“Of course I have a secret identity. Can you see me in this at the, at the supermarket? Come on! Who’d want to go shopping as Elastigirl, know what I mean?”
--Helen Parr aka Mrs Incredible
Chapter Thirty Four - Memories
After a safe distance, they stopped for a rest. Seeing Huang Ming panting for breath gave Sunli some measure of satisfaction. She on the other hand was supremely fit and sturdy.
“You’re out of shape,” the guardswoman said flatly.
“Yes I am,” Huang Ming admitted without shame. He glanced at the still-masked Quan Lu, it seemed that even his new friend who was purportedly sickly was in better shape than him.
The experience with the thugs had annoyed Huang Ming; he had been in this new world for some time and had tried to remedy the host body’s deficiencies with regular exercise and sensible eating. But it was not easy to reverse the years of excesses, he had no magic pill or secret art to immediately transform and refine his body like in those fantasy stories.
He can’t even use the spells that he had wielded in his previous worlds. He had learned the disastrous outcome the hard way. There was a time when he had reincarnated into a modern setting and was quickly thrown into danger. Instinctively he tried to cast a protective spell from his previous sword and sorcery world. But the spell malfunctioned and he set himself on fire, causing him to die in agonizing pain and thus setting the record for one of the fastest reincarnation deaths ever.
When he told this to his fellow Avatars in the Waiting Area, they laughed. Apparently, each of them had done the same. After sharing their experiences, they came to the conclusion that it was a ‘soft’ safeguard put in place to prevent the Avatars from immediately overrunning the new world with their immense accumulated otherworldly knowledge. It appeared that the ruling was relaxed if you were suitably reincarnated into someone with similar powers, for example, a wizard. Or, in some cases, a Lord of Darkness™. Until Huang Ming found proof of equivalent supernatural powers here in this world, he had to restrain from accidentally setting himself on fire. The traumatic, terrifying experience of feeling your skin being melted off was not an experience he could easily forget.
Training a host body to be fit was a particularly irksome routine for him. He was a great warrior in one life, then a fat slob in another. He had to push himself and regain all his preferred fitness and strength levels, only for them to be taken away and do it all again when he was given yet another body. That was why he preferred futuristic settings; there at least he would have access to beneficial technology or medicine to quickly improve or augment his physique.
Huang Ming was initially excited to be in this oriental setting, but everything he had encountered thus far was pretty mundane. The only elements of fantasy that he had found were in stories and foreign books. Still, he was glad to be given a humanoid body at all. Once he had reincarnated as a monstrous space-roaming creature which drifted aimlessly in solitude, much to his annoyance.
“I need more exercise,” Huang Ming sighed.
Sunli heard the bitterness in his voice and was surprised. She thought of needling the foppish man but it seemed pointless when he had so readily acknowledged his weakness. Yet she was puzzled by the dexterity and familiarity of Huang Ming while he brandished the wooden sword.
“I didn’t know you learned the sword,” she said.
“Brother Huang Ming is full of surprises,” Qiong Ying who was masquerading as Quan Lu said in her gruff voice.
Huang Ming smiled and saluted Quan Lu. “And you as well, Brother Quan Lu. We had just met in the afternoon. Now you have saved our lives, this is a fortuitous encounter indeed.”
Qiong Ying returned the gesture before looking at Sunli in askance. “This is…”
“Ah, this is Sunli. She’s the chaperone for my visiting cousin,” Huang Ming introduced.
“Your cousin?” Qiong Ying asked, wondering if the information she had received from Madam Xu was erroneous.
“Perhaps you saw her, she was the little girl wearing red armour pretending to be frightened,” Huang Ming replied dryly.
“Let us put the talk for later, I am worried for her,” Sunli interjected. The guardswoman was intrigued by the mystery surrounding Quan Lu, but her sense of duty overrode her curiosity.
Huang Ming nodded. “Well, I believe the others have enough wits to go to my residence first. Brother Quan Lu, we owe our lives to you, please allow me to give you a toast at my home!”
For a moment Qiong Ying was at a loss. She belatedly realized she had no follow-up plans. She had ventured forth from the Lichun in order to ascertain the identity of Huang Ming’s rumoured fiancée, but she made no provisions on what to do next. Having no other ideas, Qiong Ying agreed.
The trio made their way towards the Huang residence and on their way they encountered an excited Huang Ke with a group of servants. They had sortied to find Huang Ming after hearing the incident from his friends. Huang Ke’s anxiety changed to annoyance when he saw that his brother was safe.
“You are nothing but trouble. First it was the Lichun and now this. Stop doing things that cause mother to send me to find you,” Huang Ke grumbled.
“I love you too, brother,” Huang Ming said sappily. “Besides, this excursion was mother’s idea, she all but chased me out.”
“She chased you out? Did you steal her osmanthus cake again?”
“I did not touch her cake. Anyway, I’m safe now. What about Little Hongqi?”
“Your friends delivered her, she’s already asleep,” Huang Ke answered in a distracted manner as his eyes scanned the two persons with his brother. He recognized Sunli, but seeing her hard eyes he thought better of addressing her. Instead, he turned his attentions towards the stranger who wore a wide-brimmed hat and held a sheathed sword.
“Who’s this?” Huang Ke asked brusquely.
“This is Brother Quan Lu, he saved our lives.”
“So this is the legendary swordsman. Your friends said he swooped in heroically to save your skins,” Huang Ke said and gave a salute in appreciation. Startled, Qiong Ying returned the gesture.
Huang Ming had the sneaky suspicion that his friends had not explained the whole incident. After all, they were embarrassed by the whole ordeal.
“Where are my friends?”
“We sent them back using our carriage, mother did not want them loitering at our home. Except for that Zhang Ping fellow, he insisted on waiting for you.”
“Well, lets not keep him waiting. I need to pour Brother Quan Lu here a drink!” Huang Ming said with gusto. He was selfishly happy that Quan Lu had accompanied him. He hoped that his new friend and saviour would deter his mother from unleashing her anger.
“Good. I look forward to see sir Quan Lu’s sword skills myself,” Huang Ke said. He directed some of the servants to send word about Huang Ming’s safety to the houses of Lei Yan and He Ding before leading the rest back home.
Qiong Ying followed them into the Huang residence with some trepidation. Underneath her mask was a grimace. It was one thing to pretend as a man, it was another to be a ‘legendary’ swordsman. There was also a degree of awkwardness. While she had bided her time in the Lichun, Huang Ke and Huang Lang were among her choices to help her achieve her goals. Now the two were engaged and she found herself stepping into their residence in her male guise, yet burdened with the long term objective of seducing their youngest brother. Not to mention that Madam Li had a fearsome reputation herself.
Soon they went to the main hall where they were greeted by Zhang Ping and Madam Li. Zhang Ping was relieved, but stood aside so that Huang Ming could first report to his mother.
“Mother, I’m home!” Huang Ming said brightly, stepping forward with his arms wide open. Madam Li deftly avoided the hug and instead pulled on his ear, causing him to yelp in pain.
“How do you get into such troubles? The astrologers said you were born under a lucky star, but I am thinking of getting a second opinion!” she admonished, not caring at all at the presence of Quan Lu, much to Huang Ming’s chagrin.
The sharp pain in his ear and hearing her angry-yet-relieved tone reminded Huang Ming of his ordinary teenage life on Earth before he became an Avatar. He was punished similarly by his real mother for staying out late playing video games with his friends. Remembering his original life coupled with the stinging pain brought tears to his eyes.
While Huang Ke and Sunli were grinning at his discomfort, Qiong Ying tilted her wide brim hat downwards so that her own misty eyes were obscured. Seeing the motherly anger in Madam Li brought forth her own memories.
After seeing her son in pain, Madam Li finally released her hold. She turned her gaze to the disguised Qiong Ying.
“And who’s this?” Madam Li asked.
A mother’s pain,
A son’s bane.