With matching glares, Li Stahn of the Infinite Sky Devil Sect and the monster hunter Gan Zhu confronted each other. On the outside, each was as confident and as domineering as the other; and on the inside, both were angry, vexed, and severely depressed, and trying very hard not to let their feelings show. An outside observer might conclude that the two young men were actually very similar — and as it happens, there was in fact someone observing their fight who came to that very conclusion!
If the two had realized that they were being watched, they no doubt would have felt even more despondent, but fortunately the watcher was one Zebu Biel! The fat man sat atop a tall tree, resting on a branch that seemed much too thin to support his apparent weight. But somehow it failed to snap, and the fat man watched the ongoing fight while occasionally bursting out into laughter, completely ignoring his precarious perch; and neither fighter had even the slightest idea that he was there.
The two fighters had paid close attention as they retreated from North Pine City, and as far as they could tell, they had not been pursued. Nevertheless by unspoken agreement, they moved while leaving no traces, as quickly as possible, to delay the inevitable pursuit of the Fan Clan.
Once they reached a forest a certain distance away however, they quickly fell to blows once more. Neither had thought the battle would take long: Gan Zhu thought of forests as his own ground, which would give greatest advantage to his own wild fighting style; while Li Stahn had thought that any advantage Gan Zhu might gain would be easily overthrown once Li Stahn could use his own arts freely.
The reality, however, turned out to be harsher than either combatant expected. In Gan Zhu’s case, the problem was his lack of experience fighting human opponents. In the days since he made his return to North Pine City, he had made a modest living hunting monstrous beasts for sellable materials and bounties, while investigating the current state of the city. Under the influence of the Anubai Arte of Breath, his body had become strong enough and fast enough to hunt and kill a number of the numerous dangerous animals and pests in the hills and forests surrounding North Pine City, and his confidence had grown to the point where he no longer feared the common soldiers of the Fan clan. Based on his encounter with them earlier, this confidence was fully justified!
But when it came to an opponent of Li Stahn’s level, his experience was sadly lacking, causing his confidence to betray him. Gan Zhu did not know what it meant to be a part of a sect, especially one known as a Devil Sect; he had no idea of the sheer number of life or death situations that Li Stahn had overcome in his life, or the combat instincts that had been imprinted within the older man by his experiences. Gan Zhu’s plan to overwhelm the Devil Sect disciple with pure strength and speed, was incredibly naive!
And so whenever Gan Zhu approached Li Stahn, and from whatever angle, Li Stahn’s sword arrived first, preventing him from landing any blows. Gan Zhu had already knocked over several tall trees and torn up the ground, changing directions at an unbelievable speed in an attempt to take Li Stahn by surprise. But his efforts were futile; and as he lacked any qi arts, he had no means of delivering any decisive killing blows, leaving him feeling despondent and suppressed.
Li Stahn, on the other hand, felt even more aggrieved than Gan Zhu! To begin with, there was Gan Zhu’s apparently inexhaustible stamina. No matter that Li Stahn was using less than a tenth of the effort to nearly ten times the effect, Gan Zhu continued his relentless high-speed assault without the slightest indication that he was becoming tired.
Furthermore, even at this moment, Gan Zhu still displayed not the slightest indication of a martial aura, or a single thread of qi. Li Stahn was forced to track Gan Zhu’s movements by sensing his bloodlust, instead. It was truly fortunate for Li Stahn that his ample fighting experience covered for this handicap, as he had met opponents in the past who were capable of manipulating and hiding their own aura — although none to the extreme degree that Gan Zhu displayed.
And so, although Li Stahn still appeared to have plenty of leeway to deal with Gan Zhu, his qi and stamina were slowly being drained away, and his mental state was progressively growing worse. If the fight dragged on any further, it might actually be Li Stahn who would lose in the end!
Of course, Li Stahn still had various trump cards, in the form of abilities and artifacts. But the part that truly frustrated him — the part that sent a shiver of true fear down his spine — was that he didn’t dare use any technique that left an opening if it failed to kill. Because… he had discovered Gan Zhu’s true trump card!
With a growl, Gan Zhu launched himself at Li Stahn once more. A furious exchange occurred, at a spectacular speed, and once again Li Stahn’s greater experience proved to be telling. At the perfect timing, the apostle of the Infinite Sky lashed out with his blade and qi, nearly severing space itself in a vicious slice! Gan Zhu had barely a moment to react before the shadow of his enemy’s blade would slice him in half!
This was Li Stahn’s sword art speciality: Shadow Cutting Shadow! The cutting blade was an invisible edge of qi; but if one were to observe carefully, they would notice the shadow of the blade upon the ground, slicing into the opponent’s own shadow. But to notice the shadow of the blade, and dodge the blade itself, were two different challenges, and the average mortal practitioner would have to leave behind their life after encountering this vicious technique.
But after sparring in his dream with the black-furred demon woman, Marah, Gan Zhu had impressive instincts of his own. Twisting his body in midair, with an almost inhuman litheness, the young man spun his torso out of the path of Li Stahn’s blade, preserving his life. Although, this maneuver did not come without cost: the shadow blade fell upon Gan Zhu’s left wrist, severing it entirely!
Gan Zhu’s hand flew into the air, and Li Stahn eyed it grimly. Normally, such a blow would not only be crippling but swiftly lethal, either from the pain distracting the victim and providing an opening to kill, or from blood loss weakening him until he could no longer muster a defence. It would be normal for Li Stahn to rejoice after dealing such a blow, but his expression was dark instead.
After all… he had already severed Gan Zhu’s limbs three times already, to no avail!
Indeed, Gan Zhu snatched his left hand out of the air without providing Li Stahn with any extra openings, apparently not affected by the pain. Notably, neither his hand nor his arm were bleeding heavily at all. Li Stahn could have pursued him more strongly, forcing Gan Zhu to dodge that terrible invisible blade, and perhaps forced him to use more of his energy; but instead, Li Stahn held back his blade, watching Gan Zhu closely.
Gan Zhu looked levelly at Li Stahn, and Li Stahn stared fixedly at Gan Zhu’s wrist. One side of Gan Zhu’s mouth twisted up in a smile, as he brought his severed hand over to his wrist. A piercing green light flashed, stabbing at Li Stahn’s eyes, but he forced himself not to flinch and stared through it. He watched carefully as crystals formed over the severed wrist, rising and falling like boiling water. And then the mysterious crystals were gone, and the light dissipated, leaving Gan Zhu’s hand once more attached!
Gan Zhu raised his left arm, and clenched and relaxed his fist, obviously showing off that he could control it perfectly. After a moment, Li Stahn sighed and shook his head. “That’s… amazing,” he said, in a surprisingly calm voice. “If it was just the left arm, I would have suspected that it was a side effect of whatever means you used to recover it — but it extends to your right arm, and even your legs. I wonder… if I were to cut off your head, would you be able to reattach that as well…?”
“Hmph. I don’t know,” admitted Gan Zhu readily. “And I am in no hurry to learn. Quit targeting my neck.”
Li Stahn snorted, and brought his Sacred Evil Sword back up to guard. He awaited Gan Zhu’s next high-speed assault — but to his surprise, Gan Zhu hesitated. The younger man looked pensively at Li Stahn for a few moments, then seemed to relax his guard. He opened his mouth, and his next words shocked Li Stahn.
“Let’s stop. There’s no point to continuing.”
Li Stahn nearly spat blood with rage. “What!? Why would you want to stop now? Bastard, are you looking down on me!?”
“Hmph! I may want to punch your face in a few times, but it’s obvious that my skills are completely insufficient, exactly like you said. In that case, why draw out this pointless battle any further? I have better things to do with my time.”
“You little bastard! You jump into my fight, challenge me right to my face, and you think you can just walk away? Keep your dreams for when you are asleep, punk!” shouted Li Stahn with an ugly sneer. Just a moment before he had been trying to think of a way to extricate himself from this losing fight, but suddenly he wanted nothing more than to tear apart the arrogant little monster in front of him. His hand on his sword twitched as he started to consider some of his true trump cards — it might set back his recovery by a certain amount, but it would be worth it if he could wipe this Gan Zhu from the face of the realm!
Gan Zhu, however, was completely unmoved by Li Stahn’s anger, and responded with a cocky grin. “Oh? You think you can catch me if I want to go? Do you want to have a race then, Mr. Infinite Sky Devil Sect?”
These words cooled Li Stahn off quickly. Indeed, Gan Zhu’s speed was slightly superior to his own, and if Gan Zhu truly had as much stamina to spare as he had demonstrated thus far, it would be an exercise in futility to chase him for any distance. Although a practitioner of Li Stahn’s current level could run for several days without stopping to rest, that would be at his peak — and right now, Li Stahn was far from the peak of his strength. He had been fighting Gan Zhu for a long time, after all, and had spent a lot of stamina and qi keeping the weird practitioner at bay.
But that raised another question in Li Stahn’s mind, and after a moment he said Gan Zhu, “It is true that I am running out of strength, and I’m unlikely to win a straight pursuit. But, why are you not attempting to completely deplete my stamina, and kill me once I can no longer move?”
“Hah,” sighed Gan Zhu. “Who would want to win in such a pathetic fashion? Besides… although I was slightly irritated with you, due to the consequences of our meeting in the Cerulean Abyss, I had no intention of killing you in the first place. I just wanted to readdress the balance between us with a punch or two.”
The unnatural clearing was quiet for a while, with only the sound of the wind breaking the silence. Finally, Li Stahn asked, “Are you an idiot?”
Gan Zhu shrugged, and didn’t answer.
“Kid, you are too arrogant,” said Li Stahn seriously. “This world is not such a nice place, that you can slap an expert’s face and expect to simply walk away afterward. We are men who have lived side by side with death; to let an enemy live is to invite disaster down upon one’s self.”
“Oh? Should I pursue you for the rest of our lives, because you left me to die in the Abyss?” asked Gan Zhu with a crooked smile. When Li Stahn did not respond, he continued, “Forget it. I can’t be bothered with such a small thing. If you hadn’t cut my arm at that time, perhaps I would have not had encountered the fortune I did.
“And if we continue this, you may even manage to kill me. I would be very disappointed if I died before Fan Bin; therefore, it is not worth pursuing this matter.”
“Fan Bin?” asked Li Stahn, surprised. “What do you have to do with Fan Bin?”
Gan Zhu nodded, and said, “I don’t mind telling you. Fan Bin is the one who murdered my family, and his pill destroyed my cultivation and body. He is directly responsible for the broken Gan Zhu you met in the Abyss, and I will not rest until I have my revenge.”
“…Hmmm. A pill destroyed your cultivation, you say? What was it called?” asked Li Stahn, a small frown appearing on his face. He didn’t doubt Gan Zhu’s words; where Sun Lan had required a special art to understand Gan Zhu’s previous state, Li Stahn had seen through the extreme damage at a glance. He had seen broken men before, but for that level of damage to be inflicted by a single pill was… interesting, and disturbing.
Unfortunately, Gan Zhu shook his head at Li Stahn’s question. “I don’t know the name of the pill. Fan Bin and his men obviously expected me to die, but they weren’t so careless as to openly speak of secrets in front of me. If you like, I can try to get him to tell me the name, before I finally kill him.”
“Don’t go out of your way on my account,” replied Li Stahn, openly rolling his eyes. Killing Fan Bin? This kid really thought highly of himself. Even Li Stahn himself only had a seventy percent certainty in himself of winning against peak Qi Gatherer Fan Bin, and that was only in the circumstance that he could face the young heir of the Fan completely alone. If he had to contend with the other experts Fan Bin surrounded himself with, his chances dropped precipitously; and naturally, if one of the few Core Reinforcers of the Fan clan moved, he would have a hard time preserving his own life!
Still, Li Stahn felt a slight admiration for this overconfident young man, who wasn’t afraid to provoke an entire clan in order to seek his own justice. Gan Zhu was unlikely to survive, given his complete lack of backers, and half-baked fighting skills, but… Li Stahn that he could no longer see through the young man, who had come back from the very verge of death, and whose body now contained mysteries he had never encountered before.
And a strange thought struck him: if Gan Zhu did not die, and passed through this crisis, couldn’t he become… extremely helpful to himself, and to the sect?
Li Stahn watched Gan Zhu, and Gan Zhu watched Li Stahn. Neither moved, each apparently lost in his own thoughts. The gentle susurrus of the wind was deceptively peaceful, lending a calm feeling to the standoff. Finally, Li Stahn spoke out, his voice calm and even.
“Very well,” he said, “I will simply accept this as the consequence of letting you go at that time.” Not that he had a choice at the time, but Gan Zhu did not need to know his true circumstances. “If you say that you are giving up, I will give you some face and let you go. But if you appear before me again, don’t be surprised if I don’t show you any mercy!”
Gan Zhu’s eyes narrowed, and he shifted his feet restlessly. “Don’t mistake me, Infinite Sky Devil Sect’s Li Stahn. Once I have improved myself sufficiently, I will be coming to confront you once again.”
“You damned fool!” shouted Li Stahn, his temper flaring once more. “I was giving you face, but you don’t seem to know how to accept another’s good intentions! Fine! When you appear before me again, I will definitely kill you!”
“Hmph, do what you want,” said Gan Zhu grimly. “If you can, that is. I have room left to grow — do you? Or do you think that I can be killed just because you want to kill me? Ridiculous! No one will decide my fate but me!”
“You…! You…!” Li Stahn’s voice was warped by anger, and perhaps by a different emotion as well. He didn’t flinch back from the burning look in Gan Zhu’s eyes, but it was a near thing.
“Farewell, Li Stahn! We shall meet again sooner than you think!” With an ironic salute, Gan Zhu kicked the ground, sending his body flying backward into the air. Li Stahn’s fingers tightened on the hilt, and he nearly swung his Sacred Evil Sword at the fleeing figure — but at the last moment, his fingers relaxed. In an instant Gan Zhu’s figure was lost in the forest, and within moments Li Stahn could not sense even the least trace of him. The devil practitioner clenched his teeth, but reluctantly accepted that pursuing at this moment would not be possible.
Indeed, rather than further pursuit, what Li Stahn needed now was time to recover! Never mind Gan Zhu, if men from the Fan clan found him right now, his life might be in real danger. He needed to find an isolated place to cultivate qi and recover, before he had to return to finish things in North Pine City. There wasn’t much time remaining before…
Fortunately, there were many hiding places near the city, including a couple that Li Stahn had prepared personally in case of… complications. He quickly made his way towards the nearest, a cave where he had hidden a few useful items. With them in hand, he would be able to quickly recover, and as long as he was cautious, he wouldn’t be caught on the back foot again.
Li Stahn was a veteran of exploring dangerous areas, and he did not allow himself to become distracted even while travelling quickly through the forest. But in the back of his mind, he continued to hear Gan Zhu’s voice as he declared, “No one will decide my fate but me!” A ridiculous, blasphemous claim; but spoken with perfect confidence and absolute sincerity.
“Who are you, Gan Zhu?” he murmured to himself. “Who are you, to say such words so confidently? Don’t you know the true nature of this world, and the doom that lies upon us all? And if you do, I wonder why you can openly make such an impossible claim…”
“Gan Zhu, Gan Zhu… Now that it has come to this, there can only be two possible outcomes. Either I shall kill you and take your corpse for my own use… or I will lead you to meet the sect master. And we will see whether you can decide your own fate, indeed…”
Li Stahn’s words were lost among the trees, unheard by anyone… or so it should have been. But he had indeed been overheard, and the eavesdropper who had been leaning against a nearby tree nodded in agreement. “Indeed, having the boy meet Sect Master Zi Mu Ran would be extremely interesting. Something to look forward to, in fact,” said Zebu Biel with a chuckle. “But it seems that is for the future; for now, let us watch what happens in this poor mortal city. Who will rise, and who will fall — it has already been decided by fate, but the cracks are already beginning to show…” The fat man shrugged with a laugh and took a step forward, disappearing from that place, leaving only the sound of the wind behind.
- This is the chapter that should have been published last week, and then, should have been published earlier this week. Various things happened…
- Writing good and interesting fight scenes requires experience and practice. I don’t have enough practice. I’ll keep trying. 😛
- What the hell is going on in North Pine City, anyway? I hope you are all wondering that. Look forward to the answers, coming soon(ish)! 😉
- Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, if you find any typos, if you want to insult my lack of skill, please leave a comment! 😀