“I am the Dark Flame Master. Perish, enveloped in the flames of darkness!”
--Togashi Yuuta


Chapter Thirty Three - Staged

Huang Ming led the group here and there, going into the smaller streets before deciding on a dark, lonely alleyway to make their stand. He bade his friends to cover their faces with their silk handkerchiefs and positioned Sunli and Zhao Hongqi with their backs against a wall and hid their swords, so that to observers it would seem that the men were threatening the two women that had accompanied them.


From a hidden spot, this was exactly what Qiong Ying was witnessing. She wanted to appear and guide Huang Ming to safety, but changed her mind when she saw he had a plan of his own. She was able with the sword, but not to the extent of fending off multiple foes while defending others at the same time. Thus she decided to lie in wait, worried in one part but secretly excited as well. Qiong Ying remembered the fish-slapping incident at the Lichun, she wondered what sort of amusement Huang Ming would conjure up this time.


When the thuggish brutes followed Huang Ming’s group into the alley, they were elated thinking that they had finally cornered their prey. They had marked Huang Ming and his group after seeing how freely they had spent their money on useless items, that these foppish men were indulging in some sort of play to the extent of dressing up their female companions in military costumes. How would these hardened men expected to confront one of the most bizarre sights they had ever seen?


Indeed, the moment the would-be robbers laid their eyes on Huang Ming and his friends in the alley, their mouths dropped open. Instead of seeing a bunch of weakling rich boys shaking in their boots with fear, they saw ominous-looking masked gentlemen advancing on the two cowering women while brandishing strange implements.


“What’s going on here?” the leader of the gang demanded loudly, wondering if the young men were acting out a sick fantasy.


Huang Ming whirled around, as if angry at being surprised by their intrusion. “Who dares interrupt this ritual!?”


“Ritual?” the gang boss repeated blankly.


“Wait, they are just simple mortals,” Zhang Ping boomed in his deep voice.


“Mortals?” the gang boss repeated as an eerie sensation began to creep up his back.


He Ding made a show of being alarmed. “The Grail of Souls is awakening!” he exclaimed, rattling the incense burner in his hands. He took a step closer to the two women and waved the incense burner around. As planned, Sunli collapsed dramatically. There was a reason for her to do so despite being the only one armed with a real weapon. If things did not go according to plan she could spring back up as a surprise and turn the tide; or in the worst case scenario, bring Zhao Hongqi away.


“She’s... She’s dead!” Zhao Hongqi shrieked and hid her mouth as she was immensely enjoying her role.


“Ha-ha-ha! Your soul shall be mine!” He Ding howled with gruesome delight and raised the incense burner high above his head, towering above the little girl. He was glad that his back was to the interlopers, his face was red with sheer embarrassment.


“Damn it, they nearly made a mess of the sacrifice!” Huang Ming swore. He drew out his wooden replica sword and pointed it at the thugs. “Break their bones so that they can’t run, I will seize their souls with my 60-Year Cycle Sword of Time!”


Zhang Ping rolled up his sleeves so that his muscular arms were displayed and then stomped the ground. He roared, causing the veins on his neck and arms to bulge prominently.


“Blood for the Blood God! Skulls for the Skull Throne!” Lei Yan cackled, rubbing the wooden medallion as he glared at the robbers menacingly. He then tossed small chunks of meat onto the ground, they fell with the sound of wet splats near the feet of the thugs. Little did they know, those were the remnants of the meat skewers that Zhao Hongqi had so enjoyed earlier.


Despite the nonsensical things they were seeing and hearing, the hooligans shuddered with fear. They have heard fanciful tales of the supernatural: wandering swordsmen, cultivating hermits, evil cultists, mysterious sects and world defying martial arts. They never dreamed that such stories could be true, let alone actually witnessing such a possibility in the flesh. In their eyes, the atmosphere in the dark and dank alley was extremely sinister.


Suddenly Huang Ming thrust out his other hand and a cloud of ash and soot flew out towards the hoodlums, causing them to draw back even further. The small cloud hung about and drifted slowly in the damp air, adding to the terrible mood. He had obtained the fistful of ash from the incense burner that He Ding was holding, its previous owner had neglected to clean it out before selling it to them earlier.


“Om mali mali om, abracadabra!” Huang Ming chanted, his eyes glinting malevolently.


The closest ones were affected, they hacked and coughed. “W-what was that!? What did you do?!” they screamed.


“Get back, you lot have been poisoned!” a hoarse voice answered grimly from behind them, shocking the group of thugs as well as Huang Ming.


They turned to see a mysterious stranger in a wide-brimmed hat, his face covered by a scarf, holding a sword on one hand and its sheath on the other. It was of course Qiong Ying in her Quan Lu guise. While in the shadows, she could barely contain her laughter as she watched Huang Ming and his friends acting as if they were young teenagers playing xianxia fantasies. She decided to weigh in on the drama to add spice to the situation, it was too funny for her to remain a bystander.


“It’s you!” Huang Ming inadvertently blurted, remembering the distinct voice.


“Yes, it is I. After all this time, I have finally found you, Evil Scholar!” Qiong Ying said in her gruff male voice as she strode purposefully forward. The group of thugs naturally parted and made way for her, in awe of this mysterious swordsman who had appeared out of nowhere.


“Who is that?” Zhang Ping asked, momentarily out of character.


Huang Ming was initially chagrined, someone he knew had witnessed their preposterous acting. But he was quick to realize that his friend Quan Lu was joining in to help.


“It’s the Green-Eyed Dragon! Curses, foiled again!” Huang Ming babbled in feigned fear. He signed a thumbs up behind his back so that his friends would be reassured.


“You shan’t escape this time, fiend!” Qiong Ying said and dove forward with her sword.


At first Huang Ming was startled, but he quickly raised his own wooden sword to parry, recalling his experiences in wielding swords from his previous lives. Qiong Ying was surprised, and then delighted as she found Huang Ming to be quite competent.


Even though it was the first time they had crossed swords, Huang Ming and Qiong Ying soon found a rhythm to make a convincing sword fight display. Their movements looked forceful but without any killing intent, each action was deliberately exaggerated and punctuated with grunts, exclamations and the occasional ridiculous phrase from popular foreign novels to warn each other of an incoming dramatic slash or thrust. Occasionally her very real sword would clash lightly with Huang Ming’s wooden replica, but the touches were angled so that the edges never met.


“One Sword to Immortality!” Qiong Ying exclaimed and thrust her sword in a straight line.


Whereupon Huang Ming spun on his toes and flap his sleeves theatrically as he evaded the blow, yelling, “Ancient Strengthening Technique!”


“Stunning Edge!”


“Death’s March!”


Huang Ming was glad for the exercise, it provided excuse for his reddening face. The entire farce was only missing the cheesy whooshing sound effects and dramatic music cues that were so prevalent in Earth’s Hong Kong films. Still, he couldn’t help but marvel at Quan Lu’s quick and accurate movements.


The thugs were enthralled, some had began to cheer for the mysterious swordsman. In fact, it was so convincing that Huang Ming’s friends actually stared at the spectacle, their own play acting roles forgotten. Even Sunli who was supposed to be ‘dead’ could not resist opening her eyes to look at the display. Fortunately the alley was dark and the thugs too engrossed to notice.


Then Qiong Ying increased her speed so as to lock swords closely with Huang Ming.


She hissed in a low voice, “Tell your friends to escape!”


Huang Ming nodded in understanding before leaping away, as if forced back by Qiong Ying.


“I can’t hold him for long, leave now!” he shouted. His friends snapped out of their reverie and quickly made haste. He Ding was the first to act, he simply turned and ran. Zhang Ping scooped up Zhao Hongqi as he went past, ignoring Sunli who was still on the ground.


As Lei Yan sprinted away, he could not resist a clichéd statement, crying “You’ll pay for this, Green-Eyed Dragon!”


Soon it was just Huang Ming who stood over Sunli’s ‘corpse’, he was thinking on how to take her away with him.


“Yeah, get him, Mr. Swordsman!” the thugs yelled as the two actors stood facing each other, as if waiting for the right moment for a single strike.


“You fools, why are you still here? You have been poisoned by the Heavy Sweetness Ash-like Frost!” Qiong Ying reminded them, causing the thugs to look frantically at their ash-stained clothes.


“Save us, Master Swordsman!” they wailed.


“Go cleanse yourselves in a chrysanthemum bath for seven-seven-forty nine days, you might still be able to save yourselves!” Qiong Ying growled in annoyance. Seeing the swordsman’s imposing figure as she confronted Huang Ming and hearing the stern authority in her rough voice, the thugs took to their heels.


“Many thanks, Master Green-Eyed Dragon!” they shouted as they ran away. Later on, they would share many tales about this ‘legendary’ fight.


For a few moments Huang Ming and Qiong Ying stared at each other quietly in the now deserted alley, both trying to regain their breaths after their martial exertions.


The silence was broken by Sunli as she roused herself back to her feet.


“Are you two quite done?” the guardswoman asked bemusedly.


Huang Ming laughed.


“Let’s get the hell out of here before anyone comes back,” he said.

 

Let me tell you a tale,
It was a dark and brooding night,
Evil doers filled their grail,
Their dark deeds became a blight.

But lo! A masked hero appeared,
The Green-Eyed Dragon, yes it’s true!
Wielding a sword and striking fear,
Dispensing justice, dispersed the evil crew!

With sage advice he saved our souls,
We lived to tell the story,
We will remember 'til we are old,
All his might, all his glory!​