Different Year, Same Thing (Part 20)
“Was I wrong?”
The change in the breeze expressed the poignant emotion that didn’t show on Ming Feizhen’s visage. Though he didn’t turn to face Ming Suwen, his emotions were running high. He could be called a trapped beast huffing out of its nose, still desiring to unleash carnage.
“Third told me about your fight with Mount Lu Sword Sanctuary. You set your mind on that when I left, didn’t you? Your method was to fight fire with a bigger fire. Although it’s decidedly a simple and direct solution, it’s a blunder from beginning to end.”
“If nothing else, Ling Qingshu’s father deserves to be punished for his son’s despicable deeds. Although Lin Hanzhong didn’t carry out the deeds himself, he is to blame. If you listed all of his crimes thus far, Lin Hanzhong deserves to be executed dozens of times. Ever since Lin Hanzhong started leading Mount Lu Sword Sanctuary, you could call them an orthodox sect or a den of bandits. I didn’t take a single life…” Not detecting Ming Suwen’s bloodlust behind him whatsoever owing to his immense power, Ming Feizhen continued, “What… did I do wrong?”
“How much do you know about their entire plan?” Ming Suwen authoritatively questioned.
“… Does it matter?”
“I surmise Third found out about their plans a couple of days ago. You’re just hearing it now. Don’t ask me why I know this crap. I was acquainted with you from the moment I was born; I’m one of the three people who know you best if such a list exists. I can read you like a book,” asserted Ming Suwen, cutting to the chase and not pulling punches or being playful unlike her usual speech mannerisms because she was speaking from the bottom of her heart.
Ming Suwen reproved, “You resolved the entire fiasco within a few hours after hearing about it, so I can understand people calling it heroism. You and I both are fully aware that it wasn’t anything but brash tomfoolery, however.
“How much do you know about Mount Lu Sword Sanctuary? What, a few pages of scribbles’ worth? How much do you know about their plan to conquer Hangzhou? As much as what Third mentioned. You had no idea big their forces were, how strong they were or what their plans were. All you did was vengefully march in and declare war.
“You should be thankful nobody died. Have you any idea that they are one of the sects that are obsessed with pursuing swordplay? They would keep a level head as they dismantle you; they wouldn’t charge in head first, driven by emotions, the way you did. Sure, some might, and they’ll end up victims of your blade broadsword.
“Wind Passing Dragon Hall should be a worthy opponent for you. He isn’t a swordsman who’s out for blood; his calculated approach could pick you apart if you’re not in the right frame of mind. That would keep you in check. Otherwise, I know you would’ve massacred everyone there. You were lucky. Very lucky. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be sitting here, pretending you’re not bothered. You’d be standing on a mountain of corpses.”
Ming Feizhen’s imaginative mind tormented him as he listened to Ming Suwen illustrate what could have been.
“Why do I have to put up with regret? Don’t they deserve to die?” asked Ming Feizhen, aggressively turning to Ming Suwen.
“Is that a serious question, or are you trying to test me?” Ming Suwen questioned, speaking through her teeth.
“Do you know what sort of commotion you triggered in Jiangnan’s martial world after you defeated one of the Seven Champion White Princes in a single day? If the other six catch wind of it and decide to start dividing amongst each other, how much more anarchy will it give rise to? Mount Lu Sword Sanctuary and Cold Mountain Temple are on friendly terms and, consequently, will join the fray once it blows up. The worst situation we could have is one to two White Princes scrapping with the others. More people would die in those skirmishes than if Mount Lu Sword Sanctuary was to take over Hangzhou. The orthodox sects have yet to recuperate from the campaign against Demon Sect. You think they would last another battle?
“You know the Qilin Guards’ grand commander, and you’re cognisant of the fact that he’s more ambitious than Yan Shisan by miles. He may step in to stop the chaos since the Qilin Guards now lead among the three law enforcement offices in charge of the martial world; however, he will only step in when he can maximise his gains. How many people would have to die to spur him into action?
“Hypothetically speaking, if the campaign against Demon Sect didn’t take place, the remaining White Champion Princes would verify the information several times before they sortied against another White Prince. Howbeit, everyone in the martial world could smell blood since Demon Sect’s demise. If the other six White Princes start vying to expand their sphere of influence, they will start swinging their ambitious swords on Jiangnan and then beyond it. The havoc will be far more than what Demon Sect ever did.”
Ming Feizhen dropped his head: “How is that my concern? Since Ling Hanzhong coveted Hangzhou, he has to pay the price. In the pugilistic world, it’s survival of the fittest. His downfall is a consequence of his weakness. Nobody can change that tenet.”
“… Why did you avenge Jiu Shaozhang’s family, then? By your logic, they deserved to die because they were weaker.”
Ming Feizhen vigorously yanked his head up, fury and melancholy painting his face. He fronted with a giggle and shake of his head, changing the topic to, “I never knew you cared so much about people. What happened to the aloof demoness? Does dressing in white motivate you to become Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion?”
Slighted, Ming Suwen’s voice turned more chilly: “Was that a jab at me or yourself?”
Ming Feizhen’s eyes grew an extra size. He wanted to rib Ming Suwen, but there was no telling what the point of that was. Deep down, though, he knew he was grouchy.
Tone softening, Ming Suwen went on, “Feizhen, you’re much kinder than you think; you don’t know yourself as well as you like to think. You can dodge the question if you aggravate me enough for me to leave. If I do leave, you’ll be the one hurting most. Do you feel more relieved if you suffer more? Instead of trying to act like a big man and making lame attempts to rile me up, why don’t you just fight me? Master Ming, you don’t scare me.”
“I would never dare hit my martial grandaunt,” joked Ming Feizhen, loosening up thanks to Ming Suwen returning to her usual self.
“You calling me old again?! Didn’t we agree not to call me that?”
Ming Feizhen let Ming Suwen slap his shoulder and giggled: “It’s not some alias, you know? It’s the proper term for addressing you.”
Though the atmosphere had lightened up, Ming Feizhen’s gloomy expression reminded Ming Suwen of his visage when she first saw him today. If it were up to her, she’d never want to be so confrontational with him. Nevertheless, she had to get in his face to avert him from taking on an extremist approach in the future.
“Feizhen… your shifu didn’t entrust Night Fortress to you to remind you to revert back to your fifteen year old self.” Despite Ming Feizhen’s hiked lips cramping, Ming Suwen carried on, conveying, “Ever since the mayhem at Lawless Cliff, your eyes have never returned to how they used to be. You’re no longer able to control your emotions once your bloodlust gushes to your head, forcing you to lock yourself up. Had I known Ximen Chuideng and Demon Sect’s downfall would impact you to this extent… I wouldn’t have left your side for so long.
“Your hatred has left you in the dumps for the last half a year. You refuse to run Night Fortress, be Lord San Shen and a disciple of Mount Daluo. All you’ve been doing, besides recruiting remnants of Demon Sect, all is drinking your woes and rage away in Night Net Palace. The longer you let your resentment and anger simmer, the more prominent your bloodlust is. You will eventually succumb to those emotions and repeat what you did that y-”
“No, I won’t,” Ming Feizhen cut in, eyes listless despite his adamant tone. “I won’t revert back to that version of me bec-”
“Because Ximen Chuideng helped you, correct?” Switching back to her frigid voice, Ming Suwen disputed, “He helped you overcome your mental obstacle in exchange for you serving as Lord San Shen. He’s no more, though; there won’t be a second Ximen Chuideng to help you.”
“Says who? I haven’t seen his corpse!”
“Dead people aren’t going to come back to life. Why are you so persistent? Lawless Cliff is higher than Stirring Dreams Rainy Peak. How do you expect to even find an intact corpse after falling from that height? When he was knocked off the cliff, he was running on fumes. How do you expect him to survive a fall from that height? ‘I haven’t seen his corpse’ and whatnot are but lies to play your game of denial. You need to accept the fact that Ximen Chuideng is dead!”
Ming Feizhen discharged qi from his body, generating a dangerous gale and then drawing it with the momentum. If it was anyone else, they would’ve thought they were dreaming. Leaking out between Ming Feizhen’s ashen lips was, “Enough. I don’t want to talk about this topic anymore.”
“Your eyes have turned to demon eyes and won’t revert for you’re living in regret. You regret adopting an opposing opinion to his and believing that he’s invincible. You regret being powerless to do what you want regardless of how much power you wield.”
“Enough…” Ming Feizhen demanded in a low voice.
Ming Suwen also adopted a low voice and let anger seep into her speech: “You’re blaming yourself for failing to save Bai Tianbin, Ximen Chuideng and that child, failing to keep your promises to them!”
Ming Feizhen slammed his fist on the ground, shattering a boulder, wobbling Ming Suwen, yet not even fazing his black broadsword and the rock it was planted in. Though Ming Feizhen had calmed down after his outburst, the emotions still gnawed at him.
“… I want some time alone,” expressed Ming Feizhen, actually implying, “Please leave.”
That was the first time he ever raised his voice with Ming Suwen. That was the first time he ever flew off the handle and demanded she leave. Never had he ever shown any enemy of his rage of that level.
“I refuse. If I must go, you’re coming with me. You can’t keep holing up here.”
“… Is that within your means?”
“What did I say earlier? If you want to have your way, fight me,” declared Ming Suwen, rising up.
“In that case, use your style to beat me.”
“… What nonsense is that? Why w-”
“Don’t tell me you don’t bear to. When you’re engrossed in your bloodlust, would you show anyone mercy?”
Ming Suwen, the female pugilist no other female under twenty could match, lowered her face and cracked a smirk: “Master Ming, you’re unbelievably hubristic. If I can’t force you to get up within three moves, consider it my loss, and I’ll show myself out. Should I win… you owe me a favour.”
Despite Ming Suwen’s prowess and aptitude, neither of them were something that could make for the difference between her and a Divine Realm adept. Thus, Hero Shenzhou and Ming Huayu wouldn’t even make such a bald bet.
“… All right. Make sure to honour your word.”
“You calling me a crook? Catch this, coward!”
Combining two styles simultaneously, Ming Suwen performed Starnet Palms with her left hand and Sky Net Weaving Palms with her right hand, pulling no punches unlike against Ling Qingshu.
Ming Feizhen dismissively sliced down. Typically, Ming Suwen would have to abandon one attack in order to move off the axis Ming Feizhen’s attack came. She, however, picked up her speed, giving the impression that there was a, convincing identical twin of herself that not even Ming Feizhen could distinguish real from fake.
Shadow Clone? Young Shiyi has mastered Reversal Manual? Guess this is why she’s confident.
Sky Net Classics were the toughest series to master among all of Mount Daluo’s styles, especially Reverse Manual for it flipped all logic one learnt on its head. As such, the risk of exposing oneself to qi deviation was exponentially higher than any other style they taught. Those without an aptitude for martial arts would turn down the chance to learn it without a second thought, deeming it impossible for them to fathom.
Aware that competing against Ming Feizhen in a physical attribute contest was the equivalent of throwing a match, Ming Suwen had to opt for a strategic approach. He even sat in the middle of the pincer attack, confident the difference in the internal energy levels would render her attack pointless until he noticed Yijin Jing’s internal energy flowing inside her.
Ming Suwen’s first strike was intended to draw Ming Feizhen into performing the knife hand to absorb his energy and return it to him, a feat even Hong Jiu couldn’t accomplish in spite of his solid mastery of Empty Palms.
Ming Suwen’s confidence faded as her energy did upon landing it on Ming Feizhen for he used Taichi to give her a taste of her own medicine, almost tripling the force fed back to her.
“Third m-, you crazy?!”
Ming Feizhen got off his bottom and, literally, soared as Ming Suwen made no effort to stop her fall, allowing the force he deflected back to send her toward the edge of the mountain. First, the force from Yijin Jing expedited her journey to the edge. Second, he knew she had internal energy stored. If she started resisting… He cut himself off there and went after her. When no other opponent could ruffle his feathers, she had him shaking.
“You lost,” declared Ming Suwen, grinning.
“… If I didn’t make it in time, you would h-”
“But you can. I know you can.”
“… Why did you pull this jape?”
Ming Suwen ran her fingers along the wrinkles on Ming Feizhen’s face, thumbs brushing the bags under his red eyes. Serving the antidote after pricking him full of bloody holes, she expressed, “I want you to know there are people you still care about and those who care about you in alive. If you couldn’t catch me in time, it’s not your fault; you’re not useless because of that.
“Ximen Buxing couldn’t stand the status quo for another moment. That was the end he was doomed to meet another day or another place if not at Lawless Cliff. You don’t have to be remorseful for the consequences of his decisions. The same goes for Bai Tianbin and the child… Those are not reasons for you to hate yourself.”
“… Sorry, Young Shiyi. I haven’t treated you like that,” Ming Feizhen conveyed, hatred for himself easing upon understanding there was still others important to him living and breathing.
“You should be. You were so aggressive. It’s okay, though. I’ll allow you, and only you, to shout at me.”
Ming Suwen clung to Ming Feizhen’s neck as he sat back down on the rock, acting coquettish. The two started to chat about an assortment of topics they never spoke about before, including his recent life and his past. Never a believer of “getting it off your chest will help you feel better,” Ming Feizhen felt it was so relieving that he spilt everything without realising it.
“Let’s talk about Mount Daluo now. From your shifu’s era to your juniors, you’re all unique.”
“Yeah? Shifu is grandmaster’s only disciple. My other martial uncles are all incredible in their rights, aren’t they?”
“You don’t notice it because you grew up with them. Everyone in the current era is anything but normal. You know what they call your second brother in the pugilistic world?”
“… Ten Thousand Mile Dragon Rider, right?”
“And here you claim you have all the information related to the pugilistic world. You need to pay more attention to those around you.” Ming Suwen muttered, “Dark Knight.”
“As in the hero behind the scenes?”
“He’s meticulous, clever and strong. He could rise to become a prestigious household name even without anyone’s help. See, he saw through Ling Qingshu’s act, but he never exposed it, using it against Ling Qingshu, instead. I’ve always known Shiba is a remarkable man, but I had no idea people in the pugilistic world held him in such high regard. His fellow disciples might have more potential as martial artists; however, none of them are more heroic than he is.”
“Yeah, Second has always been a great guy. He… should’ve inherited the ‘Ming’ surname,” opined Ming Feizhen, lowering his head as if he was an abandoned dog. “I’m nobody. I shouldn’t take anything, either.”
“You didn’t take anything,” contested Ming Suwen, turning Ming Feizhen’s chin her way and holding it there. “Do you still not understand your juniors? Third won’t obey anyone, including your shifu, except for you. Because of Fourth’s inherent different physical attributes, people call him a freak of nature, yet he’s close to you. Fifth is your shifu’s precious jewel, who takes no crap from anyone, yet converses softly and respectfully with you. Sixth would’ve declared war on his martial brothers if it wasn’t for you. Shiba’s valiant character is part of his identity, but he still calls you ‘First Brother’ or ‘Leader’ to this day because he genuinely idolises you. You’ve never taken from anyone. What you have is yours. Your juniors who look up to you are yours.”
Ming Feizhen mulled on what was said then mocked himself with a nose huff: “Am I worthy?”
Regret and refusal to resign himself to fate changed Ming Feizhen’s optimism into pessimism and cynicism. Although he appeared fine, he was corroding away. Gradual therapy unarguably works. In saying that, sometimes, a big single dose did the trick.
“Feizhen, you remember you promised me something if you lost?”
“You mean when you attempted to jump off the cliff?”
“You going to honour your word or not?”
“I will, I will, go on. What is it you want me to do?”
“Well… You’re the only one who can do it.”
“And it is?”
“You remember… the unfinished business we had from this morning?”
It took a while. Nonetheless, Ming Feizhen recalled the cat-like pose Ming Suwen adopted on him and the heat scorching his body. His body started reacting again. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find where to set her down since he went and cleaved off a chunk of the boulder.
“Have you… remembered yet?”
Hairs perking up, Ming Feizhen stuttered, “Y-yes.”
“So… can we resume?”
“W-we should not… I think…”
“Why not? You made a promise.”
She must be playing. We’re out in the wild and on a mountain here. It’s nothing too outlandish, and I can’t shirk this off. If I don’t resolve this, the next time some ridiculous problem crops up…
Ming Feizhen nodded.
“Great. I’ve been revving to try.”
Ming Feizhen froze stiff, unsure where to lay his hands on the maiden in his arms. She, however, got up to draw the black broadsword from the boulder.
“Y-Young Shiyi, what are you doing?”
“Didn’t you already agree? Why are you asking the obvious?”
“W-wait, what did I agree to?”
Ming Suwen bit down on her bottom lip: “You agreed to let me hack you once with this.”
Ming Suwen, indeed, did ask to hack him with the weapon earlier. Alas, he either completely forgot about it until then or was thinking with something else that lacked the same thinking competence.
Ming Suwen dimpled: “I asked to try it, but you were being a nag. Now that you’ve agreed, of course I have to test it on you.”
“You don’t have to test it on me!”
“Indeed. You yelled at me, hit me and shoved me off the edge of the cliff, though. You don’t expect me to pretend those things never happened, do you? No shielding yourself with your true qi.”
Why am I always getting framed?! I must’ve been framed more times than the number of framing cases recorded! You jumped off the cliff yourself!
“Wh-where are you going to chop?”
“Huh?!” Ming Feizhen grabbed his head: “What happens if you beat me into retardation?!”
“That’s not my problem. You’re the one who flipped out at me,” replied Ming Suwen, dimpling.
“W-wait! Let me get ready!”
“Okay. Close your eyes. I’ll count to three and then swing. Once I’m done, the score is settled.”
Ming Feizhen tensed up every muscle in his body as he watched Ming Suwen raise the weapon overhead, shutting his eyes and praying.
“I’ll begin the countdown now.”
“Wait! Wait! Can I count?”
Resisting a laugh, Ming Suwen answered, “Okay.”
Does counting down yourself put you more at ease? Check out Ming Feizhen’s ghastly pale face.
Ming Suwen eventually cracked up, unable to resist.
Ming Feizhen shut his eyes and strove not to focus on the approaching executioner. Alas, her lingering scent was always so prominent.
“Three… two… One, stop! I’ll apology-, mm!”
A soft, sweet and moist pair of lips sealed Ming Feizhen’s ability to say anything that would ruin the ambience. By the time he opened his eyes, he saw Ming Suwen sitting opposite him, radiating. Ming Suwen laughed heartily, relishing Ming Feizhen’s stupefied expression, while he felt a warming and secure sensation comparable to a hug as he watched her.
Ming Suwen placed a hand on his chest, asking, “Did that… hurt?”
The dark clouds looming over head clearing away and the red eyes softening up were the signs of Ming Suwen’s victory. When she noticed him staring at her lips, though, her cheeks started to burn.
“I can’t bear to hack you, yet I have to deliver penance somehow, so that’s all I could think of. With that said, you still owe me.”
“I will… fulfil any request you may have.”
“Don’t forget what you just said,” Ming Suwen stressed, staring into Ming Feizhen’s eyes. “I want you… to live well. I didn’t jump off the cliff to blackmail you but to tell you that I care about you enough to risk my life. No matter what happens, don’t let yourself fall, and don’t neglect your life. There are people who care for you as much as they care for their life. I can only feel assured if you’ve remembered that.”
Although she would hide her thoughts in her bobbed head, glances, sly smile or healing words, I would be incorrigibly stupid if I couldn’t detect her affection for me in her eyes.
Ming Suwen’s affectionate and bright smile under the dark dome forced the red in Ming Feizhen’s eyes to recede.
“You… have my word.”