Translator: Foxs' Wuxia
Fine drizzle filled the air, sprinkling down from the sky. Beginning in the afternoon, the clouds in the sky were getting thicker and thicker, until finally the light rain started to fall by nightfall.
The entire Yi Luo Plain was shrouded in boundless fine droplets of rain, like smoke or fog. The victorious Great Tang Army have been clearing up the entire battlefield, while also searching for the enemy’s trace; they only stopped this moment, and began to assemble and regroup at the plain southwest of the City of Yique.
Kou Zhong knew better than anybody else that Li Shimin wanted to eliminate him, Kou Zhong, before his power grew, therefore, he definitely would not let this matter drop.
A large-scale search-and-kill operation was about to commence.
Kou Zhong, carrying Wuming and his heart, which was still hurting and dripping blood, came to a small hill from where he could observe the Great Tang Army’s operation from a distance. He felt so lonely.
Called a king if successful, called a bandit if defeated.
He finally got a taste of the pain and sense of loss of a crushing defeat.
The raindrops sprinkling on his face felt cool.
Suddenly a shadow flashed from the dense forest on his left. The shadow laughed aloud and said, “Good kid! Turns out you are really not dead!”
Kou Zhong squealed in delight and pounced down the hillside. Pulling Ba Fenghan in tight embrace, he was so happy that his eyes were brimming with hot tears.
Ba Fenghan sighed and said, “Ziling, he ... ay! Ziling ...”
Kou Zhong was like being struck by lightning, the color of blood completely drained from his face, he staggered three steps back, his voice trembled, “Ziling ...” he said.
Ba Fenghan smiled bitterly and said, “Don’t get me wrong, Ziling is not dead yet. But he suffers heavy injury from Yang Xuyan’s vicious martial art, which is the combination of Shi Zhixuan’s demonic power plus the ‘Yu Jin Wan Fa Gen Yuan Zhi Jing’, luckily Hou Xibai remembered there is one Shi Qingxuan. She has become the only hope to help Ziling recover, we can only submit to the will of heaven.”
Stunned, Kou Zhong said, “Hou Xibai?”
After explaining the situation, Ba Fenghan cast his gaze to the Tang Army in the distance, immediately the murderous intent in his pair of eyes flared greatly, he spoke indifferently, “I want Li Shimin to pay back double the disgrace and pain we suffer.”
Knowing that Xu Ziling was still alive, immediately Kou Zhong’s dragon’s vitality and tiger’s fierceness arose; he said, “This time Li kid failed to kill me, Kou Zhong, this is called man proposes, God disposes. In fact, our breaking-out-the-siege battle was not a total failure, at least the three of us are still alive, after Ziling wakes up, there shouldn’t be any problem. We’ll go to look for Yang Gong, Ma Chang, Wang Xuanshu, and Chen Laomou, that group of brothers. They should be able to successfully break out the siege and escape alive.” Finished speaking, he gave an order, Wuming soared into the sky to scout the situation far and near.
The two looked up to the sky to observe Wuming’s flight pattern. Ba Fenghan said, “If I am guessing correctly, right now Li Shimin is deliberately giving us enough time to reorganize the remnants of the troops and continue southward, and because he has the convenience of the waterway, practically he is not afraid of us flying out through the cracks of his fingers.”
Kou Zhong nodded in agreement. With Li Shimin’s power, the search operation could have been extended to the mountain and fields south Yique and Shou’An, yet he did not do it. It was clear that he wanted to let Kou Zhong and the ruined army, defeated generals to meet, so that it would be difficult for him to escape alone, and then he would deploy the army to pursue and attack, and to put Kou Zhong to death.
The sound of hoofbeats was heard from the south.
Shaken, Kou Zhong said, “Should be our men, hence when they saw Wuming, they rush over to meet. Let’s go take a look!”
The two men unleashed their legs’ power, crossing over another hill, under the wind and rain filling the whole sky, they saw Ma Chang and seven or eight men, rushing over in their direction.
The two sides saw each other, it felt like it was a lifetime ago.
From afar, Ma Chang’s tears already flowed down his face, weeping with grief, he said, “Shaoshuai, come quickly, Yang Gong won’t be able to make it!”
This sentence was like thunder from a clear sky, shaking the two men that they felt numb from head to foot, and were stunned on the spot.
Xu Ziling opened his pair of eyes, and saw Hou Xibai was running the boat at full speed, while he himself was lying on the aft, his five viscera and six bowels felt like being cut with a knife, unbearably painful. The true qi within his body scattered, from head to foot he was without any strength, his legs were limp, his brains felt like being ruthlessly pricked by thousands of small needles wreaking havoc inside his head, so unbearable that he nearly groaned.
Xu Ziling’s last memory was only Yang Xuyan’s pitch-black but shiny, evil and bizarre demonic hand; he was unable to comprehend what he saw before his eyes. He wanted to speak, but could only utter a moan.
Hou Xibai happened to turn his head around to examine the rear; hearing the noise, he looked back and said in great delight, “Ziling is awake! How are you feeling?”
Xu Ziling closed his pair of eyes weakly, he asked, “What happened?”
Hou Xibai explained briefly, and then he said, “I am now taking you to Qingxuan’s place, only she can help you recover fully.”
Xu Ziling’s tiger-eyes opened again, he was already a lot more spirited, struggling hard to sit himself straight, he muttered to himself irresolutely, “If the enemy pursue along the river, sooner or later they will overtake us. I must strive for a night of meditation to treat my injury, otherwise, in the end we still cannot escape the enemy’s pursuit and attack. Yang Xuyan is an expert in following a trail, he will definitely not sit and watch us leaving.”
Hou Xibai nodded and said, “In that case, we’ll sink the boat and go ashore; as long as Ziling can recover part of your power, we have a great chance to escape.”
Kou Zhong and Ba Fenghan saw Yang Gongqing in a dense forest nearby, he was lying down next to an old tree in the forest, his countenance was deadly grey, the fatal wound was a strong arrow penetrating his body from his back.
Chen Laomou, Wang Xuanshu, Ba Yegang, Bing Yuanzhen, were crowding around him, but the art to reverse the rotation of the sky, no one knew anything at all.
Just in one glance Kou Zhong was able to see that Yang Gongqing’s vitality has already gone, his life was nearing the end. Struggling hard to resist hot tears, he came to Yang Gongqing’s side and knelt down, grabbed both of his hands, and injected Long-Life True Qi into his body.
Hiding inside the forest were nearly five thousand men from the Yang Family Army, the Flying Cloud Guards, and Luoyang’s officers and soldiers who successfully broke out of the siege and escaped to this place. Everybody was wounded, they were either sitting or lying down. In the intensely cold wind and bitter rain, there was a the-path-exhausted, the-end-of-the-road atmosphere.
Yang Gongqing’s eyes fluttered, he finally opened his eyes. Seeing Kou Zhong, his body shook slightly, but a hint of smile escaped out of the corner of his mouth, “Shaoshuai!” he spoke hoarsely.
Kou Zhong gushed out hero’s hot tears.
Ba Fenghan squatted down by Yang Gongqing’s side, he reached out to grab his right shoulder to examine the arrow wound on his back. His expression darkened, he shook his head without saying anything.
Trying hard to suppress his grief, Kou Zhong said, “Everything will be all right!”
Perhaps it was the effect of the true qi that Kou Zhong injected into his body, but the expression showing in Yang Gongqing’s eyes condensed, a burst of blush flitted across his face, he grabbed both of Kou Zhong’s hands in return, and said, “I knew Shaoshuai could not possibly meet with a mishap. Victory or defeat is commonplace in military operations, as long as Shaoshuai press on, there will come a day when you will attack Guanzhong directly.”
Kou Zhong knew that this was the final radiance of the setting sun for Yang Gongqing, he felt as if he had his heart cut out. Since the first day he knew this famous general, whom he considered both his master and his friend, he has always been like a kind father nurturing and caring for him, with honor that did not allow him to glance back, he supported him with all his strength, yet he died because Kou Zhong’s strategy could not surpass Li Shimin’s. Remorse, like a viper, bit his heart, which was already full of scars.
Ma Chang dropped down on his knees next to Yang Gongqing. Burying his face in his hands, his whole body twitched, but he fought hard not to cry out. The other officers and soldiers, none was not distressed.
Yang Gongqing, as if he was exhausting however little strength he had left, released his grip on Kou Zhong’s pair of hands, revealing the last hint of smile, he spoke softly, “There is life, then there must be death ... Shaoshuai ...”
Kou Zhong was greatly astonished, he put his ear next to his trembling and shaking mouth. With a voice that could barely be heard, Yang Gongqing said, “Kill Li Yuanji for me.”
His throat emitted a ‘gu’ sound, and he simply stopped breathing.
Inside the dense forest on the western bank of Luo River, Hou Xibai and Xu Ziling watched as nearly thirty Great Tang navy’s ships, under full sail, full of soldiers, sailed pass.
Hou Xibai sighed and said, “The situation is really worrying.”
Shaking his head, Xu Ziling said, “We ought to be happy. Li Shimin is deploying a large number of soldiers via the waterway to the south, that means Kou Zhong is still alive, hence he wants to cut off Kou Zhong’s retreat path to Zhongli. Otherwise, Li Shimin would turn around to attack the Shao Shuai Army in Chenliu, he wouldn’t waste his time here.”
Smiling wryly, Hou Xibai said, “Make sense! But I am worried about Kou Zhong, how is he going to deal with Li Shimin’s hunt and kill operation?”
Xu Ziling said, “War has always been cruel and unfeeling. Kou Zhong must prove that even in such a nasty situation, he can still firmly control Li Shimin’s main forces, until Song Que’s main forces come to help. And I firmly believe that he has such ability.”
Hou Xibai nodded and said, “Listening to what you said, I feel at ease. How’s Ziling feeling now?”
Xu Ziling said, “Yang Xuyan not only mastered the demonic power of ‘Yu Jin Wan Fa Gen Yuan Zhi Jing’, he also mastered his honorable master’s ‘Bu Si Yin Fa’.”
Hou Xibai’s countenance changed, he said, “That’s impossible.”
Xu Ziling sighed and said, “But that’s the fact. I wonder if Xibai Xiong could recite the ‘Bu Si Yin Fa’ for me to listen to? I am hoping that when we continue on our journey tomorrow, I won’t need you, Laoxiong to carry me on your back.”
In the dark, while the wind and the rain filled the whole sky, Kou Zhong, Ba Fenghan, Ma Chang, Chen Laomou, Ba Yegang, Bing Yuanzhen, and Wang Xuanshu, seven men stood on a mountaintop by the dense forest near Yi River, watching three Great Tang’s huge warships sailing speedily along the Yi River. Looking far to the south, everybody’s heart was heavy, feeling that the road ahead was difficult and gloomy.
Only the light in Kou Zhong’s pair of eyes was flickering, God knows what kind of idea was playing in his mind.
Yang Gongqing’s death has given him a serious blow! But after Yang Gong was buried and at rest, he immediately recovered; Yang Gong’s death stirred up his fighting spirit instead.
Not counting Xu Ziling, the seven of them were the only remaining seven leaders of the breaking-out-the-siege army. From among Luoyang’s group of generals, only Ba Yegang, Bing Yuanzhen, and Wang Xuanshu, three men were able to follow Kou Zhong to this place. Other great generals such as Duan Da, Cui Hongdan, Meng Xiaowen, Shan Xiongxin, Guo Shancai, Zhang Tong’er, and so on, more than a dozen men were killed on the spot. From this, it could be seen how bitter the battle was, how heavy the casualties of the breaking-out-the-siege army.
Kou Zhong suddenly said, “if we put our disposition of troops to fight with our back toward the mountain, how long will be able to hold out?”
Everybody understood what Kou Zhong was walking about. Due to the enemy had the convenience of the waterway, they could quickly transfer a large number of troops, no matter which way they were trying to escape, the enemy would be able to intercept them along the way. Forget about running away to Zhongli, a thousand li to the south, even Xiangyang, this barrier, they would never be able to break through.
In other words, they would never be lucky enough to escape.
But if they took risk to fight on the spot, although ultimately it would still be difficult to escape the fate of total defeat of an army, but they would die a glorious death, no longer like stray dogs being driven away by other people, fleeing to the south and escaping to the west, a stupid and cowardly way to die!
This was everybody’s understanding of what Kou Zhong was walking about.
Ma Chang dejectedly said, “Our arrow darts supply is only enough for us to fight three days and nights.”
Chen Laomou said with a sneer, “No arrow darts we can always cut wood to make arrows, I still have 125 men in my construction battalion, using tree trunks to build rampart and stronghold, to set up traps, holding out for ten days to half a month should not be difficult.”
Ba Yegang said with a sigh, “It’s just that we don’t have any way to resolve food problem. Even if we harden our hearts and kill the horses to eat, it can only support us no more than a month. The even bigger problem is morale, since we know that we are going to die anyway, inevitably some will grow disloyal heart.”
Kou Zhong shook his head and said, “We are not going to die, we are going to win. The other night was the last time that I, Kou Zhong lost a battle.”
Everyone was stunned.
Ba Fenghan asked in great astonishment, “What makes Shaoshuai so confident that you will win the battle?”
With a card up his sleeve, Kou Zhong smiled and said, “Let’s just imagine the following scenario: we set our disposition of troops with our back on towering mountains and precipitous ridges, there is an endless supply of food, plus there are large quantities of vicious firearm with tremendous formidable power, enough to destroy Li Shimin’s entire army. What do you think?”
Severely shaken, Ba Fenghan said, “Right! I almost forget; are you talking about Tian Cheng Gorge south of Xiangcheng? That is indeed a rugged place strategically situated and easy to defend. But where would the firearms come from?”
Ma Chang and the others knew that so far Kou Zhong was not babbling nonsense; everybody’s hope was kindled, one after another they inquire of him.
Kou Zhong explained, “Tian Cheng Gorge was where we escaped Li Mi and Qu Ao’s pursuit in the past. We found a path in the gorge from south of Xiangcheng to the high mountain, only about half a li long, with high and steep cliffs on both sides, the cliff wall is so steep that it looks like it was cut with a knife. The northern end is so narrow that it’s barely enough for a cart and a rider to pass through. Outside the mouth of the gorge is endlessly rolling hills and mountain and fields. The entire Tian Cheng Gorge spans several dozen li of hidden mountain. If we have our disposition of troops at the northern extremity of Tian Cheng Gorge and strongly defend our position, the enemy will think that we have fallen into desperate straits, while in fact we have access on the back, we will then be able to firmly pin down Li Shimin’s main forces until the rescuing troops arrive to help us.”
Bing Yuanzhen and the others suddenly saw the light, they were pleased beyond their expectation. It was like when they were on a sinking boat in an angry sea and suddenly discover dry land was just within their reach.
Xiangcheng was located about a hundred li southeast of Luoyang. If they cross the Yi River and march fifty li or so to the east, they would reach Tian Cheng Gorge, and this would be outside Li Shimin’s expectation; perhaps he would even think that they turned mad out of desperation and threw themselves in a danger spot.
Kou Zhong went on, “As for firearms, it was the spoils of war that Ziling and I snatched from Yin Gui Pai’s hands. This batch was from Jiangnan firearms manufacturer, Yin Gui Pai originally wanted to send it to Chang’an to help Yang Xuyan and Yang WenGan’s rebellion attempt. After Ziling and I obtained it, we hid it in a secret place by the shore of one of Yangtze River’s tributaries. If after we reach Tian Cheng Gorge we send men to get the firearms, going back and forth, half a month should be enough. And then we will be able to give Li Shimin a big shock.”
Hearing that, nobody did not get his spirit greatly aroused, immediately the depressing atmosphere was washed away.
Nodding his head, Ba Fenghan said, “We abandon Zhongli and go to Xiangcheng, I wonder what would Li Shimin think?”
Chen Laomou excitedly said, “Naturally he will think that we are at the end of our rope, we thus take the risk to capture Xiangcheng.”
Ba Yegang said, “Maybe he would mistakenly think that we threaten the east and strike to the west [idiom: create diversion], while in fact trying to break through Li Shiji’s blockade and escape back to Chenliu.”
Kou Zhong said, “Whether Li kid wants to go east or west, the key to our success or failure now is whether we can reach Tian Cheng Gorge or not. We must confuse the enemy in many ways, only then will we have the chance of success. I wonder if gentlemen have any wise opinion?”
Wang Xuanshu said, “Xuanshu is rather clear about the surrounding terrain. If we go south along the west bank of Yi River, along the way are all mountain and fields and hills. Li Shimin is astute, he will wait in front of the road south of the plain; he won’t take risks by intercepting us on the mountain wilderness. By the time we reach the southern extremity of the Yi River, we will immediately change direction to the east, straight to pounce on Xiangcheng. It will be greatly beyond the other side’s expectation. We will pass Xiangcheng but not enter in, pretending to go straight toward Chenliu, which will make the other side to deploy troops in a hurry to intercept. At that time we will then pass through the hidden mountain and set out toward the Tian Cheng Gorge. If we travel fast, probably about ten days will be enough.”
“Good plan!” Kou Zhong spoke happily, “That’s our decision then. We must immediately reorganize the troops and boost their morale. There has never been a moment that I have more confidence that this time Li Shimin will suffer a big loss, because an army burning with righteous indignation is bound to win [idiom].”
The crowd roared in response.
Before dawn, the clouds dispersed and the rain stopped.
Xu Ziling woke up leisurely from deep meditation to regulate his breathing, he exhaled slowly.
Standing guard by his side, Hou Xibai spoke in great delight, “Is there any progress?”
Xu Ziling nodded and said, “I have now recovered ten- or twenty-percent of my power, together with the true qi condensing in my dantian. The demonic skill that Yang Xuyan created is really formidable. Currently I must not fight at all, otherwise I will never recover completely.”
Hou Xibai asked, “I wonder if Ziling can recover to your original condition by relying on your own power?”
Xu Ziling muttered to oneself irresolutely for half a day, he smiled wryly and said, “Yang Xuyan’s evil poison deeply invaded my meridians, viscera and bowels. I am able to survive, it was entirely thanks to the Long-Life Qi’s natural reactive power against his evil power, demonic method. Unless I can entirely expel the evil poison, practically I am unable to really apply my power to treat my injury.”
Aghast, Hou Xibai said, “Unexpectedly Yang Xuyan has become that formidable? You are now familiar with Bu Si Yin Fa, you still cannot treat your own injury?”
Xu Ziling said, “I am able to recover twenty-percent of my power, that is an impressive achievement from knowing Bu Si Yin Fa. If I could also read the ‘Yu Jin Wan Fa Gen Yuan Zhi Jing’, maybe I will be able to drive away the evil poison. But now there is no way.”
“This matter should not be delayed,” Hou Xibai said, “We must immediately rush to the place Qingxuan is living in seclusion.”
Remembering that he was going to see Shi Qingxuan, Xu Ziling’s heart grew warm. He was about to nod his head in agreement, a fast battleship sailed along the Luo River from the south.
Seeing this, the two men’s heart sank, they greatly felt uneasy.
Helping Xu Ziling up, Hou Xibai said, “They must have guessed that we abandoned the boat and went ashore; moreover, they knew that Ziling is heavily injured and difficult to walk. Do you want me to carry you on my back?”
Xu Ziling took a deep breath, he shook his head and said, “I can still walk.”
Hou Xibai grabbed Xu Ziling’s sleeve and took him inside the dense forest on the western bank of the Luo River; they traveled swiftly to the west.
Behind them, the warship slowly pulled toward the shore, more than a dozen figures flew from the warship and onto the shore, and immediately ran in their direction.
Horrified, Hou Xibai said, “This is impossible, how did they know our real position?”
Xu Ziling looked up to the sky, three black dots were circling high in the sky; he sighed and said, “We are one move behind in the game; we forgot to erase the scent of blood, hence we cannot hide from these three vicious vultures.”
“Let’s go!” Hou Xibai said.