Chapter 13 - No Regrets for Second Chances

The Old Woman of the Golden Flower walked over to him and reached for his wrist. After examining his pulse for a few moment, she said, "The Mystical Palm Technique of Profound Darkness? Do you mean to say that this technique actually exists? Who struck you?"

"My attacker was disguised as a Mongolian army officer, so I do not know who he actually is," Zhang Wuji replied.

Zhang Wuji was shocked that the intruder was a woman. "Who ... who are you?" he asked as sternly as he could.

The woman did not answer him, for she had been wounded too badly by the palm technique of the E-Mei School to speak.

"Who are you?" Ji Xiaofu demanded. "Why have you harmed me time and again?"

The woman remained silent, so Ji Xiaofu pulled out her sword and placed its tip against her chest.

After a while, Zhang Wuji said, "I am going to check on Mr Hu." He was concerned that Hu Qingniu had fallen victim to the intruder too. After all, she was probably an accomplice of the Old Woman of the Golden Flower. Running over to the physician's room, he pushed the door open and shouted, "Sir, sir! Are you all right?" When no one answered him, panic set in. He quickly reached for the flint-and-steel on the table, lit a candle and saw that Hu Qingniu's blankets had been turned down. But he was not in bed or anywhere else in the room.

Zhang Wuji heaved a sigh of relief, for he had half expected to see the physician's corpse on the floor. He must have been taken away by the enemy, the boy thought. Just as he was about to dash off in pursuit, he heard heavy breathing coming from under the bed. Bending over with the candle in hand, he found Hu Qingniu bound and gagged under the bed. Overjoyed, Zhang Wuji pulled the hapless man out immediately. He had not been able to call for help because his mouth had been stuffed with a huge walnut.

As soon as the walnut was removed from his mouth, Hu Qingniu asked, "Where is the woman?"

"She has been overpowered by Auntie Ji," answered Zhang Wuji as he began untying the physician. "She will not escape. Sir, you are not hurt, are you?"

"Do not worry about me," snapped Hu Qingniu. "Bring me the woman quickly, or it will be too late."

"Why?" asked the boy in surprise.

"Bring her to me quickly," said the physician again. "Wait, you had better take three 'Pills of Bezoar and Daemonorops-draco' (Niu Huang Xue Jie Dan / Niu2 Huang2 Xue3 Jie2 Dan1) with you and get her to swallow them first. The pills are in the third drawer. Hurry!" Hu Qingniu seemed so anxious that he would have rushed out himself if he was not all tied up.

Zhang Wuji knew that these 'Pills of Bezoar and Daemonorops-draco' were very effective detoxicants. Made by Hu Qingniu himself from a variety of medicinal fauna and flora, a single pill was sufficient to counter some of the deadliest poisons known to man. Therefore, the woman had probably ingested an unimaginably strong dose of poison to necessitate the use of three such pills.

Yet, he did not dare to dwell further on the issue, for Hu Qingniu was already beside himself with anxiety. Grabbing the Pills of Bezoar and Daemonorops-draco, he ran to Ji Xiaofu's shed, turned to the woman whom they had captured and said, "Swallow them quickly!"

"Get lost!" snapped the woman at once. "Who needs sympathy from a little thief like you!" Apparently, she had identified the pills as detoxicants from their smell.

"Mr Hu wants you to take them!" said Zhang Wuji.

"Go away, go away!" said the woman again, her voice becoming weaker as her injuries took their toll.

Zhang Wuji could only guess that the woman had been struck by one of Hu Qingniu's poisoned darts while tying him up earlier. Thus, the physician probably wanted to keep her alive, so that he could interrogate her on the enemy's plans. Consequently, the boy forced the three pills into the woman's mouth and down her throat. Then, he turned to Ji Xiaofu and said, "Let us hand her over to Mr Hu, and hear what he has to say."

Ji Xiaofu immobilised the woman by striking her acupoints, before leading her to Hu Qingniu's room with Zhang Wuji's help.

As soon as the three of them appeared, the physician asked, "Has she taken the pills?"

"Yes," answered Zhang Wuji.

"Very good, very good!" said Hu Qingniu in relief, as the boy cut away the ropes around his hands and feet.

Free at last, Hu Qingniu scrambled over to the woman and began examining her. After turning her eyelids to check on her blood, he took her pulse. "How ... how did you end up with these external injuries?" he gasped in shock. "Who hit you?" He sounded both anxious and sympathetic at the same time.

The woman pouted and replied, "Ask your good disciple!"

Hu Qingniu turned to Zhang Wuji and growled, "Did you hit her?"

"She was about to ...," the boy began to answer, only to feel two tight and resounding slaps landing on his face. Golden stars danced before the boy's eyes as he struggled against the dizzying effect of these powerful and unexpected slaps.

Meanwhile, Ji Xiaofu raised her sword protectively and shouted, "What are you doing?"

Hu Qingniu ignored the sharp and gleaming blade. Instead, he turned to the wounded intruder and asked, "How does your chest feel? Does your stomach hurt?" He was so warm and attentive that he seemed completely different from the cold and calculating 'One who Ignores the Dying'. Yet, the woman did not seem to care about his concern. Undaunted, the physician released her acupoints and massaged her limbs. Then, he administered several doses of medicine, taking great care as he fed them into her mouth. Finally, he picked her up, laid her in his bed and covered her with his blankets. Such warmth and gentleness was so unfit for the enemy, that Zhang Wuji began rubbing his swollen cheeks in an absent-minded manner as he tried to make sense of the baffling scene.

The expression on Hu Qingniu's face softened further, until affection and compassion could be clearly seen all over it. "You have other injuries in addition to the poisoning," he said to the woman in a gentle voice. "If I heal you of all these ailments, can we call off the duel for the rest of our days?"

The woman smiled and answered, "These light injuries are nothing to worry about. But do you know what poison I took? If you can really heal me of it, I will submit to you. But I am afraid that the abilities of the Sage of Healing are not necessarily as great as the prowess of the Sage of Poisons." She concluded by eyeing the physician with a coquettish smile.

Although Zhang Wuji did not understand much about the intimate relationships that could occur between a man and a woman, he could tell from the scene that the physician and the woman had a great deal of affection for each other.

"I have already declared ten years ago that the Sage of Healing is less able than the Sage of Poisons, but you have refused to believe me," Hu Qingniu went on. "Sigh, there are many ways to fight this out, but how can you use your own body to prove your point? Now, I really hope with all my heart that the Sage of Healing is better than the Sage of Poisons, or I will not carry on living any longer."

The woman smiled again and said, "If I poison other people, you will pretend to be a mediocre physician and let me gain the upperhand. Hee hee, now that I have poisoned myself, you have no alternative but to do your very best."

Hu Qingniu sighed and stroked the woman's hair. "I am very worried about you," he said. "Please do not talk anymore, for you need to close your eyes and get some rest. But if you decide to harm yourself further by exercising your internal strength in secret, you are not being fair to me at all."

"Victory and defeat must naturally be decided in a manner that is open and aboveboard," the woman responded with a smile. "I will not act in such a despicable way." She closed her eyes as she was told, but the smile remained on her lips.

As Ji Xiaofu and Zhang Wuji reeled in disbelief over what they had seen and heard so far, Hu Qingniu turned to the boy, bowed deeply and said, "Little Brother, I offended you greatly in a moment of haste and emotion. Please forgive me."

Zhang Wuji shot an accusatory glance at the physician and snapped, "I really do not understand a single bit of what is going on! What exactly you are doing?"

To his surprise, Hu Qingniu raised his hand and slapped himself twice across his cheeks. "Little Brother," the man said, "I owe my life to you. But I was so worried about my wife's health that I ended up offending you just now."

"She ... she is your wife?" asked Zhang Wuji in surprise.

"Yes, she is," answered Hu Qingniu with a nod. "If you are still angry, please give me another two slaps, or I will have to kowtow before you in apology. Having my life rescued is no big deal, for it is more important that my wife is saved. Now, she owes her life you as well."

The physician had always been such a strict and dignified man that Zhang Wuji regarded him with a mixture of respect and fear. Therefore, his willingness to slap himself clearly indicated the sincerity of his apology. Furthermore, the woman was really his wife. As the anger in his heart dissipated, Zhang Wuji said, "I do not dare to accept your kowtows of apology, and I am not particularly bothered by the slaps that you gave me. But I really do not understand why things have turned out this way."

Inviting Ji Xiaofu and Zhang Wuji to sit down, Hu Qingniu replied, "I guess the truth cannot be kept hidden any longer. My wife's surname is Wang, and her maiden name is Nangu. We were originally apprentices in the same school. Besides learning martial arts from our master, I chose to focus on the study of medicine, while she decided to pursue the study of poisons. She felt that the ultimate reason for learning martial arts was to kill others. Since the art of poisoning served the same purpose, the two skills complemented each other. Being well-versed in the art of poisoning could only multiply the effectiveness of one's pugilistic skills. On the other hand, the practice medicine cures illnesses and saves lives, opposing the goal of martial arts. I admired my wife's views, for her knowledge was ten times better than mine. However, I was so bent on doing good that nothing could change my mind. As a result of my folly and the reluctance to take her advice, I neglected her loving and painstaking efforts to help me see her point.

"Our differing pursuits did not affect the good relationship we had between us, so our master eventually arranged for us to be married. As time went by, we built reputations for ourselves in the realm of the rivers and lakes. I became known as the 'Sage of Healing', while my wife was referred to as the 'Sage of Poisons'. Her skill in the art of poisoning was beyond comparison, for she was the indigo that had come out of the blue, surpassing our master by leaps and bounds. Her nickname alone testified to the extent of her abilities. Thus, I can only blame myself for acting without sufficient thought and consideration in curing her victims on several occasions. I was even singing my own praises without realising that I was being undevoted and unfaithful to my beloved wife. Such disregard was so terrible that even the phrase 'wolf's heart and dog's lungs' was insufficient to describe it. Think about it: The victims of the Sage of Poisons were saved by the Sage of Healing. Besides going against my beloved wife's intentions, did this also not indicate that the Sage of Healing was greater than the Sage of Poisons?"

Ji Xiaofu and Zhang Wuji shook their heads quietly in their hearts, for his train of thought sounded very incorrect.

Hu Qingniu went on: "She has always been gentle, submissive, loving and devoted to me. There is no one else like her in the entire world. Yet, I carried out my selfish acts time and again, belittling my wife and putting her down by healing her victims. Finally, I realised that I had hurt her too much, so I swore an oath never to provide treatment for anyone whom she had poisoned. As time went by, my reputation as the 'One who Ignores the Dying' was established.

"She forgave me after seeing that I could change my ways. A few years later, I ran into a case of poisoning so strange that it could only be the work of my wife. So I stepped back and refused to be involved with it. Unfortunately, the victim's condition was so unique that I lost my self-control after a few days and proceeded to cure him of his ailment.

"Somehow, my wife did not kick up a fuss about it. Instead, she said, 'All right! The Healing Sage of Butterfly Valley Hu Qingniu has indeed turned out to be a marvellous physician. But I, the Sage of Poisons Wang Nangu, absolutely refuse to submit to you. Let us both pit our skills against each other, and see whether the Sage of Healing is more brilliant, or the Sage of Poisons is more formidable.' I tried my best to apologise, but how could her anger be appeased so easily? Then, I found out that she had poisoned the man not because he was her enemy, but because she had discovered a new method of poisoning that might render the victim incurable. She had executed it on the man just to test the validity of her findings, but I had ended up spoiling her experiment with a few misguided medical techniques and a stroke of sheer good luck. I did not even show the slightest regard for my beloved wife, so how could I still be considered a man?

"For many years after that incident, she concentrated on finding new techniques of poisoning, often sending me her victims for treatment. We went on pitting our skills against each other in this manner, until I began to fail in my work. There were two reasons for this: First, there were indeed some shortcomings in my abilities, and second, I was really unwilling to anger her further. Unfortunately, my wife became more angry than before. She accused me of belittling her, allowing her to gain the
upperhand without giving my best in the competition between us. Subsequently, she left Butterfly Valley in a huff and refused to return.

"Although I did not act rashly again, I found too much enjoyment in healing ailments that I could not pass up any opportunity to deal with strange illnesses or weird poisons. I knew that my wife's victims would show up time and again among my patients, but she had become so good that I could not identify her work with certainty on a number of occasions. As a result, I ended up curing her victims again. Sigh, I should be named Hu Chunniu (Stupid Cow) instead of Hu Qingniu (Black Cow). I am very fortunate that a woman like Nangu would lower herself in marriage to me, but I did not know how to love her and care for her. Instead, I made her so upset that she walked out on me in favour of a life of wandering between the skies and the cliffs, suffering the hardships of being beaten by wind and frost. Furthermore, the hearts of the people in the realm of the rivers and lakes are deceitful. How then could I rest at ease, when a fragile woman like her is living alone amidst so many wicked people?"

As remorse appeared all over Hu Qingniu's face, Ji Xiaofu cast a glance at Wang Nangu and thought: This Mrs Hu is known as the 'Sage of Poisons', for who else is better than she when it comes to the art of poisoning? Poeple would probably be thanking the Heavens and the Earth as soon as she sat still, so who would dare to touch her in return? It is really funny that Mr Hu fears his wife as if she is a tigress.

"Thus, I swore another oath," said the physician. "Henceforth, I will not provide treatment for anyone unless he or she is a member of our Ming Cult. I did this to prevent myself from unwittingly destroying Nangu's handiwork, for both my wife and I belong to the Cult. Therefore, she would never harm any of our brothers and sisters."

Ji Xiaofu and Zhang Wuji exchanged a glance: So this is the reason behind his refusal to provide treatment for anyone who is not a member of the Ming Cult.

Hu Qingniu resumed his tale: "Seven years ago, an elderly couple came to Butterfly Valley to seek treatment after falling victim to a terrible poison. Owners of Lingshe Island in the Eastern Sea, they were known by their nicknames as the Old Woman of the Golden Flower and the Old Man of the Silver Leaf. They took every care to adhere to the courtesies of making a visit, but the Old Woman ended up revealing her pugilistic prowess by accident. I was very shocked by the display. I did not dare to
make an outright refusal to provide treatment, but how could I return to my old ways after recognising that those ways were wrong? Therefore, I took their pulses and said, 'Sir, you and your wife may be elderly, but your pulses move as if they belong to people in the prime of their lives. This is the first time that I have seen such an amazing condition, so credit should be given to your rich internal strength.' The Old Woman said, 'You are very brilliant.' Then, I said, 'Sir, your poison-wrought ailment is different from your wife's. Your condition is incurable, but you will live for several more years to come. As for your wife, her poisoning is not serious, so she can treat herself with her internal strength.'

"Prodding further, I found that they had been poisoned by an old foreign monk(1) from the Western Regions, who was employed by the Mongolians. I was relieved that my wife was not involved, yet I was bound by my oath to provide treatment only for members of the Ming Cult. I could not make an exception for this couple. The Old Woman offered me a great reward, and asked me to save her husband's life. But I chose to ignore their request for the sake of my relationship with my wife. To my surprise, the elderly couple did not use any force against me, preferring to walk away in sadness. Before leaving, the Old Woman said, 'Ha ha, Ming Cult, Ming Cult ... so it is still all because of the Ming Cult!' I knew that my stand had made me many enemies, and would continue to do so for the rest of my life, but I could not allow outsiders to spoil my deep and loving relationship with my wife. Do you not think so?"

Ji Xiaofu and Zhang Wuji kept silent, unwilling to lend their support to his reason for ignoring the dying.

"Recently, my wife heard that the Old Man of the Silver Leaf had passed away," said Hu Qingniu. "As a result, the Old Woman of the Golden Flower is now on her way here to make trouble for me. My wife rushed back to stand with me against the enemy, but she found an outsider in our home. Thus, she used some medicine to knock Wuji out for one night."

Suddenly, the boy understood: I had slept all the way past noon because Mrs Hu had drugged me, and I actually thought that I was falling ill. The Sage of Poisons is formidable indeed, to work in such an undiscernable manner.

Hu Qingniu went on: "I was very happy that my wife had returned. She wanted me to pretend that I had been struck by smallpox, to avoid seeing anyone. Then, both of us stayed in the room, looking for ways and means to overcome the Old Woman of the Golden Flower. After all, she was so highly skilled that we would never be able to escape from her clutches. A few days later, Xue Gongyuan, Jian Jie, Ji-guniang and the other twelve patients arrived.

"Descriptions of your ailments told me immediately that the Old Woman of the Golden Flower wanted to test me, and see if I was really going to stick to my oath and treat no one, except for members of the Ming Cult. I enjoyed the challenge of medicine as much as life itself, so I could hardly control myself at the sight of one strange ailment. So you can just imagine how much these fifteen cases tugged at my heart. But I knew what the Old Woman was up to. As soon as I had any one of these patients cured, she would increase the torture that she had planned for me by a hundred times. Therefore, I had no choice but to stay quiet and ignore the itch in my hands, until Wuji asked me how these ailments could be healed. But I took great pains to declare that Wuji is a disciple of the Wudang Clan and that he had no relationship whatsoever with Hu Qingniu.

"Unfortunately, Nangu became upset when Wuji found success in my instructions. So, she started adding poison to the patients' food, drink and medicinal brews. This meant that she had resumed pitting her skills against mine. At the same time, she was also protecting me from the wrath of the Old Woman of the Golden Flower, for Wuji's success would probably be blamed on me. These fifteen patients were all highly skilled pugilists, so how could they not know what Nangu was doing? It turned out that she had knocked them out with drugs first, before proceeding with the main task of poisoning them. Such prowess will probably be lost when Nangu is gone."

Ji Xiaofu and Zhang Wuji exchanged another glance, for they finally understood why the boy had to shake the sleeping woman so hard before waking her up several nights ago.

"Ji- guniang has been recovering well in the past few days," Hu Qingniu added, "so Nangu's poison has not been producing the desired effect. After some investigations, my wife realised that Wuji had uncovered her secret, so she decided to harm him as well. Sigh, it is easy to transform the physical face of our land, but it is difficult to change a man's natural disposition. At the end of the day, I am still not entirely devoted to my beloved wife. I was unwilling to be involved in the first place, but after Wuji advised me to take a trip and avoid the impending doom, my heart softened. As a result, I gave him a prescription with the Chinese angelica (dang gui / dang1 gui1), the dried rhizome of rehmannia (sheng di / sheng1 di4), the root of the narrow-leaved polygala (yuan zhi / yuan3 zhi4), the root of the Saposhnikovia divaricata (fang feng / fang2 feng1) and Angelica biserrata (du huo / du2 huo2). I could not speak plainly then because my wife was with me.

"But Nangu was very intelligent. She knew the properties of each herb well, so she could tell that the prescription was too strange to be true. After some thought, she broke the code. Then, she tied me up, swallowed some poison and said, ' Shige, we have been married for more than twenty years. The oceans can dry up and the stones can break down, but the love between us will never change. Yet, you have always despised my skills, for you have always been able to cure my victims, regardless of the poison I use. Now, I have taken a deadly poison myself. If you can heal me, I will submit to you for the rest of my life.' I was so shocked that I admitted defeat at once, and begged her not to harm herself. But she gagged me with a huge walnut. You know what took place after that."

Ji Xiaofu and Zhang Wuji looked at each other, feeling exasperated and tickled at the same time. After all, this couple was so eccentric in their ways that it would probably be very difficult to find another pair like them. It was not really a big deal that Hu Qingniu loved his wife so much that he gradually became fearful of her, but it was unimaginable that Wang Nangu would be so eager to put her husband down that she ended up poisoning herself to prove her point.

"Think about it," said Hu Qingniu. "What other alternatives do I have? If I succeed in healing her, I would just be declaring that my skills are better than hers. She will be very upset. But if I fail, she will die! Sigh! I wish the Old Woman of the Golden Flower would appear soon and kill me with a stroke of her walking stick. Then, Nangu would no longer have to fret over me. Furthermore, her skills have advanced so much in recent years that I cannot figure out what poison she has ingested. So I
do not even know where and how to start treating her."

"Sir, can you really not tell what poison Shimu has taken?" asked Zhang Wuji.

"Your Shimu's skills have reached the point of perfection in recent years," answered the physician. "So I am likely to fail in my attempts to heal her. She has probably ingested a deadly poison made from three pests and three weeds, but I do not have a single clue as to how these six ingredients are combined." As he spoke, he used the index finger of his right hand to write a prescription on the surface of the table. Then, he waved a hand and said, "Please go out. If Nangu dies, I will not carry on living alone."

"Please take care of yourself and do encourage Shimu with kind words," said Ji Xiaofu and Zhang Wuji in unison.

"What should I say to encourage her?" Hu Qingniu retorted in frustration. "It is all my fault!" He burst into loud sobs after that, prompting Ji Xiaofu and Zhang Wuji to leave the room at once.

With the two outsiders gone, Hu Qingniu struck several acupoints on his wife's back and waist. Then, he said, " Shimei, your husband is useless, for he is really unable to heal the poison wrought by the three pests and the three weeds. The only alternative left is to follow you in death, so that we can still be husband-and-wife in the afterlife." He put a hand into Wang Nangu's pocket and pulled a few small packets out. Opening one of these packets, he found that it contained a multi-coloured mixture of powders that were obtained from the grinding of three pests and three weeds.

Although Wang Nangu could not move, she could still speak. So, she said, " Shige, please ... do not take the poison ... " But Hu Qingniu turned a deaf ear to her pleas and poured the powder into his mouth. Mixing it with his saliva, he proceeded to swallow the poison.

"How can you take such a large dose at once?" cried Wang Nangu in shock. "That was enough to kill three people!"

Hu Qingniu smiled wanly and sat down on a chair beside the bed where his wife lay. Just then, he felt as if a million knives were slicing through his stomach. This was the work of the Gelsemium elegans (duan chang cao / duan4 chang2 cao3), the first of the six ingredients to take effect. The remaining two weeds and three pests would soon follow.

" Shige, there is a way to cure the poison," cried Wang Nangu.

"No ... I ... I do not believe ... I ... I am dying ...," Hu Qingniu replied as his body shook and his teeth chattered. "Take a combination of the Pill of Bezoar and Daemonorops-draco, and the Powder of 'Yulong-Suhe' quickly," said Wang Nangu again. "Then, use acupuncture to dissipate the poison."

"What ... purpose ... will ... it serve?" gasped Hu Qingniu in retort.

"I took only a little of the poison," answered Wang Nangu, "but you took too much. If you do not do anything now, it will be too late!"

"I have ... loved you ... with all my heart," said Hu Qingniu. "But you insisted ... on fighting with me. There is no more joy in living ... but ... when I die, everything will ... be ... over ... a-yo ... a-yo..." By then, the venom of the Pallas pit viper and the spider -- two of the three pests in the poisonous six-ingredient concoction -- had begun to attack the physician's heart and lungs. Hu Qingniu weakened until he lost consciousness altogether.

" Shige, Shige, it is all my fault!" Wang Nangu wailed loudly. "You must not die ... I will never pit my skills against yours again." Although they had fought each other for decades, the love between them had remained strong. Wang Nangu was not afraid of death, but she panicked when her husband decided to kill himself with the very same poison that she had taken. With her acupoints blocked, she could not do anything to rescue him.

Fortunately, Zhang Wuji heard her cries and rushed into the room. " Shimu, what must I do to save Shifu?" he asked, finally acknowledging himself as a student of Hu Qingniu.

Wang Nangu brightened up at once. "Give him a combination of the Pill of Bezoar and Daemonorops-draco, and the Powder of 'Yulong-Suhe' quickly," she answered. "Then, prick his Yong Quan and Jiu Wei acupoints with gold needles ... "

At that moment, a series of coughs sounded outside the door, appearing to be clearer than usual in the stillness of the night. Ji Xiaofu rushed into the room with a face as pale as a sheet of paper. "The Old Woman of the Golden Flower ... the Old Woman of the ...," she stammered in fright, but before she could finish her announcement, the door-curtain parted silently.

A crone with a hunched back appeared, with a young girl about twelve or thirteen years old by her side. The fearsome Old Woman of the Golden Flower had finally arrived.

Focusing her attention on Hu Qingniu, the Old Woman was taken aback to see him holding his stomach in pain. His face had darkened and his breathing was weak. In fact, he looked as if he was about to drop dead. "What is wrong with him?" she asked.

Before anyone could answer her, Hu Qingniu's legs stiffened. He was finally dead.

"Why did you punish yourself in this manner?" wailed Wang Nangu. "Why did you poison yourself to death?"

The Old Woman of the Golden Flower had travelled all the way to the Central Region from the Isle of the Gifted Snake for two purposes: to seek redress from the enemy who had caused the death of her husband, and to terrorise Hu Qingniu. Yet, she had not expected the physician to ingest a deadly poison just before she showed up. As an expert on poisons herself, she could tell from the colour on the faces of Hu Qingniu and Wang Nangu that both of them had been so seriously poisoned that there was no longer a cure for either one of them. Since the physician had probably committed suicide in fear of the Old Woman herself, she quickly decided that the objective of her visit had been accomplished. "He has sinned, he has sinned!" she mumbled with a sigh as she walked out of the room with the young girl in tow.

Moments after leaving the hut, her coughs were heard coming from a distance of more than ten zhang (33.33 metres) away. The speed at which she moved was really beyond imagination. Feeling safe once more, Zhang Wuji placed a hand on Hu Qingniu's chest. His heart was still beating, but its pace had become very faint. The boy quickly fed the man a Pill of Bezoar and Daemonorops-draco, and a dose of the Powder of 'Yulong-Suhe'. Then, he pushed a gold needle each into his Yong Quan and Jiu Wei acupoints, before giving Wang Nangu the same course of treatment.

More than an hour later, Hu Qingniu regained consciousness. Wang Nangu was so happy that she burst into tears. "Little Brother, thank you so much for saving our lives," she said to Zhang Wuji between sobs. Then, she wrote up a prescription that would expel the remaining poison from their bodies.

Unfortunately, her skills at detoxification were not particularly brilliant, so her prescription could not remove the poison in its entirety. When Zhang Wuji took the prescription away for decoction, he quietly substituted some of its contents with what Hu Qingniu had written earlier on the surface of the table. However, Wang Nangu was never told about it.

"With the Old Woman of the Golden Flower thinking that Mr Hu has poisoned himself to death, one big problem has been solved," Zhang Wuji declared. But the thought of the crone and the ghost-like manner in which she appeared and disappeared was still frightening enough to send shivers down his spine.

"People say that this Old Woman of the Golden Flower is very cautious in her ways," Wang Nangu remarked. "Although she has gone, she will return again to check on us. My husband and I must leave this place immediately. Little Brother, please erect two graves for us, with our names clearly inscribed on the gravestones."

Zhang Wuji agreed.

After Hu Qingniu and his wife had drunk their detoxifying decoctions, they packed the things hurriedly. Then, they sent the two pages back to their respective homes with ten liang (500 grams) of silver each. Finally, the couple hopped on to a mule-drawn carriage and vanished under the cover of night.

Zhang Wuji sent them all the way up to the entrance of Butterfly Valley. Having spent the past two years in each other's company, neither the boy nor the physician could bear to part with the other.

Hu Qingniu pulled out a handwritten book and said, "Wuji, all the things that I have learnt about medicine and its practices are recorded in this book. I have kept it hidden from you in the past, but now, I would like you to have it. I feel very bad for failing to expel the toxins of the Mystical Palm Technique of Profound Darkness (Xuan Ming Shen Zhang / Xuan2 Ming2 Shen2 Zhang3) from your body, so I hope that you will eventually find a way to do so by studying this book."

Zhang Wuji accepted the gift with thanks.

Then, Wang Nangu said, "You saved our lives and enabled us to be reconciled with each other. Thus, I should pass all my knowledge and skills to you as well. But I have focused only on the methods of harming others with poison, so there is little purpose in your learning them. I hope that you will achieve complete recovery as soon as possible. As for your reward, I will have to make up for it in the days to come."

Zhang Wuji waited until the mule-drawn carriage had disappeared from sight before returning to the row of huts. Early the next morning, he built two graves beside the huts by piling earth and stones. Then, he left the valley to engage the services of a stonemason. The stonemason erected two gravestones: one inscribed with 'The grave of the Healing Sage of Butterfly Valley Hu Qingniu' and the other with 'The grave of Mrs Hu, nee Wang'.

Jian Jie and the others sighed when they saw the graves, for the story of Hu Qingniu being seriously ill had proven to be true.

With Wang Nangu gone, there was no one left to poison the patients in secret. Consequently, their injuries began to heal under Zhang Wuji's care. Less than ten days later, they took their leave with thanks. Ji Xiaofu and her daughter did not have anywhere to go to, so they decided to accompany Zhang Wuji for a few more days.

To be continued...

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Notes:

  1. In the 2nd edition, the culprit was a "mute medicant monk".