Chapter 1 The Decision
Crunching noises spilled out of Fatty’s mouth as he gnawed on the malt candy. The day’s austere chilliness was chased away in the dusky afterglow that spilled over the vast land, the incoming breeze as gentle as a feather. Ai Hui wondered if he would remember this day in the future.
“Have you decided?” Fatty asked doubtfully.
“I have decided,” Ai Hui replied. He had long made the decision, and there was no longer any hesitation.
Fatty sighed with some envy. He then commented, “You don’t lose out to those wimpy kids. That would be a disgrace to me. I just can’t understand what’s so good about fighting and killing. Let’s take this money, go back, and live happily for the rest of our lives. Do you know how many people enter the Wilderness? Two thousand! And only the two of us survived! This money is the price of our lives! If I die, my family can still get the money. If you die…”
“That’s why I’m still alive,” Ai Hui interrupted Fatty, who had stood up to speak with increasing agitation. Slowly, Fatty lost his distraught expression and calmed down.
The opportunity to enter the Avalon of Five Elements did not come easily. Initially, due to Ai Hui’s inadequate natural abilities, he hadn’t been qualified to enter. However, in the last three years, his performance had been exemplary. His ability to maintain composure in complex and stressful situations and his display of courage and determination at crucial moments left an indelible impression in everyone’s minds.
When he made the request to enter the Avalon of Five Elements, the authorities ultimately gave their approval after consideration.
Out of the two thousand laborers, only two survived. Even if it was largely due to luck, it also illustrated the multitude of existing problems.
Fatty sat down, disappointed. He was too familiar with Ai Hui’s stubbornness. Soon after, however, he came to a realization and perked up once more to sincerely say, “Remember to write my name on the compensation payment form. Why benefit others when you can benefit me?”
Ai Hui did not bother to care about him. He casually pulled a straw of grass from the ground, put it in his mouth, and pillowed his head with his hands as he stretched out, content on the ground. For the past three years in the Wilderness, his mental state had been stretched to the limit every day. Blood, death, fighting, and killing. It was an ice-cold world where darkness and scarlet melded together.
He didn’t know how he had endured those three years, and he did not want to remember it either. After all, there were no happy memories.
The afterglow from the setting sun shone on his body. Feeling warm and snug, Ai Hui’s eyebrows naturally unfolded while his steely face gradually relaxed into a state of tranquility.
It was so comfortable!
As Ai Hui’s sun-warmed body loosened up, his mental state followed suit, as though a restrictive fog had been lifted from his mind to dissipate silently into thin air.
The warm sunlight and the slightly invigorating breeze contained an uncanny quality that stirred up strange yet familiar memories from deep within his mind. The three years… no, not the ones he spent in the Wilderness. The three years before that, the sunlight and breeze in the swordsman school had felt just like this.
In those days, before the sun had even risen, he would have gulped in a breath of cold air, ready to start cleaning the school that had been remodeled from a worn-out warehouse. After three runs of wiping down the entire floor, his body would be warmed up, ready to start in on constructing wooden shelves. Each plank had been collected from the nearby streets and were of different sizes and thickness. As such, one could not complain much about how it looked put together.
After constructing the wooden shelves, he began to arrange the swordplay manuals the owner had obtained recently.
One yuan could buy ten kilograms of manuals on the market. Paperbacks were cheap—but still more valuable than bamboo strips—while the ones that were bound with iron and had gold covers were a bit more expensive. Though there was a lot of work to be done, there was no one to rush him. In fact, Ai Hui had never been hurried along. He was able to leisurely flip through and peruse the manuals.
Occasionally, he fantasized about how well-off he would be if he were to live in the Cultivation Era. He would have sold swordplay manuals until his hands went soft.
After arranging the swordplay manuals, he started organizing the various flying swords and treasure swords.
At this point, the sun would have risen. Just like now, it would be warm and cozy. The corners of Ai Hui’s mouth involuntarily quirked into a slight smile.
Even though the flying daggers and treasured swords had lost their Spiritual Force and were just a bunch of unlit scrap metals, under the sunlight, the beauty of their antiquity would often captivate Ai Hui.
Flying swords represented the apex of the Cultivation World. For generations, the flying swords had been the favourite weapon of master blacksmiths. There were all kinds of oddities, and they existed in various shapes and sizes, there were all kinds of oddities. Some of the shapes were so weird that people could not even associate them with flying swords.
He did not dare to touch those that had rusted too much. If they broke, the owner would scold him again.
There was no salary for him, but all his meals were provided. To someone who had led the life of a miserable vagabond for the last ten years like him, this deal was as beautiful as the sunlight right now. He could not any better words to describe it.
The owner was a good man. It was just that his way of handling business was not as good.
Would a successful businessman run a swordsman school?
Ai Hui had stayed at the school for three years. During this period of time, less than ten people had visited the school. Upon seeing the signboard that hung over the entrance of the school, ninety percent of the visitors turned their heads and left.
In this day and age, were there even any Swordsmen left?
Other than countless swordplay manuals, treasured swords and flying swords, the swordsman school practically had nothing else. The owner had travelled to various marketplaces that sold rubbish just to obtain these things. Even when he travelled to foreign places to do business, he would buy back a batch of such things.
His zeal for Swordsmanship was obviously irrational. The transport fees alone was much more expensive than what they actually costed.
Naturally, there were times when Ai Hui felt that the owner’s pathetic financial power might only allow him to adopt a cheap hobby like Swordsmanship.
Ai Hui had tried to persuade the owner to switch to bodybuilding, and such. These concepts would at least had more prospects than Swordsmanship. The owner flew into a rage and berated him. At that point of time, Ai Hui realised that the owner’s business management skills were truly appalling.
Guarding a completely empty school, Ai Hui felt that he might as well read and played around with the swordplay manuals. Eventually, he did not become a Sword practitioner, but to his perseverance in training, his fighting capabilities improved a lot. His fighting capabilities did attract a few wimpy kids.
Due to the owner’s incapacity,his business failed and he could not pay back his debts. Eventually, he committed suicide. Ai Hui was saddened by this incident. The owner was a good man, but not a determined one. It was only right for one to pay back his or her debt. The school should be passed on to other people. These were what Ai Hui told himself on the last day when the debt collectors came to confiscate the school.
The crude wooden shelves that he made were thrashed to the ground. The swordplay manuals were scattered across the floor. Some of these manuals, the owner had retrieved from distant cities. The sword rack that he had wiped and cleaned every day were stomped to pieces by the debt collectors. According to the owner, that rack used to reside in the abode of a sword expert. The flying sword on it had been used to shed the blood of thousands and intimidate the mighty heroes of the past. The Nine Tone Sword Chime that hung under the eaves was also smashed and fragmented. It, too, had its own lofty history as a noteworthy, prized possession of the Nine Tone Sword Sect in the past. When Ai Hui witnessed these acts, like a terribly wounded wolf that had been pushed to the brink, he lost control and frantically lunged forward.
It was just a struggle, yes, and the last struggle he could make.
Ai Hui did not know the owner’s name. So he found a wooden slab, carved the word “Owner” onto it and used it as the memorial tablet. He used twigs as joss sticks, and burned all the swordplay manuals for the owner. After kowtowing to the tablet, he prayed that the owner would be able to pursue his dream of becoming a swordsman in the afterlife.
Covered in injuries, he fixed his gaze on the building that was now in shambles for a long time before turning his back and leaving. He walked through the streets of mottled light and shadow, the sunlight filtering past the uneven roofs of houses lining the pavement. His legs strode forward mechanically as he continued onward in a trance-like state without a goal or destination.
Even after a year, the feelings of helplessness and loneliness remained fresh in his mind. He remembered that he felt somewhat cold, his fingers clutching tightly to his shirt that had been washed until it had been bleached of color. Both his hands were plunged deeply into his pockets. The sunshine on that day had been different from today’s. The chill had pierced into his very marrow. After walking for an unknown period of time, he finally awoke from his stupor to the feeling of extreme hunger. At that moment, the cold and hungry Ai Hui saw the Avalon of Five Elements’ recruitment notice for laborers in the Wilderness.
Having nowhere else to go, Ai Hui went in.
And luckily, he survived.
As Ai Hui withdrew from his emotions, he discovered that his body had tensed up involuntarily. He could not help but laugh bitterly in his heart. Such a beautiful moment was once again spoiled by his unpleasant memories.
He heaved a deep breath of air and tried his best to uncoil his tensed muscles.
By good fortune, he survived the entire three years in the Wilderness. Only two people out of two thousand men survived. One was himself, and the other Qian Dai, also known as Fatty.
The families of those dead laborers would receive a compensation fee, while those who survived were able to receive a large sum of money. In regards to this, the Avalon of Five Elements was never stingy. Fatty prepared to go home. His family was filled with orphans and widowed mothers, and he had to provide for them. The burdens that he carried far exceeded Ai Hui’s.
“Fine, I know you’re a determined person and will never change your mind. You have a bad temper, along with many other issues like seldom listening to other people’s advice. You’re not young anymore, and you still behave like this. How are you going to find a wife in the future? Try not to spend too much of your money…” Fatty continued to talk incessantly, perhaps because he knew they were going split ways soon.
Since he was used to Fatty’s irritated grumblings, Ai Hui didn’t care. However, the moment Fatty mentioned the word money, he felt a slight headache. Whenever this fellow talked about money, he would rise into a frenzy.
Indeed, the veins on Fatty’s neck began to pulsate. Ai Hui made a prompt decision and quickly threw a pouch at him and said, “This is for you!” Fatty cast a puzzled glance at Ai Hui and caught the pouch with a speed that didn’t seem in character with his body size. After he caught the pouch though, his small, beady eyes immediately widened.
Using chubby, carrot-like fingers, he whisked open the pouch in an instant. As he glanced inside at the pouch contents, his body fat began to tremble madly with agitation. Ai Hui ignored him and turned his face the other way. Fatty’s face when he saw money was horrendous.
Fatty rushed over and grasped Ai Hui’s arms with a sharp smack. His face was filled to the brim with emotions while tears welled up in his eyes.
Upon seeing Fatty’s behavior, Ai Hui felt emotional as well. Perhaps he had thought too poorly of him. After both of them had been through so much together, this friendship was rather sincere and deep. Unused to such situations, he wanted to tell Fatty to get lost, but at the thought of their impending farewell, he tried his best to restrain himself and soften his tone. He then shakily said, “I’m alone anyway. There isn’t much for me to spend the money on. You’re going back to the Old Territory, and you have a huge family. You definitely need more money than I do….”
“Good brother! You’re really my good brother!” Fatty choked with emotions as he shook Az Hui’s hand desperately. With both his eyes glistening with tears, he then continued, “The Avalon of Five Elements takes care of your lodging and meals. Since you won’t be needing the remaining half of the money, how about you give them to me as well?”
He was naive to think too highly of this fellow. Ai Hui’s arms, which were grasped by the Fatty, flipped over, gripped the latter and lightly but forcefully pushed. Like a portly cloud, the Fatty flew out for more than thirty meters before crashing to the ground, causing the surrounding wheat and barley to fly everywhere.
It felt good to be able to finally speak his mind.
Ai Hui brushed his hands lightly, and then cautiously felt for the pouch in his pocket. Fatty had extremely nimble hands, making them difficult to guard against.
Meanwhile, Fatty picked himself up, covered in dirt.
At that moment, a whistle sounded from the distant assembly camp, and the two became silent.
It was finally time for them to part. This would be the last time they met. Ai Hui had to head for the Avalon of Five Elements, while Fatty had to return to the Old Territory. The rapid descent of the orange sunset elongated their shadows on the ground.
“Ai Hui, you must survive!”