Chapter 2 – Crafty Plots and Intrigues
Book 3 Chapter 2 – Crafty Plots and Intrigues
The two boys stealthily [orig. walk like a snake, crouch like a mouse], very carefully walked toward the battlefield. After crossing a sparse forest, they reached the southeast corner of the battlefield. But they were finally discovered by the enemy. From the bushes on the left side, six, seven Sui soldiers emerged with swords in their hands, shouting harshly at them, pouncing at them like mad tigers.
On the other side, soldiers were already in formation for battle. Within this tight formation, when a squad of about fifty cavalry heard the commotion, they also charged toward the two boys, brandishing their lances.
The boys did not fear the enemy as much as they used to; without a word they turned to meet the Sui soldiers on foot and swiftly moved their sabers to chop and hack.
Recalling the tragic situation in that town, where the buildings were burned to the ground and the people, as well as the animals were slaughtered by these soldiers, the two boys’ heart was burning with murderous intention. The persons followed the sabers, their imposing manner was way above the enemy’s. The sabers split the air, the Sui soldiers fell face up, their swords flew away, not a single one was lucky enough to escape.
In the meantime, the cavalry arrived. Unleashing their qinggong the two boys dodged into the bushes where the horses could not chase them. But as soon as the horses left, they rushed out to the plains, and sneaked behind a company of archers and saber and hatchet wielders, who had never anticipated that the enemy would sneak in silently from behind. As a result, even after the two boys slaughtered quite a number of them like people chopping melons or slicing vegetables, they still thought that a large number of enemy reinforcement has arrived; hence they were thrown into chaos.
Several torches fell onto the bushes and set the grass on fire, which rapidly spread everywhere. But the two boys did not know that this fire would later on save their lives.
Actually, the number of Sui forces in this area reached three thousand. Quite a few experts with outstanding martial art skill included among these. Under normal circumstances, once they entered into the heavy siege, even people with strong martial art of Du Fuwei’s caliber would have no choice but to fight with all their might and perish; much less two boys whose battle experience was severely lacking.
“This way!” Kou Zhong shouted. Five Sui soldiers stepped out to meet them.
Xu Ziling started later but he arrived first. He pounced forward, shaking out his long saber, launching the ‘Life or Death, Exist or Perish’ from the Bloody Battle Ten Styles. His saber moved like a giant wave rolling wildly onto the shore, his power overwhelming, one soldier immediately lost his life, another soldier was swept over and was thrown to the side. The other three cried out in fear and ran away.
The two boys have never tested their skill with such an impressive result. They whooped in delight, and continued their killing spree into the heart of the battle.
‘Dang!’ Suddenly someone blocked in front of Kou Zhong. Armed with a pair of awls he forcibly held Kou Zhong back that he was unable to advance a single step.
When Xu Ziling tried to pounce, he was also pushed back by the opponent.
Up to this point of the battle, the two boys have never encountered such a strong opponent.
Countless Sui soldiers thronged behind this man to attack the two boys. The person who blocked the two boys was actually a high-ranking military officer of the Sui army. His countenance was ablaze with rage as he roared, “Tear these two boys apart into ten thousand pieces for me!”
In the meantime, on a high ground on a hill about half a li from the plains, close to two hundred warriors in green were standing in battle array, with strong bows and powerful arrows, tightly guarding right in the center of the formation a beautiful woman in white clothes, with her long hair draped over her shoulder.
Each time the beautiful woman gave out her order, the three men under her command in charge of signal light immediately waved the lanterns in three different colors strapped to the top of long poles, directing their warriors on the battlefield to advance, retreat, attack or defend.
Behind the beautiful woman stood four people in a row. Just by looking at their expression and manner, it was obvious that they were all martial art masters. The first one was a stout man with thick beard, the next one was an iron-tower like huge man, the third one was a man wearing scholarly attire, and the last one was a big middle0aged woman with an ugly face.
The longhaired beautiful woman said in soft voice, “That’s strange! How come the southeast corner of the enemy formation seemed to be in confusion? Who could be helping us?”
The four people behind her focused their attention to look, but they did not see anything different.
With deep contemplation in her beautiful eyes, the longhaired beautiful woman said, “We can’t see it on the surface; but I have an inkling from the way the opponent waves their command flag. If the confusion spread, we must exploit it well. Not only we might break through the heavy siege, we might have the chance the win the battle.”
The eyes of the man wearing scholar attire revealed an admiring look; he said respectfully, “Miss’ knowledge surpasses heaven and men, your proficiency in the art of war even shines like a torch, you are indeed a capable person.”
The ugly woman said, “In my opinion, if there is indeed reinforcement arriving, we ought to break out of the siege before planning any counterattack. Miss’ thousand-jin gold body must not be put in danger.”
As she spoke, the others immediately frowned because her screeching-owl like voice was grating their ears. But her remark gained support from the stout man with the thick beard. “When Duke Li sent us to protect Miss, he ordered us to place Miss’ safety above everything else,” he said in agreement.
A flash of displeased expression appeared on the longhaired beautiful woman’s unparalleled beautiful countenance; however, the tone of her voice was still as gentle and as tender as ever. She said nonchalantly, “As the commander-in-chief, how can I care only on myself in the face of death and let my troops suffer defeat like a landslide? If I cannot resist Qin Shubao’s elite Sui troops and let him take over Fuchun, getting it back will be as hard as ascending to Heaven.”
She had just finished speaking, the southeast corner suddenly burst into flames. The longhaired beautiful woman immediately saw from the subtle change in the enemy ranks that the opponent indeed appeared to be in confusion.
It must be noted that the southeast corner was the opponent’s command center from which the enemy direct the troops on the battlefield; a slight change there would affect everything else*, unlike if the sudden change happened elsewhere, it would be inconsequential. [*literal translation: ‘pull one hair and the whole body moves’. Funny, suddenly Disney-Pixar’s Ratatouille came into my mind …]
Maintaining her elegant, carefree, charming demeanor, the longhaired beautiful woman issued the order to launch all-around counter-offensive on the southeast corner as their primary target. The four people behind her drew their weapons as they gathered around the longhaired beautiful woman as she mounted her war-horse.
The more than two hundred riders galloped down the hill to join their two divisions of a thousand warriors each on the battlefield, unfolding a full-scale battle with the enemy.
Right this moment Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, two people, were caught in hard fighting and were unable to either advance or retreat. Suddenly the Sui army pulled back in all direction, because a group of warriors in green charged in on horseback, scattering the Sui troops all around them.
The two boys were delighted to obtain a chance to escape the siege. By this time their spirit weary, their strength exhausted, they could not exert any strength to continue, hence they turned around and fled under cover of the raging fire burning the grassland. Holding their breath, they rounded to the left and circled to the right to get far away from the battlefield.
Finally they dropped down on a hilltop, with no strength left to run. Like ocean tide bursts of battle cry were still heard from the distance.
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “In the future we must not do such a foolish thing anymore. Even heroes are unable to withstand numerous enemies. Although we are not a hundred-percent hero, but the opponent have many men. You got it?”
“I wonder who that Sui general was,” Xu Ziling said, “He is very formidable. Fortunately we are fast, otherwise his awls would take away our lives.”
Kou Zhong let out a cold snort and said, “What kind of ‘thing’ is he? We only need two more rounds of battle experience, I guarantee we will be able to beat him. Ow!”
Noticing that just as he was, Kou Zhong was covered in blood all over, Xu Ziling asked in concern, “Any injury on vital point?”
Kou Zhong sneered and said, “If there is any injury on my vital point, would I be able to run to here? What a contradictory question you are asking me. Ah right! I’d better look at your wounds first.”
“What’s so good to look?” Xu Ziling replied, “After you look, then what? Fortunately we have miraculous skill of self healing; we’d better take a d@mn good sleep, tomorrow we’ll talk again!”
Kou Zhong dejectedly lay on the ground. Very soon the two boys circulated their inner breathing, and entered the state of emptiness.
Xu Ziling felt he was asleep, but when he opened his eyes, Kou Zhong was still sleeping soundly like he was dead on the grassy land. When he stretched his four limbs, he felt that the seven, eight wounds on his body were burning with pain.
The sun had just risen in the sky, all around were birdsong and fragrant flowers, the mountain was eerily quiet. The war last night seemed to be a distant and unreal nightmare. If not for the acute pain all over his body, he would think that such bloody battle has never happened.
A flock of birds flew unhurriedly over the seemingly still blue sky. In this instant, Xu Ziling seemed to capture a great mystery of the nature that has existed since time immemorial, but he was unable to describe it in concrete words.
Xu Ziling felt his heart was calm, his mind was bright and clear. After going through last night’s battle, where he was continuously on the brink of death, he felt that he had entered a brand new stage in life. All the dangers and suffering were merely course of events that he must go through and experience as part of his spiritual journey.
Kou Zhong nudged him with his elbow, with a low chuckle he said, “You are staring blankly at the empty space, what are you thinking about?”
Xu Ziling sat up. Frowning, he looked at his tattered clothes and torn trousers, which was covered in bloodstains and filled with black soot. He said with a wry smile, “I am thinking of a clean set of clothes and a big dish of meat and vegetables. Other things can wait for a bit.”
Kou Zhong struggled up; glancing to the left and right, he said in self-effacing way, “Xiaodi [little brother, referring to self] seems to lose my bearings. I can’t tell whether Pengcheng is to our east or west; what do you think? Shall we pick a direction at random and leave it to fate?”
Xu Ziling said, “How could Zhong Shao suddenly lose his head? A big city like Pengcheng must be connected by official roads. If we go back to the major road last night, we can humbly ask whomever we come across, I am sure we will find the right way.”
Kou Zhong laughed and said, “Very true! Let’s go!”
Chapter 2, Part 2
Anh, HPC, Ysabel, Drak & Zlack, you are welcome. Jaya, DongBin, I made similar comment the other day. Too many beautiful women, one is prettier than the other.
End of Chapter 2.
The two boys looked for wild vine to casually fasten the saber on their back. Relying on their memory, they headed toward the ruins of the small town they saw last night.
After dashing madly for a while, covering at least seven or eight li, they slowed down their steps to look around to find their bearings. Kou Zhong laughed bitterly and said, “Looks like we are lost again. Otherwise we should have seen that town’s ruins. From here, we don’t see any people ahead, we don’t see any village behind; we can’t even find anybody we can ask direction from. Hey! What’s that?”
Xu Ziling had already noticed fire and smoke rising up from the foot of a hill ahead; he happily said, “I don’t care what that is. Once we go there, we will find out what it is.”
The two boys ran down the hill. Who would have thought that although the place did not seem too far, it was already dusk when they reached it? Turned out it was a small village.
The smoke was spiraling upward from a kitchen chimney of the roof of one of the buildings, evidently some people were lighting the fire to cook dinner.
But Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were worried for their safety instead. This area was not far from the battlefield; if those worse-than-beast Sui soldiers came here, great catastrophe would befall the people of this village.
In the blink of an eye they reached the entrance to the village. They saw there were only about thirty houses in there, but the houses were spaced quite far apart from each other. Nevertheless, the village was quiet; there was not even any sound of chicken crowing or dog barking that was normally found in such village.
The two boys felt something was really, really not right. Kou Zhong said, “In this village, every door is tightly closed; it appears that the villagers had already run away elsewhere because of the war. That house with smoke rising from it, probably it was someone passing through and used it to cook their food. Shall we go and try our luck? Worse case scenario, we can always run away. Relying on our qinggong, we shouldn’t have any problem!”
Xi Ziling patted the saber on his back and laughed aloud, “We are not afraid of magnificent army with thousands of men and horses, why would we fear his mother’s passerby? If it is traveling merchant, we’ll ask him for a bowl of rice to eat, we may even offer our services as his temporary escort so that we can earn a bit of profit as traveling expense to look for Susu Jiejie.”
Kou Zhong stuck out his chest and said, “I nearly forget that we are top-ranking martial art experts. Ha! Come on then!” And he took the lead striding into the village.
They saw the house with the smoke rising from its kitchen chimney was actually the largest house in the village. It was separated into front and rear sections, with a courtyard separating it, but the gates were tightly closed, giving them a mysterious feeling, especially because they did not hear a single noise.
“Anybody’s home?” Kou Zhong called out.
He repeatedly called several times, but still no response.
Xu Ziling was rather nervous; he nudged Kou Zhong and said, “Let’s just go and forget about it.”
Kou Zhong sneered and said, “Are you forgetting our status as martial art masters? We’ll go in to take a look, perhaps the person has already gone, but he left a couple bowls of rice for us.”
Stepping toward the door, he used his leg to push, the door succumbed and opened. The two boys stepped over the threshold and entered the main hall. They saw that all the furniture and household utensils were still there, but everything was covered with dust; there were even cobwebs on the corners, evidently this house has been abandoned for quite some time. They could not help feeling odd.
Walking across the courtyard, they entered the residential section at the back, and found that not a soul was inside the house. Who lighted the fire in the kitchen and created the spiraling smoke from the chimney earlier? But by this time the fire was very weak, it nearly died out.
While Xu Ziling was looking for any traces on the floor, Kou Zhong’s voice was heard from the rear hall, “Xiao Ling, come here. I found half of your dreams.”
Xu Ziling did not have time to decipher what he meant by that; he rushed over toward one of the rooms on the rear wing. As soon as stepped over the door, something assaulted his face like a black cloud. Stretching out his hand to catch it, he found it to be a piece of clean linen clothes.
He saw a large chest dragged out from under the bed, its lid was opened, and Kou Zhong was pulling pile after pile of clothing and other personal items, and scattered everything on the bed; it was like he was in a treasure hunt, picking to the left and digging to the right.
The two boys were in high spirit. After changing into new clothes, they felt like a new person; only their stomach was rumbling with hunger; it was indeed a big fly in the ointment.
Meanwhile the sky was getting dark, the two boys searched everywhere, but could not find even half a grain of rice or wheat.
Kou Zhong said, “Every village must have some kind of grove of fruit trees; you stay here to prepare the bed, I’ll go pick some good fruits to allay our hunger. They have all kinds of beds here, we will spend the night here and continue on our journey tomorrow.”
Xu Ziling nodded his agreement, and they went their separate ways.
Half a day later, Kou Zhong returned with a big rooster in his hand; he said, “Turns out there are still some domestic animals left. Hey! There is a very big burial site at the back, mostly new graves. Looks like not all of the villagers have left, perhaps they died of some kind of epidemic.”
Xu Ziling gasped; he said, “In that case, the clothes we are wearing …”
Kou Zhong went to the courtyard to take care of the rooster; he called out, “There’s at least one person who did not die; otherwise, who buried all those dead people? Maybe it was the person who lighted the fire?”
Hearing that, Xu Ziling was absolutely horrified; he went to the courtyard, pulled Kou Zhong up, and said, “Wouldn’t it be better to go to the next house? I’ll get the fiint!”
Although on the surface Kou Zhong always put on an extremely daring appearance, he was actually very nervous inside as well; immediately he gave his full support to Xu Ziling’s proposal, and they both moved to a comparatively smaller house on the other side of the village.
After having their stomach filled, the weather suddenly turned windy. The two boys did not dare to touch the beds or the couches; they closed all the doors and windows, and huddled in the corner to rest. Although they were nervous and jittery, eventually they succumbed to their weary body and fell into deep slumber.
In the middle of the night the two boys woke up with a start. As they sat up in bewilderment, they heard the sound of hoof beats filling the air outside the house.
They crawled up toward the window and looked out, and saw a band of riders swarming into the village, their horses looked big and tall, their clothes and adornment looked bold and powerful, with quivers of arrows on their backs, and their appearance looked rough and wild, unlike people of the Central Earth.
This group had approximately thirty men, one of them appeared particularly majestic, carrying roughly eight chi long rectangular box on his back, yet he did not seem to be burdened by it and appeared to be carrying it effortlessly.
Arriving in the middle of the village, the man carrying the box jumped down the horse with ease, and put the box in the middle of the road, while the other men also dismounted their horses.
One of them, a tall and slim man who appeared to be the leader, was still sitting high on his horse; he signaled his men to search. With the exception of the huge man with the box, the rest of his men spread out, kicking on doors and entering the houses.
Each and every single man was skillful, vigorous and nimble, and they all moved in such a fast and efficient way; which clearly showed that these were men with consummate and overwhelming martial art skill. Watching this, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling no longer remembered that they themselves were martial art experts. They jumped up onto the beam, and hid themselves in the space between the beam and the roof, which they considered a comparatively hidden and safe place.
Underneath, sound of footsteps came and then left, but then it came again, followed by the sound of something heavy hitting the floor. The two boys could not refrain from peeking down. Turned out the men brought the box into this house and placed it right under the two boys. It was only then did the boys realize that the box had a dozen or so small holes on it.
Four men stood guard in front of and behind the door; they all looked tense.
And then someone walked into the house. The two boys hastily shrunk their heads back and stopped breathing from their mouth and nose, and just used their inner breathing, because they did not dare to make any noise.
The people down below talked rapidly in some language that they had never heard before, which confirmed their suspicion earlier that these men were from outside the Central Earth. The boys were at a loss even more.
The men down below suddenly stopped talking.
It was quite some times later that Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling heard hoof beats from outside the village. They grew increasingly nervous and were afraid to make the slightest bit of noise, because clearly these foreign men’s sense of hearing was several levels above theirs.
The men spoke a few more sentences before stepping out of the house together.
Kou Zhong reached out to write on Xu Ziling’s back: ‘There must be a person inside the box, otherwise why made ventilation holes?’ Xu Ziling nodded in agreement.
Meanwhile another group of riders pulled into the village. From the sound of the hooves, this group had comparable number of men with the first one.
The hoof beats suddenly stopped. A man’s voice rang out, “Zu Junyan under Pushan Gong’s [Duke of Pushan (Mount Pu)] command sincerely wishes your distinguished country’s Shibi Khan’s dragon body good health.”
Shibi Khan was the Turkic people’s great Khan.
A long laughter outside the house responded, “Turns out it’s Mr. Zu Junyan, a warrior under Duke Mi, who is well versed in letters and military matters. I wonder if Mister brought the thing that our Khan requested.”
Zu Junyan calmly replied, “Excuse me, General, how should Zaixia [myself (humble)] address you?”
Another majestic voice from the Turkic side spoke up, “People say that Zu Junyan has wide learning and retentive memory, and is known as the most experienced and knowledgeable figure of Duke Mi’s subordinate outside of the ‘Handsome Military Counselor’ Shen Luoyan; how come you did not even recognize our General Yan?”
Zu Junyan laughed and said, “Turns out it’s General Yan Lihui, who made his name as the ‘Twin Spears General’. In that case, this friend must be the ‘Dauntless Lion’ Tie Xiong. Zaixia has eyes but fail to see.”
Letting out a cold snort, Yan Lihui said, “Let’s cut all this crap, shall we? Where is it?”
Unfazed, Zu Junyan replied, “Zaixia wishes to see Miss first before showing the treasure. This is Duke Mi’s order. General please forgive me.”
Listening to all these, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, who were sitting the beam, were shaken. The ‘Miss’ that Zu Junyan mentioned, could she be Susu’s master? They recalled Susu once said that it was because they were being attacked that she wandered about destitute in rural areas of Jiangnan.
At the same time the two boys were thinking about the box below. Was ‘Big Boss’ Zhai Rang’s [see Book 1 Chapter 10] beloved daughter [orig. ‘pearl in the palm’] inside the box?
Kou Zhong wrote on Xu Ziling’s back again: ‘Wait for an opportunity to save her!’
Outside, Yan Lihui’s cold laugh was heard, “The treasure in hand, we will release the person. The words of our Khan have never been spoken in vain. If Mister does not show the treasure, what the Big Boss get could very well be only the body of his beloved woman. All blame will be put on Mister’s head.”
Zu Junyan let out a long laugh and said, “The Jade Annulus of the He Clan is precisely inside the bundle on my back. You hand over the person, we hand over the goods; this has been our agreement. If there are any changes in the meantime, the responsibility ought to fall into General’s hands.”
It was as if a thunderbolt had just crashed inside Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling’s mind; it was only then did they know that the treasure these men were talking about was, unexpectedly, the Jade Annulus of the He Clan, which fame has spread throughout all ages.
Right this moment, a sudden change occurred down below.
The back door suddenly shattered like flying sand, the two martial art experts Turkic guards did not even have time to react, they were sent out flying off the ground and died a violent death. By the time the other two men realized what had happened, a dark shadow flew over the two men’s head, and powerfully grabbed and shattered the Tian Ling acupoint on the top of their head. The most frightening thing was that breaking the door, sending the dead bodies off the ground, and killing people with bare hands; everything was done in silence. It was as if everything was a routine activity that had nothing to do with this person.
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling knew that this person’s martial art skill has already reached the near-perfect state, plus its nature was extremely soft, his movement was as fast as a ghost. Before the shattered door even reached the floor, he had already killed four Turkic martial art masters guarding the wooden chest.
The two boys’ mind went blank; they did not dare to look down anymore, even their internal breathing was slowing down considerably.
If it were not because of their mysterious skill came from the one and only ‘Secret to Long Life’, that when they circulate their breathing it would not arouse a martial art expert’s alertness, that their qi and pulse, their heartbeat and vital signs slowed down nearly to the level of dead people, they would have been discovered by this person early on.
This man’s martial art skill was extremely high, it was definitely not below Du Fuwei’s.
‘Creak!’ the lid of the chest suddenly opened up.
The man cried out in surprise, followed by the loud sound of qi and force collided, and then there were repeated noise that sounded like muffled thunder.
‘Boom!’ In the midst of an ear-splitting explosion, the brick wall to the left shattered. Unexpectedly it was actually the man who broke it; he then flew out of the opening, and ran far away, while letting out an earth-shattering fierce cry. His power was extremely astounding that the whole house was shaking.
Brick and mortar shot everywhere, including onto Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling’s body. Although they had their true qi protecting their body, they still felt unbearable pain; another evidence that this man’s internal energy was really strong.
The two boys could not bear it anymore, they looked down again.
They saw the chest had turned into wood splinters, the furniture inside the room had also turned into a sea of wood fragments. A man, as majestic as a mountain, wearing an oversized black gown, was standing in the middle of the room, facing the hole on the wall, regulating his breathing in full concentration.
From the two boys’ angle of view, although they could not see his face, it was clear that this man was wearing a sinister, hideous mask on his face.
They heard gusts of wind; several people flew into the room from the hole on the wall, as well as from the front and back doors, scaring the two boys that they hastily shrank back into hiding.
Zu Junyan’s voice was the first to be heard, “He is injured!”
A strange, unbelievable, hard-to-describe feeling rose up in the two boys’ heart.
According to reason, the man who came to rescue his Big Boss’ daughter ought to be on Zu Junyan’s side, and the mysterious man who was hiding inside the chest ought to be his enemy. However, from the tone of his voice, Zu Junyan seemed to be on the mysterious man’s side?
More unimaginable things followed; they heard the Turkic martial art master Yan Lihui’s voice speaking up, “Zhai Rang made it this far, this is the first time that he ever sustained any injury. This will make his sacrifice and achievements in the past proved to be fruitless.”
Tie Xiong spoke with a cold snort, “It shows that he is a man without understanding of the times.”
The two boys realized now that Zu Junyan had betrayed Zhai Rang and Li Mi, and had allied himself with the Turkic people and put on a play. No wonder the Turkic people knew Susu’s Miss’ whereabouts and kidnapped her away.
A deep and low, yet soft voice spoke up, “Even though we failed to kill him, we have achieved the desired result. This place is not suitable for us to stay too long, we should proceed with our plan.”
Both Zu Junyan and Yan Lihui, along with their separate troops, responded in unison.
Soon the people down below left until none remained. But the two boys were so scared that it broke their guts. It was just before dawn that they finally found their courage to slip down and left quietly.