Different Year, Same Thing (Part 3)
Mount Tianmu has always been complimented as the tree kingdom for there were over eight hundred types on the mountain that also lord over West Lake. The picturesque springs, waterfalls and water streams were also a point of attraction. Thus, it was described as being in nature’s utopia.
Mount Night Net was located at the outer perimeter of West Lake and the end of the mountain range, blessing it with the refreshing breeze coming from the mountains of Hangzhou, the water streams at the foot of the mountain and the green clouds. The rock faces around resembled man-made art. They occupied a large expanse of land and, thanks to the mountain range, created a region that one could say was the world connecting this realm to heaven. The plaque on the door read, “Moon Gazing from the Sky”.
There was no consensus on when Night Fortress was built, with some claiming a decade ago and others claiming two decades ago. Some went as far as claiming it was constructed a century ago but wasn’t called Night Fortress at the time. Rumour had it that some heavyweight in the pugilistic world was the one who had the edifice built. Its porcelain and white walls were supposed to embody antiquity, matching Jiangnan’s geomancy. The fortress’ exact address was halfway up the mountain, yet the address was written as, “Night Fortress’ postman”, which was located at the top of End of the World Peak’s, the tallest mountain on Mount Night Net. Night Net Palace was where Night Fortress’ master resided and convened with his strategic leaders.
Mountains and rivers had a special place in the hearts of Jiangnan’s residents, which was why most martial arts schools in Jiangnan utilised bamboo and stones for buildings, the vicinity of lakes as a location for their house or on the water. Few sects located the majority of their sect on a mountain top, let alone the tallest mountain of all the mountains they could choose. For that reason, pugilists frequently made fun of Night Fortress’ peculiar decision. For the leaders of Night Fortress, conversely, it was perfectly normal as they grew up on a mountain over six times higher; what was fearful to others was cosy to them. They say, you can go around the mountain, but you will miss the view from the top. That sentiment echoed the feelings of those who had seen the picturesque scenery down below from the mountaintop.
That was what was recorded in the Black and White Reflection.
Based off their clothing, over a hundred people from roughly eight sects, including all of the most renowned and influential people from the martial world, were making haste up the mountain.
Despite the turbulence, Hangzhou’s martial world was never impacted. To the contrary, they steadily developed their standing in the pugilistic world. Many wealthy clans in the martial world started out in business and were on good terms with the locals. If unorthodox sects tried to run amok, the locals would offer the local pugilist gifts, and the local pugilists would stand up to the invading unorthodox sects. They called the seven sects that did the best “Hangzhou’s Seven Heroes”. Putting aside Night Fortress and Wutong Jin Yuxuan, those seven sects could be categorised as the leaders of Hangzhou.
Following the seven heroes were a group of cheerful youths. It was impossible to make out what they were up to just from their arms and smiles that occasionally revealed aggression. It almost appeared as if they were the hunters, and the seven heroes were their prey. In spite of the seven heroes’ fame, nobody recognised them.
Regardless of affiliation, whenever there was legitimate business, those in the pugilistic world would march with their glossy plaques at the front and flags up for people to make way and avoid misunderstandings. In today’s march, though, they didn’t come out all with all the conspicuous gear. That was because of a rule that Night Fortress’ master set for outsiders entering their grounds, which was visible at the entrance to their mountain. It read, “Those who peek, speak or interrupt shall be expelled.”
In essence, Night Fortress rule meant that nobody was allowed to come into their territory gloating about who they were or stirring trouble on their grounds. If they couldn’t do that, don’t enter. It was common for sects to have their own rules about disarming upon entering their grounds, so people used mental heuristics to disarm when they were told. For as long as martial arts schools had been around, the imperial court couldn’t interfere with the sect’s internal logistics.
Judging from the cracks on the two towering stone monuments at the top of the winding path, they had been there for a long time. They presumed the carvings were something Night Fortress’ master did when he was in the mood. The text on the left monument read, “Yoho” and the text on the right monument read, “Aha”.
“What the hell?” Qilin Guards’ Vice-Captain Xie Duzhe commented.
Qilin Guards sent spies into various places in the martial world to maintain the power balance after Divine Moon Cult’s fall and their rise to prominence. Xie Duzhe, who couldn’t stop sweating cold bullets ever since setting foot on Night Net Mountain, was sent to Hangzhou as the mediator of the area. Frankly, he didn’t want to be there. Merely seeing the holidaying young masters behind him ticked him off.
Upon entering Night Fortress’ territory, Xie Duzhe saw several westerners that had to be from Western Regions based off their fashion, yet they had Demon Sect’s tattoo on their arms. It immediately set off alarms since he couldn’t explain why members of Demon Sect would be in Night Fortress’ territory. If Night Fortress was a refugee camp of sorts, he would have an abundant harvest. Howbeit, he then saw kids giddily playing around with swords. Having read the list of wanted criminals in the nine provinces multiple times, he could remember their faces.
Xie Duzhe analysed the man teaching the kids, inwardly reeling off, “A tattoo on his left, snake-tipped boots and a jadeite snake sword at his waist, isn’t he Six Yin Slithering Snake Swordsman, Chang Biwan?! I thought he got locked away a few years ago? What the hell is he doing here?!”
Further up, Xie Duzhe noticed, “This is practically a small town. At a glance, there were over a thousand residents. Hold on… There are over a thousand wanted criminals here. Shouldn’t some of these people already be dead? What the hell is this place?! There are recluses from orthodox sects, adepts from unorthodox sects, assassins from League of Assassins now, too? I could earn several years’ worth of my salary if I apprehended just one of these guys. Can I get out the hell of here? They could mince me if they wanted to!”
Only leaders were permitted entry into Night Fortress, so Xie Duzhe followed them in. Upon entering, he thought, “Goodness me, this place is almost as majestic as the imperial courtroom. As a matter of fact, there are striking resemblances from the guard line up on either side. I bet that couch they have for a throne could easily fit four people even if they lied down.”
Standing beside aforementioned couch were three youths. One of them was a tall, approximately twenty-five year old, man with a square-shaped face. He dressed the way a beggar would, yet folded his arms and wore the visage of a thug. The man to his left was the epitome of a scholar – even sporting glasses with golden string. The third one was a young sixteen, maybe seventeen, year old with short hair and appeared markedly more childish compared to his cohorts. There were thirty-two guards standing around, seemingly bored out of their skin.
The youth in the centre cleared his throat for the guards to get into shape. Tone aggressive, he announced, “This one is Night Fortress’ second in command. The surname is Hong. Please take a seat.”
Instead of being assigned seats in lines, Hong Jiu offered them seats at a circular stone table with a stone bench that could fit thirty-odd people. The scent of lamb and wine still lingered in the air. That explained what the groggy guards were doing last night. More importantly, they were having their guests sit at a dining table. The only place people would invite guests to sit at a dining table in those days was when visiting family back in the sticks!
Xie Duzhe placed his palm and fist together: “This one is Qilin Guards’ Xie Duzhe. He would like to have a word with Mas-”
Hong Jiu strode to the table and jovially pulled a stone bench out to sit on. The stone bench was carved from a rock and was approximately a hundred kilograms, yet it took him no effort to pull out. In other words, his blows packed a bunch. Night Fortress’ reputation wasn’t all talk.
Hong Jiu reciprocated the salute and caught some by surprise as he eloquently notified, “I assume you all have something to share, but our leader says he will only listen to one issue per day. Although you came here as a group, can I boldly assume you are not here for the same matter? For your sake, I would like to remind you to think it through. Otherwise, you will have to come back in three days’ time.”
After committing an atrocious massacre three days ago, the culprits dumped the mutilated corpses in the open and penalised anyone who tried to collect the corpses? What was the penalty? Clan extermination. Those who couldn’t stand the injustice and tried to seek justice on behalf of the three innocent people were silenced.
For unknown reasons, Night Fortress’ master offered to resolve one woe per day, which led to folks considering seeking out his help to avenge the wronged family of three. Hangzhou’s Seven Heroes, obviously, weren’t trying to uphold justice but to stop the culprit from expanding their sphere of influence into Hangzhou.
The same morning Hangzhou’s Seven Heroes set out for Night Fortress, someone moved the three corpses from the foot of Mount Chenghuang, sending the culprits into frenzy. The culprit immediately had someone investigate and learnt Night Fortress’ master was supposedly the one responsible.
Xie Duzhe visited Night Fortress on behalf of the imperial court to try and mediate between Night Fortress and the culprit for a riot would mean that the imperial court would have to mobilise their military into Hangzhou. The Seven Champion White Princes wouldn’t budge since they weren’t obligated to protect areas not under their jurisdiction.
“Our leader has not arrived yet, so you should use this time to discuss among yourselves.”
The young men in the rear burst into derisive laughter after Hong Jiu delivered the proposition. One of them asserted, “I had heard Night Fortress’ master is stuck up, and I see that it is true. You hicks from the boonies really think you’re sovereigns out here on this mountain? Cut the drivel, and call your leader out here. Our big bro heard he’ll get involved with everything, so we want to know if he would dare to dip his hands in this.”
Knowing the unbridled youths better than he’d like, Xie Duzhe advised, “Young Master, Master Ming has his own rules, so y-”
“Shut up. I don’t give a toss what his rules are. Tell him to crawl out right now.”
Hong Jiu gave the young master a smile, leading to the young master firing, “What are you looking at? Do you know who I am? My father is a hero. He is known as Changzhou’s Recoiling Wind Blade. If your leader doesn’t come out this instant, I w-, argh!”
The young master rolled on the ground, grabbing his head while painting the floor scarlet. The other young masters brandished their weapons and yelled, “What’s the meaning of this?!”
Hong Jiu shrugged to express he didn’t move.
The leader of the youths calmly commented, “Splendid movement.”
The group turned to the bespectacled accountant the leader praised, who remarked, “Some people need to learn to value their life.”
The accountant stealthily tossed away the brick with blood dripping from it.
Hong Jiu chuckled: “He is our third in charge, Sima Bei.”
“What sort of uncultured swine are you people? Why’d you just hit him?”
“So what if he’s your third in charge? You hit him first.”
“Hahaha.” Hong Jiu’s laugh overpowered the arguments. “Please mind your manners. Whether or not out leader takes offence to your criticism is his business. We uncultured swine won’t let anyone disparage him, though. We would gladly entertain you if you wish to try?”
Hong Jiu then aggressively stressed, “I promise: we can make balls out of your heads. Hahahaha.”
Hong Jiu’s laugh eased the nerves of the young masters but not without a gulp.
“You introduced your friends, so it would be rude of us if we were not to speak.”
The leader of the young masters undauntedly introduced his companions one by one. Hong Jiu listened in cheerfully until the leader stated, “This one is Ling Qingshu, a resident of Jiujiang. His father’s name is… Hanzhong.”
There was nobody who didn’t recognise the name. Among the Seven Champion White Princes, only one of the seven carried the surname “Ling” – the leader of the seven, Mount Lu Sword Sanctuary’s Ling Clan. Their patriarch’s full name was Ling Hanzhong, the younger brother of Her Majesty!