Chapter 178: Moment of Life and Death
“Are you out of your mind?!” Jun Huang exclaimed. She couldn’t believe what Nan Xun had just suggested. What was he thinking? She didn’t think of herself as someone timid, but she only took chances when she knew she could win. What Nan Xun was going to do, though, had never been done before. She didn’t think it was possible.
Jun Huang realized that she might have been too harsh. They were on the same boat. Nan Xun wanted to leave this place as much as she did.
“This is not like taming a wild horse at the border, Nan Xun,” Jun Huang said in a softer tone. “You may be able to tame a horse, but taming this monster? That’s a different story. Do you get what I mean?”
Nan Xun tilted his head and gave Jun Huang a confident smile. He got to his feet and brushed away the dust on his clothes before making his way to the edge of the pavillion. His sharp eyes fixed on the monster underwater as if he was going to skin it alive.
He untied the handkerchief covering his palm to reveal his wound. After preparing himself mentally, he cut his palm with his sword. Blood burst out from the cut and dripped into the water. The monster roared into life once it smelled the blood. It came to the bottom of the pavilion, sending ripples after ripples over the water.
As it surfaced, Nan Xun pointed his sword at it. It whimpered and stared at Nan Xun with its large eyes. Suddenly, it seemed more pitiful than menacing.
Jun Huang was shocked. She didn’t expect this hideous monster to be able to comprehend human intentions. Her fear for it diminished greatly.
“If you carry us to the other side, I will give you my blood,” Nan Xun said. “Otherwise I’ll stab you again.”
Nan Xun made a play of stabbing at the monster. As he expected, the monster was a sentient creature. It could understand his words. Nan Xun’s attack earlier had left an impression on it that Nan Xun was stronger than it was. It came up to the surface of the water without struggling.
“Come.” Nan Xun took Jun Huang’s arm before she could recover from her shock and jumped onto the monster’s head. Unlike what Jun Huang expected, the monster’s head was soft and they sunk into the flesh as soon as they landed.
The monster obediently carried Jun Huang and Nan Xun to the other side of the lake - probably due to the intimidating presence that was inherent to Nan Xun. It looked at Nan Xun with its lantern-like eyes, waiting for him to award it with some blood.
Nan Xun honor his promise and sliced his palm again. Blood streamed down his hand and dropped onto the monster’s body. He stopped the bleeding when he deemed it a good enough award and led Jun Huang through the door.
Once they had left the room, two men walked out of the shadow. One of them was the old man from earlier. He had a chicken in his hand. He threw it into the monster’s mouth. The monster disappeared as quickly as it had surfaced.
“Do you think they will be able to pass the trial?” the old man asked worriedly.
The other man was Ji Bo, who should have been in the imperial city. His eyes were dark in bemusement. He had always been difficult to read. If the old man had not been his friend for years, he wouldn’t have noticed the undercurrent of emotions in Ji Bo’s eyes. It worried him.
After a moment of silence, Ji Bo answered with a question, “Don’t you think they’ve done well?”
The old man paused to think back to Jun Huang and Nan Xun’s performance. A look of appreciation appeared on his face. “They’ve done well, but it’s only the first challenge. Many more challenges await them. Who knows if they will be able to come out intact?”
Ji Bo nodded in agreement. “You’re right,” he said before adding, “But I have a strong feeling that they will not let us down.”
“I hope so. Let’s go.”
Ji Bo nodded and returned to their vantage point to watch Nan Xun’s and Jun Huang’s every move while drinking tea.
Jun Huang and Nan Xun came to the third door after going through a short tunnel. They shared a look and walked inside. At the center of the room was an iron cage. It was big enough for a person to fit in.
Again, there was no apparent way out.
Nan Xun frowned. What did this mean? He turned to Jun Huang, who shook her head. The last challenge had taught them to be wary. They decided to take a rest before doing anything.
Seeing the wounds on Nan Xun’s palm, Jun Huang was reminded of the medicine she had brought with her. She didn’t expect it to be of use.
The oil lamps on the wall were dim. She had to get close to see clearly. Carefully, she applied the powder on the cut with her head lowered.
Nan Xun could see Jun Huang’s concentrated look when he looked down. His heart melted. The pain he had endured seemed insignificant by comparison.
Strands of Jun Huang’s hair fell into his palm, tickling his skin. He brushed her hair back and settled it behind her shoulders. Jun Huang threw him a glance before tearing the bottom of her robe to use as bandages.
Once she had patched him up, she let out a long breath and sat in the corner of the room bonelessly. She was close to her breaking point. She was not used to being under such high pressure for such a long time.
“Don’t worry. Just get behind me if dangers strike. I will protect you even at the cost of my life.”
Nan Xun caught Jun Huang’s fingers, trying to comfort her, but she responded with a distant glance and pulled her hand away.
“That’s what I have to talk to you about,” Jun Huang said. She was angry with Nan Xun’s careless disregard of his own safety. “Please protect yourself before you protect me. I don’t want you to risk your life for me. Do you understand?”
Nan Xun couldn’t argue with that. Even though Jun Huang’s tone was harsh, he could hear the underlying concerns in her voice. His lips quirked up. He wanted nothing more than holding Jun Huang tight in his arms. Only then would he be able to rest easy.
After sitting on the floor for a while, Nan Xun got to his feet and helped Jun Huang up. They nodded at each other before walking further into the room to find out what was waiting for them.
A beast roared. Nan Xun tensed up. This can’t be good.
His worry was proven right. Four starved tigers were released into the room. Jun Huang and Nan Xun were the only preys here. In the tigers’ eyes, they were their lunch. The tigers bared their teeth menacingly.
Jun Huang and Nan Xun stood back to back, trusting the other to watch their back. It was a show of faith. Nan Xun, though, was worried that Jun Huang would get hurt. “See the cage there?” he said. “Get inside quickly when you see an opening. Don’t come out no matter what happens. Do you hear me?”
“I won’t,” Jun Huang said without hesitation.
Cold sweat broke out of Nan Xun’s forehead. He worriedly shouted, “This is not the time for you to be stubborn!”
Jun Huang let out a quiet laugh. “Before we came in we have agreed to face every challenge together. And now you are trying to be a martyr. Am I the one who’s being stubborn? You are the one who’s looking down on me.”
“I’m not a master in fighting, but I’ll pull my own weight. Don’t worry.”
“You know I didn’t mean that!” Nan Xun said in a rush. He didn’t expect Jun Huang to react this way.
Before they could come to an agreement, one of the tigers lunged at them. They split up to dodge the tiger’s attack.
Silence filled the room. They put all their attention on the tigers, lest they become the tigers’ food in a moment of carelessness.
Nan Xun realized that Jun Huang would not run away. There was nothing he could say to change her mind. He only told her to be careful. If she truly could not fight against the tigers, she should take refuge. Jun Huang nodded in agreement and got ready to face the tigers with Nan Xun.
No human beings could be fearless, but these tigers knew no fear. All they could see now was their food. They wanted nothing but to tear into Jun Huang’s and Nan Xun’s throats and swallowed them.
Nan Xun quickly threw his sword to Jun Huang when the four tigers attacks in unison. Jun Huang caught the sword and dodged one of the tigers’ lunge. She drew the sword and held it horizontally before her. Replacing her sickly look was an unusual calmness. She leveled the tigers with a frosty stare. She was prepared to kill if the tiger made a move.
She dodged to the tiger’s back when it came at her again. She cut into its back with her sword. Unfortunately, the tiger had a thick skin, and she wasn’t forceful enough. The cut only served to anger the tiger.
The tiger growled at her as it attacked. Jun Huang backed away. She couldn’t find an opening. Swallowing down the lump in her throat, she held the sword with both hands and kept her eyes on the tiger. She took a step back everytime the tiger took a step forward until her back hit the wall.
The tiger tackled Jun Huang. She tried to block it with her sword. With a simple swing of its claw, however, a deep cut appeared on Jun Huang’s arm. She dropped the sword in pain.
Clink! Nan Xun heard the sound while he was struggling to fight three tigers. His heart seized up. He turned around just in time to see the tiger lunging at Jun Huang.
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