Chapter 175: Trial
Click! Something was triggered. Nan Xun reflexively pulled Jun Huang behind him and turned around. The stone door they had gone through slammed shut on its own. The torches crackled and the fire flickered. A strange wind swept through the narrow tunnel, but there was no exit to be seen.
Nan Xun narrowed his sharp eyes and looked over at the writings on the wall. He turned to Jun Huang. She was already going through the text.
“This is probably the history of the House of Heavenly Fiends,” Jun Huang said when she felt his gaze.
“Be careful,” Nan Xun said seriously. “Something is not as it seems here.”
He felt around the wall, but didn’t notice any triggers or traps. He let out a relieved sigh.
He must keep his guard up, however. The tension in his body caused sweat to stream down his cheeks. The tea house owner had called this a trial, which meant that they were not safe. Oftentimes dangers lurked in the shadow. It would take someone competent to notice them beforehand and avoid getting hurt.
Jun Huang looked through the writings and the paintings on the wall, but she couldn’t find anything useful. The language used here belonged to a different dynasty. She recognized only some of the characters and failed to identify a logical throughline.
The torches cast dim light on the side of her face. Her calm eyes were like a bottomless pond, keeping her emotions hidden. Nan Xun, though, could tell that she was confused.
“If you can’t understand it, we might as well go forward,” Nan Xun said after waiting for Jun Huang for a while. “Maybe we’ll find something useful.”
Jun Huang nodded absentmindedly, looking away from the wall. They moved forward. The tunnel opened up into a wider space. They were faced with the entrance to a hidden building.
The building looked perfectly normal, but the normality itself was what made Jun Huang wary. She had a feeling that someone was watching them from the dark. Her heart pounded against her ribcage and her breathing quickened. She whirled around and stared at a single point in the distance.
“What’s wrong?” Nan Xun asked. He followed her gaze but didn’t notice anything out of place.
Jun Huang shook her head and let out a deep breath. “Nothing,” she said with a smile, rubbing at her forehead. “I’m probably being overly sensitive.”
Nan Xun nodded, keeping his hand on the hilt of his sword as he escorted Jun Huang into the building. Inside was a winding wooden staircase. There was barely any source of light, making it difficult to see where the stairs led to.
The wooden stairs squeaked under their feet. Many parts of the stairs had been damaged over the years. Some of the steps were missing altogether. Nan Xun kept an arm around Jun Huang, worried that she would get hurt.
The sound of gears turning came from within the wall. Mechanisms such as this had disappeared since a hundred years ago. No one used gears to set up traps anymore. Nan Xun only recognized the sound because of a westerner he ran into when he was at the border. The westerner had in his possession a glass lamp powered by gears. He was curious and asked to check the lamp himself. He remembered the sound to this day.
His eyes went cold. The westerner had told him that a trap door could be constructed through the use of gears as pulleys. No one would be able to escape once the door was shut.
Jun Huang had noticed the change in Nan Xun’s expression, but her foot landed on an elevated pane before she could ask what was wrong. A click, and the trap was triggered.
Despite her lack of knowledge in mechanisms such as this, Jun Huang was able to figure out what was happening quickly. Before she could react, however, Nan Xun had pulled her into his arms.
Three arrows shot out of the holes on the wall and came at Jun Huang. Nan Xun had been quick enough to prevent her from getting hurt, but his hand was scraped by the arrows. His torn sleeve revealed a bleeding wound along his palm.
Jun Huang startled and took Nan Xun’s wrist. “You - are you alright?”
Her voice trembled in fear. Nan Xun, on the other hand, didn’t pay that much attention to his injury. He nodded and gently petted Jun Huang’s head. “Don’t forget that I’m the chief general of Northern Qi. I won’t be intimidated by a little injury like this, or my soldiers are going to laugh at me.”
Nan Xun’s tone was casual. It was as if he truly didn’t care. Jun Huang, however, knew that he must be in more pain than he let on. The arrows were old and were covered in rust. She knew without looking that the rust must have been scraped off when the arrow cut through Nan Xun’s flesh.
The arrows were dulled by time, but that only made it more painful for Nan Xun.
Jun Huang blamed herself for getting Nan Xun hurt. Nan Xun could tell what she was thinking. While he was exasperated by her tendency to take responsibility for everything, he was also pleased by Jun Huang’s concerns for him.
“Come on, I don’t want to stay here forever,” Nan Xun said.
“Alright.” Jun Huang made her way up with a hand supporting Nan Xun. She was being as careful as she could be, but the triggered trap could not be untriggered.
A few arrows shot out of the wall again. She kept a hand on Nan Xun’s back as she wielded Nan Xun’s sword with the other to block the arrows. The sound of arrows clashing with blade rang through the silent building. Sparks illuminated the place like fireworks.
Jun Huang wasn’t a professional, and the arrows seemed to have a life of their own. They slipped through the cracks of her defense and came at her.
Nan Xun shot out a hand to catch the arrows. He was good enough to not get hurt in the process. However, the wound on his palm split. He sucked in a breath and quickly hid his hand. He didn’t want Jun Huang to worry too much.
Jun Huang had heard him nonetheless. She turned around and saw his pale face. There was blood dripping down his fingers, hitting the floor and exploding into crimson flowers.
Jun Huang’s eyes hardened. Something had to be done. Nan Xun was hurt because of her. She must keep him safe, or she would never forgive herself. What was more, she would exhaust herself if she didn’t find a way to disarm the trap, which would lead to their defeat. She would not give up so easily. Jun Hao was waiting for her.
The determination in her eyes made one of men spying on them smiled in approval. He was even more impressed when he saw what Jun Huang did next.
Jun Huang took a deep breath to push down her fear. She looked wise and perfectly in control. Nan Xun relaxed when he saw her expression. It was good that Jun Huang had not lost her calm because of the unforeseen incidents.
Nan Xun stayed at her side as her gaze swept through the hidden compartments on the wall. She pulled her lips into an intimidating smile.
One of the men frowned when he saw her face. He stroke a hand over his white beard and nodded.
“What do you think of these two?” The old man asked. The owner of the tea house was jerked out of his trance. He turned to the old man with a respectful expression.
“They are good candidates,” he said after a pause. “The House of Heavenly Fiends had not seen anyone like them for a long time.”
The old man nodded, his eyes following Jun Huang. “Yes, we need some fresh blood,” he said with a smile. “With new talent joining, we will be taking a backseat.”
Jun Huang had figured out the connections between the compartments in the wall. With a decisive cut, the traps were disarmed. The arrows would not be launched from the wall anymore. The old man’s clouded eyes lit up.
Jun Huang let out a long breath. Cold sweat dropped to the floor. The sound rang through the narrow pathway. She almost collapsed when her knees went weak. Fortunately Nan Xun had been keeping an eye on her. He noticed her condition and caught her. He was going to massage her temples for her, but something warm landed on his hand.
“We - we’re okay,” Jun Huang said with trembling voice. They had been so close to death. She barely had enough strength to speak those words.
Nan Xun’s heart skipped a beat. He wiped away her tears gently. Jun Huang might be cunning and intelligent, but she was still a princess. What they had been through was a heavy burden on her. This was a normal reaction.
Jun Huang was able to calm herself more quickly than Nan Xun expected. She pulled away from Nan Xun’s hand and took a deep breath as she looked forward. “The exit should be right ahead,” she said with a forced smile. “Let’s go.”
Nan Xun was going to say something, but Jun Huang didn’t give him the opportunity. She broke into long strides. Nan Xun shut his mouth and followed her.
As Jun Huang predicted, the exit wasn’t far away. They came to a wall - it may seem like a dead end, but that was precisely why this was the way out.
“The door of death can be the door of life, and the door of life can sometime lead to death,” Jun Huang whispered under her breath, smoothing a hand over the writings on the wall. Her fingers settled on the word “life.” After a moment of hesitation, she pushed. The word sunk into the wall.
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