with his left foot. These two kicks looked very clumsy, almost like a horse kicking back its hind legs. Lin Pingzhi watched the two clumsy kicks and could not help laughing. "Dad, see…." But then seeing the fearful expression on his father's face, he stopped abruptly."These two kicks seem to be the unique Shadowless Kick maneuver of Qingcheng. Son, how did he perform the kicks exactly?" Lin Zhennan inquired."My head was held at that moment. I couldn't see how he kicked," Lin Pingzhi said."Of course! I'd better ask Escort Shi." Lin Zhennan exited the room and yelled, "Where is Escort Shi? Why isn't he here yet?"Two henchmen came over and reported that n.o.body had yet to be able to find Escort Shi. Feeling the uneasiness growing inside him rapidly, Lin Zhennan paced up and down in the garden hall, thinking, "If the two kicks were indeed the Shadowless Kick technique, then even if the fellow was not a close relative of Master Yu, he must've had some kind of connection with the Qingcheng Sword School. If that's the case, then who was he?" He finally decided to check it out himself. So he ordered the henchmen, "Go get Escort Cui and Escort Ji."Escorts Cui and Ji were the careful types, both experienced and prudent, and well trusted by Lin Zhennan. Having heard about the sudden death of Escort Zheng and the disappearance of Escort Shi, they were already waiting outside the hall. As soon as they heard their names called, both walked into the room."We need to go check something out," Lin Zhennan explained. "Escort Cui, and Escort Ji, my son, and Chen, come with me."Lin Pingzhi leading the way, the group of five rode out of town, and headed north. Soon, they arrived at the small wine shop. The door of the shop was shut."Old man Sa, old man Sa! Open the door," Lin Pingzhi pounded on the door and called out. He knocked and knocked, but there was no response.Escort Cui signaled to Lin Zhennan, that they should bash down the door. After getting a nod from Lin Zhennan, he struck the door with both hands. With a resounding crack, the door's bolt snapped, and the swinging doors squeaked back and forth on the rusty hinges.Escort Cui pulled Lin Pingzhi to the side as soon as he forced the door open. They waited, until they were sure that there was no sound coming from within. Lighting a fire, they entered, and then lit an oil lamp sitting on the table along with two lanterns. They searched both the interior and exterior of the shop, yet could find no one. However, blankets, trunks, and other everyday accessories were still in the shop."The old fellow got scared. There was a murder here and the body was even buried right in the back garden. He was afraid of getting into trouble, so he just ran off," Lin Zhennan said with a nod. Walked into the garden and pointed to a hoe that was leaning by the wall, he commanded, "Chen, dig the body up."Chen was nearly convinced that the whole crisis had been caused by demons, so after digging only a short while, he felt his limbs getting stiffer and stiffer. He felt so weak that his legs started to give out."Utterly useless! How can you even call yourself a henchman?" Escort Ji yelled at him sternly.He handed his lantern to Chen, took the hoe from him, and then began digging. Not long after, the clothes of the dead body appeared. He dug a little deeper and then levering the hoe beneath the corpse, gave a strong tug. The body was lifted out of the hole.Chen turned his head away, afraid to look. But gasps of shock suddenly came from the other four. Scared to death, Chen dropped the lantern. The light was extinguished and the garden was enveloped in complete darkness.Lin Pingzhi's voice quavered when he muttered uneasily, "We definitely buried the Szechwan guy's body, how come…how come….""Light the lantern!" Lin Zhennan ordered. He had kept his calm since the strange events started to happen, but now there was fear in his voice.Escort Cui lit the lantern. Lin Zhennan bent down to check on the body. Minutes later, he declared, "Same kind of death, not a single wound at all."Chen finally gathered enough courage to give a glance at the body, and then he screamed, "Escort Shi! It's Escort Shi!" The body they had dug out was that of Escort Shi, and the corpse of the man from Szechwan had vanished."Something seems strange about this old man Sa," Lin Zhennan said. He grabbed the lantern and hurried back into the room, looking over everything very carefully. But he couldn't find anything unusual, even after looking at everything in the room – in the wine jugs, underneath the stoves, in the iron pot, under the table and chairs. Escorts Cui and Ji, and Lin Pingzhi also began examining the different rooms."Father, come here and look at this," Lin Pingzhi shouted out suddenly.Following the sound of his son's voice, Lin Zhennan found Lin Pingzhi in the girl's bedroom holding a green handkerchief in his hand."Father, how could a poor girl have a handkerchief like this?" Lin Pingzhi asked, his voice quavered with excitement.Lin Zhennan took the handkerchief from Lin Pingzhi's hands and examined it carefully. A trace of some kind of light but sweet scent soon caught his attention. The handkerchief was very soft and smooth, yet also quite heavy. It was obviously made from high-quality silk. When he looked at it more carefully, he found three levels of green thread sealing the edges of the handkerchief. In one corner, a small red coral branch was embroidered in great detail."Where did you find this?" Lin Zhennan asked."It fell underneath the corner of the bed. Maybe they didn't see it, when they packed and left in such a hurry," Lin Pingzhi suggested.Lin Zhennan put his lantern close to the bed and searched, but found nothing else. He muttered, "You said that the girl was very ugly. I suppose she wasn't wearing very expensive clothing, but was she dressed very neatly?""I didn't pay much attention. I am sure her dress wasn't filthy, because I would have noticed when she poured wine for me," Lin Pingzhi replied eagerly."Brother Cui, what do you think?" Lin Zhennan turned to Escort Cui."I think this old man and the young girl must be involved with the deaths of Escorts Shi and Zheng, and Henchman Bai. It's even possible that they were the actual killers," Escort Cui concluded."The two fellows from Szechwan must have been in on it too; otherwise, why would they move the dead body?" Escort Ji added."But that fellow Yu was hara.s.sing the girl. I wouldn't have called him names, otherwise. They can't be working together," Lin Pingzhi objected."Young Master," Escort Cui explained, "you may not realize it, but we are living in a very dangerous world, and that people may intentionally set traps in which others may fall. It happens all the time. Two people pretend to fight, and when someone comes to try and separate them, the two will suddenly turn on him.""Chief Master, what's your opinion on this?" Escort Ji asked."The old man and the young girl must have come for us. I am just not sure if those two fellows from Szechwan were in league with them," Lin Zhennan replied."Father, didn't you say that the Master Yu of Pine-Wind Temple sent four people over. There…there were exactly four people," Lin Pingzhi muttered restlessly.These words struck Lin Zhennan like a hammer. "The Fortune Prestige Escort House has always shown great respect to the Qingcheng Sword School, and has never done anything to displease them. Why would Master Yu send people to stir up trouble? Why?!" he muttered to himself.The four just looked at each other in silence; no one could think of anything to say. After a long while, Lin Zhennan finally spoke."Let's move Escort Shi's body inside first. When we get back to the Escort House, don't mention this to anyone. We don't want the authorities to know about this and cause any unnecessary trouble. Humph, the Lin family respects others and wants no trouble, but that doesn't mean we are cowards who don't fight back.""Chief Master," Escort Ji agreed heartily, "like the old saying goes, 'Keeping an army for a year just for one battle.' All of us will fight for the honor of the Escort House.""Many thanks!" Lin Zhennan nodded.The party headed back to town. Just when they were about to reach the Escort House, they saw a big crowd gathering in front of the gate. Countless torches lit the street, turning the night into day. Lin Zhennan's heart missed a beat. He rushed forward."Chief Master is back!" several people cried out.Lin Zhennan dismounted his horse and saw that his wife, Madam w.a.n.g, was extremely angry."Look! Humph, someone is trying to challenge us in our home," she exclaimed.A pair of broken poles lay in the street; each had a flag attached to the end. These were the flags of the Escort House; someone had cut down the two flagpoles and left them lying on the ground. The broken ends had very smooth cuts, apparently were cut down with a very sharp blade.Madam w.a.n.g was not carrying a weapon, so she drew Lin Zhennan's long sword out from the sheath at his waist. With two sharp tearing sounds, she cut the two flags from the broken flagpoles. Picking the flags up, she went inside through the gate."Escort Cui, cut the stumps of the two flagpoles down," Lin Zhennan instructed. "Humph, it won't be an easy task to take down the Fortune Prestige Escort House!""Yes, sir," Escort Cui answered."d.a.m.n them! What a bunch of cowards they are, only daring to play these dirty tricks when the Chief Master is not at home," Escort Ji cursed.Lin Zhennan beckoned to his son and the two went into the house while Escort Ji poured out even more profanities. The father and son went into the East Hall. Madam w.a.n.g had already spread the flags on two tables. On one of the flags, the eyes of the yellow lion had been cut out, leaving two empty holes. On the other flag, the word "Prestige" had been cut out from the name "Fortune Prestige Escort House."Lin Zhennan was a patient man with an even temper, but even he could not stand these insults any longer. He struck the table with a resounding blow. One leg of the sandalwood table broke with a crack."Father, it's…my entire fault. I got the family into this situation!" Lin Pingzhi trembled."Yes, the Lin family has killed someone, and so what? If I ever saw a punk like him, I'd kill him too!" Lin Zhennan roared."Who got killed?" Madam w.a.n.g asked in surprise."Pingzhi, tell your mother about it," Lin Zhennan said.So Lin Pingzhi told Madam w.a.n.g everything that had happened: How he killed the man from Szechwan, how they found the body of Escort Shi in the garden of the wine shop, and so forth.Madam w.a.n.g had heard about the mysterious deaths of Henchman Bai and Escort Zheng. At the news of the death of Escort Shi, she exploded."Husband, how can we let others push the Fortune Prestige Escort House around like this? Let's gather our people and go seek justice from the Qingcheng Sword School in Szechwan. We can also invite my father and my brothers to join us."Since her youth, Madam w.a.n.g was known for having a bad temper. As a maiden, she had no qualms with pulling out a knife for even the smallest of disagreements. Her family, the Golden Blade w.a.n.g Family, was a large and powerful family in the city of Luoyang. Everyone would defer to her, out of respect for her father, the Unbeatable Golden Blade, w.a.n.g Yuanba. Even now, after her son had grown up, her hot temper had not improved much."We are still not sure who our enemy is. It might not even be the Qingcheng Sword School. But whoever they are, I doubt they'd stop at two broken flagpoles and two dead escorts…," Lin Zhennan replied when he was suddenly interrupted by the bellowing voice of Madam w.a.n.g."What else do they want?"Lin Zhennan cast a side-glance at Lin Pingzhi and Madam w.a.n.g understood instantly. Her heart started pumping fiercely, and her face paled from fear."I caused all the trouble. A true man would take full responsibility for his own action. I won't…won't be afraid." Lin Pingzhi's words were brave enough, but the trembling voice gave him away."Humph, they'll have to pa.s.s through me first before they can get to you," Madam w.a.n.g exclaimed. "The banner of the Fortune Prestige Escort House has been held high for three generations. We've never lost our glory." She turned to Lin Zhennan. "If we can't even settle this little problem, what good are we? How can we look at ourselves in the mirror for the rest of our lives?"Lin Zhennan nodded to Madam w.a.n.g in agreement. "I'll send people to search the town for new faces. Meanwhile, I'll have more people on patrol around the Escort House. You wait here with Pingzhi. Don't let him run around by himself.""Yes, I understand!" Madam w.a.n.g acknowledged.The couple both understood well that Lin Pingzhi would undoubtedly become the next target. The enemy was hidden in the dark and they themselves were exposed under the light. Even if Lin Pingzhi only stepped out of the Escort House for a minute, he would be in great danger.Lin Zhennan walked to the Main Hall and gathered the escorts, sending some people to go check out the town, and instructing the rest to patrol the Escort House. All the escorts had heard about the situation. The flagpole of the Escort House being cut down was a slap in the face of each and every one. Infuriated, they had already dressed themselves in uniforms and taken up arms. Upon the command from the Chief Master, they instantly obeyed the order whole-heartedly.Lin Zhennan felt a measure of relief as he witnessed the entire Escort House working in unison, preparing to defend the honor of the Escort House. Walking back inside, he spoke to Lin Pingzhi."Pingzhi, your mom hasn't been well for the last couple of days. The enemy will be soon coming; why don't you move into the room outside her bedroom to guard her?""I don't need…," Madam w.a.n.g rejected, but before finishing the sentence, she suddenly realized what her husband had really meant. He wasn't asking their son to guard her; instead, he was really trying to have their son close by, so they could protect him. Their son was a young man with very sensitive pride. If they had asked him to hide behind them, he would probably feel humiliated, and go straight out to challenge the enemy to a fight. That would be too dangerous! So she immediately swallowed the second half of the sentence down her throat."That's right, Pingzhi. Mom is having joint problems these days; both my arms and legs feel weak. Your father needs to take care of the Escort House and can't be accompanying me all the time. If the enemy gets in, I won't be able to fight them off.""I'll stay with you," Lin Pingzhi stated without hesitation.That night Lin Pingzhi slept on the bed just outside his parents' room. The couple left the door open. Placing their weapons right next to their pillows, they slept dressed, so that they could jump up to fight at any time.The night pa.s.sed, uneventfully, until dawn, when someone outside the window called in a low voice, "Young Master? Young Master!"Lin Pingzhi had not been able to sleep for the most of the night, and had just fallen asleep, so he didn't wake up."What's the matter?" Lin Zhennan asked."The Young Master's horse…the horse is dead!" the man outside answered. Lin Pingzhi loved his horse very much, so as soon as the horse's groom found out about the calamity, he rushed to tell Lin Pingzhi.Roused by the words, Lin Pingzhi sat up in bed. "Let me go look."Lin Zhennan knew that once again, something had gone terribly wrong, so he hurried to the stable with Lin Pingzhi. The body of the horse lay on the ground. It had been dead for quite some time. As happened before, there was not a single wound on the corpse."Did you hear any noise last night?" Lin Zhennan asked."No, sir!" the groom answered."Don't get upset. I'll see to it that you receive another good colt." Lin Zhennan patted Lin Pingzhi gingerly on the shoulder, as Lin Pingzhi quietly caressed the horse's corpse, tears emerging from his eyes.All of a sudden, Henchman Chen burst into the stables shouting in panic, "Chief…Chief Master, it's terrible…horrible! All those escorts…the escorts were killed by the demon!""What did you say?" Lin Zhennan and Lin Pingzhi asked in unison, their voices filled with incredulity."Dead, all dead!" Henchman Chen kept muttering uncontrollably."Who is dead?" Lin Pingzhi demanded angrily. He grabbed Chen's collar and shook him hard."Young…Young Master…dead!" Chen mumbled dazedly.Hearing the words "Young Master dead," Lin Zhennan was most disturbed. But he did not want to yell at Chen for saying those ominous words, afraid to show his uneasiness."Where's the Chief Master? We'd better report this to him fast," a man's urgent voice floated in from the outside. "The demon is so vicious, what…what can we do?" another voice asked timidly."I am over here! What's going on?" Lin Zhennan shouted loudly toward them, who, in turn, rushed over. It was an escort, followed by three henchmen."Chief Master, not a single escort we sent out, made it back," the leading escort said.Find authorized novels in Webnovel,faster updates, better experience,Please click for visiting.

Lin Zhennan had expected news of someone's death when he heard the commotion. But he had sent out a total of twenty-three escorts and henchmen to gather information last night; how could all of them have been wiped out?"Well, are you sure they're dead?" he asked hurriedly. "Maybe they're still investigating and just haven't gotten back in time."The escort shook his head. "We have already found seventeen bodies….""Seventeen bodies?" Lin Zhennan and Lin Pingzhi cried out in unison.Fear written all over his face, the escort confirmed with a nod. "Yes, seventeen bodies. Among them were Escorts Fu, Qian, and Wu. All of the bodies are in the Front Hall at this very moment."

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