Translator: Foxs' Wuxia
Xu Ziling and Hou Xibai were hiding in a dense forest on the south bank of the Huai River, looking to the other side, at the five huge three-mast ship docking on a makeshift simple and crude pier, to enable the men of Haisha Bang to transport boxes after boxes of heavy goods to the shore, under the direction of their Gang Leader, the ‘Mermaid’ You Qiuyan, and her left and right lieutenants, the ‘Fat Assassin’ You Gui and the ‘Charging General’ Ling Zhigao. It was clear that the freight this time was not some random goods like illegal salt business; otherwise, why would they need to trouble the three people’s honored selves?
On the shore, there were nearly a hundred freight wagons. As soon as the goods reached the shore, immediately another group of strong-looking men loaded the goods into the mysterious wagons. Two groups combined, there were more than seven hundred men, therefore, it was very noisy.
Hou Xibai whispered in Xu Ziling’s ear, “One group is Haisha Bang, who is the other group?”
Xu Ziling cast his gaze toward the several people on the shore. The most noticeable was a beautiful young woman among them, standing side-by-side with a handsome, grand-looking young man, their manner was sneaky. Next to them, there was a bold and powerful elderly man, the lower half of whose face was covered in moustache and beard. He was talking to You Qiuyan, but because it was across the river, even if Xu Ziling’s power was not damaged, he still would not be able to eavesdrop.
“It’s Yingyang Lang Jiang [Soaring Hawk Youth General] Liang Shidu’s people. That arrogant-looking young man is Liang Shidu’s son, Liang Shunming. The elderly man and the girl are Liang Shidu’s sworn brother Shen Tianqun’s elder brother Shen Naitang and his daughter Shen Qushuang [see Book 2 Chapter 2]. I am almost certain that this single transaction must have Shen Tianqun threading a needle [in-between] for them.”
Revealing a weird expression, Hou Xibai muttered, “Liang Shidu? Liang Shidu?”
Xu Ziling asked in astonishment, “What’s the problem with Liang Shidu? Xibai can’t possibly never heard of him? Liang Shidu and Liu Wuzhou are both hunting dogs for the Tujue people, plus they are martial art brothers from the same school.”
Hou Xibai said, “I had heard Shi Shi and An Long mentioned this name. At that time I was only two or three years old, and Liang Shidu was not yet known by everyone like today. I can no longer remember the content of their conversation at that time, however; it was only because Liang Shidu’s name is very sweet-sounding that I was particularly impressed.”
“In that case, there is a high likelihood that Liang Shidu has relationship with your Holy School, or at least with people from the Holy School. Xibai’s information is quite useful.”
Hou Xibai said, “I wonder if the thing inside those boxes are really firearms?”
Xu Ziling replied, “The possibility is quite high, because the shape, size and weight are comparable with the boxes that we stole. Jiangnan’s firearms are the most famous, if you are dealing in this kind of business, you could make a plateful of divine profit.”
Thinking hard, Hou Xibai said, “Unless it’s a specific environment, firearms won’t be too useful. Liang Shidu traveled over a thousand mountains and ten thousand rivers to come here to receive the goods, while also going to take the risk in transporting it back to the north, what is the reason?”
Muttering to himself irresolutely, Xu Ziling said, “My guess is that this batch of firearms is not going to be transported back to Liang Shidu’s territory, but somewhere nearby, perhaps it is your Holy School people reusing their old trick, in order to hide from people’s eyes and ears, hence they use Liang Shidu as their proxy; it must have something to do with some conspiracy. Let’s not think about this too much, they’re almost done, we’d better go back!”
Kou Zhong had no choice but to release the saber strike, but the initiative was entirely in the opponent’s hands.
This – because Kou Zhong and the others stole the Jade Annulus of He Clan had opened his golden mouth, and because Kou Zhong violated a religious precept had to make his move, who had mastered Buddhist Great Method successfully that he recovered his youthfulness – Zhuchi [manager] of the Jing Nian Chanyuan was definitely the biggest challenge and the biggest test for him after Ning Daoqi and Shi Zhixuan.
Liao Kong set a ten-move limit, if at the beginning Kou Zhong immediately fell into the disadvantageous position, undoubtedly one mistake would bring the whole plate down, he would not be able to reverse the disadvantage within the remaining nine moves so that both sides divide the autumn color evenly [both have equal share]. Therefore, this saber strike was really related to Kou Zhong’s future fate, so much so that it would also relate to the fate of the world.
The heart knew he must stop, but his spirit wanted to go; flowing naturally, Kou Zhong put the essence, qi and spirit of his whole body absolutely concentrated into the blade of the Moon in the Well. Immediately the most mysterious thing happened; he blended and melt the Heaven, Earth, and Man, three into one mind and intention realm, and transferred it into the divine weapon in his hand. The saber strike was no longer a saber move that was forced to chop, rather, it wrapped and blended the Heaven, Earth, and Man, three boundaries. Apart from the saber, there was no other object.
If, outside of Luoyang, facing Li Shimin’s numerous-like-a-cloud great generals, ten-thousand horses and a thousand soldiers, Dou Jiande’s death was the beginning of his understanding of the saber, then this moment was the breakthrough where he enjoyed the results.
Liao Kong was forced to meet the attack head-on, Kou Zhong was no longer unable to fathom, unable to grasp. Liao Kong called one of the many names of Buddha, and then he chanted, “Various Dharma is like a dream, it would have been nothing, the dreamland would have been silent, no present time, only emptiness. Dream is made, dream is endured, what harm, what benefit, what to lose – feeling is promptly forgotten completely.”
While he was chanting, suddenly thousands and hundreds of layers of bell shadow appeared in front of Kou Zhong’s eyes, hiding the sky and covering the earth, like Mount Tai pressing down on top of his head.
If it were the Kou Zhong before he obtained the saber way, this moment he would be in a very difficult situation; however, he could clearly grasp the exact moment the copper bell was spinning to knock against the blade of his saber, and then Liao Kong retreated, his hand left the copper bell, he controlled the bell to attack from a distance, purely relying on Dhyana School’s refined and pure power, which he had accumulated for over several decades.
Kou Zhong’s eyes were dazzled, the Moon in the Well in his hand clearly understood all mystery.
Furthermore, he sensed that the copper bell was spinning rapidly like a windmill, it was precisely the wonderful move to restrain and focus on the spiraling qi power.
Letting out a long laughter, Kou Zhong said, “Ten moves is too few!”
Suddenly he staggered to evade the copper bell, and then using a cun-size withdrawal, he took a step toward Liao Kong’s right side, while brandishing his saber to hack horizontally, appearing to be clumsy but was actually ingenious. Moreover, it continuously disappeared, but carrying a strike, without following any rule or trajectory that could be sought, in deep conformance with the heaven and earth’s natural law, completely without any trace, the man and the saber melted into the heaven and the earth, difficult to tell which one is which.
Right this moment, the copper bell produced another humming noise like evening drum and divine bell, so that no matter what realm Kou Zhong already reached, he still did not expect that Liao Kong might have this move. It was like the clear sound that came from faintly discernible Ninth Heaven’s mysterious world, absolutely not something that the Moon in the Well was able to probe. Since he could not grasp its position, naturally it posed enormous threatening power to him.
Immediately Kou Zhong’s saber intention lost in the enemy hands, from high in the sky, the originally victory-already-within-grasp saber strike fell back down to the secular world. Before his eyes, Liao Kong became several layers of shadow, plus countless palm shadows, which was difficult to tell which one was real, which one was an illusion. In the back of his mind, he even sensed that the copper bell was circling back in the air to attack. Helpless, he pulled his saber back and retreated, relying on his unique school’s skill of changing true qi – to withdraw to the side, the Moon in the Well turned into layer upon layer of saber shadow, leaving behind streak upon streak of saber qi, formless, yet solid – to guard against Liao Kong seizing the opportunity to attack.
The copper bell safely returned into Liao Kong’s hand.
Kou Zhong retreated more than ten steps away from Liao Kong. The Moon in the Well pointed at Liao Kong from a distance, unexpectedly the saber qi failed to lock this very able person of the Dhyana School, making him feel as powerless as facing lofty mountain and harsh peak.
Liao Kong’s countenance solemn, his eyes were fixed on the Dhyana bell in his hand.
Kou Zhong exhaled very, very slowly, and then he said, “The incantation of Dashi’s copper bell is more formidable than Ziling’s. How many moves was it just now?”
Liao Kong revealed a smile, but he still did not look at Kou Zhong; tranquil and calm, he spoke indifferently, “I am not sure, it seemed like one move.”
And then he laughed and said, “If Shaoshuai considers right or wrong, almost everything is fabricated, seeing the appearance of all things [Buddhism concept] is not the actual appearance, just like seeing Tathagatha. Shaoshuai’s saber technique already reached the advancing-into-prying-everything level. Upon self-introspection, Lao Na is unable to make Shaoshuai bend your head and admit defeat; so what if it is only ten moves? What if a hundred moves? No appearance is an appearance, an appearance is not an appearance. Song Que has finally found the successor of the Heavenly Saber Method. Coming in confusion, obtaining a flash of understanding through hard work. Lao Na immediately return to Dhyana mountain, and will no longer interfere in the affairs between Shaoshuai and Qin Wang.”
He turned around with a swagger and left. Carrying the bell in his hand, he called loudly, “Please send Liao Kong’s regards to Ziling.”
This last sentence was spoke in singing style, as if he was reciting the Buddhist scripture, but not exactly reciting, like a song, carrying a hard-to-describe impression, but also unusually pleasant to the ears, so that those who hear it would find it difficult to forget.
While the voice was still lingering in the ear, Liao Kong already disappeared inside the dark desolate forest.
Kou Zhong was still staring at the place where he disappeared; he was certain that what happened tonight would never be forgotten, not only because his saber method made another breakthrough and achievement, but more than that, because Liao Kong’s each and every move, each and every word and action, was abundant with Buddhist allegory.
The last sentence even carried a great deal of deep meaning, while also stirring inside him intense longing and concern toward Xu Ziling. According to reason, he should have recovered early on, why hasn’t he come to meet him?
While operating the sailing boat against the current westbound, Hou Xibai looked at Xu Ziling and asked, “What is Ziling thinking? Just now a hint of smile floated on your face, carrying some kind of mysterious, unfathomably extraordinary taste, making me cannot help but feeling curious.”
Xu Ziling woke up from his deep thought, he smiled and said, “Xibai must be a curious and overanxious person.”
Hou Xibai admitted freely, “Not many people can make me curious, but once I am curious, I will want to know what’s going on inside the other person’s heart. Toward Kou Zhong, I don’t have that kind of curiosity, because he is easier to understand than you. But people like Ziling, Feixuan, or perhaps Qingxuan, really puzzle me, even more, pique my curiosity. The root cause was that I never understand Shi Shi’s way of thinking; however, because of my fear and reverence toward him, I never dared to ask. This has accumulated in my mind for a long time, which leads to my tendency of loving to listen to what’s inside the people’s heart. Can Ziling meet my need? Ha! I wonder if this request is kind of excessive?”
Blurted out laughing, Xu Ziling said, “Since we are close friend, there’s nothing that can’t be talked about. Just now I was pondering over Zhenyan Dashi’s Nine-Character Incantation Hand Image. That day I had to learn it by swallowing in one gulp [idiom: to accept without thinking]. I thought that I already grasped the essence entirely in my palms, but today I started to think that actually I only obtained the form qi but have not obtained the spirit at the same time. This flash of realization makes me like reaching the entire body of heaven and earth.”
“In that case,” Hou Xibai said, “The injury this time is an opportunity instead, which enables Ziling to pry into the new realm of the Dhyana School’s wonder power. If you could reach Zhenyan Dashi’s Dhyana realm, I am certain that you will be the first person in Wulin’s history to blend the most profound realms of Buddhist and Taoist, two schools. Ay! This way of thinking makes me cannot help asking you another question. How much certainty does Ziling have that you will be recovered completely? No one should know your own condition better than you.”
“Didn’t you say Shi Qingxuan could heal me?” Xu Ziling spoke indifferently.
Hou Xibai smiled wryly and said, “That was the only way out of no way at all; in front of me, Shi Shi has repeated praised Shiniang’s [master’s wife] art of healing. Seeing Shi Qingxuan coming back from picking medicinal herb in You Lin Xiao Gu that day, I reckon she should have obtained Shiniang’s handed-down teachings. However, when I think of Yue Shan, after he was defeated by Song Que, he came to seek help to Shiniang yet there was no result and he died, whatever confidence I had was shaken, only I did not dare to say it.”
Shaking his head and accompanying him in smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, “Turns out whatever you said was only to comfort me.”
Hou Xibai sighed and said, “As long as there is a sliver of hope, should we miss it? More importantly, I am hoping the two of you can be together.”
Xu Ziling turned his face to meet the blowing cold river wind, taking a deep breath, he slowly said, “One day Kou Zhong is still going through fire and water on the battlefield, striving toward his ambitions goal, how can I separate myself? I thought I could do it, yet the fact proves that this is impossible. Therefore, I can only suppress the love and admiration to Qingxuan in my heart, because I don’t know whether next time I can go back alive to see her.”
Hou Xibai did not expect Xu Ziling to be this forthcoming; he was stunned for half a day, and spoke softly, “I can feel the pain in Ziling’s heart.”
Xu Ziling looked up at the vast and deep starry sky, the pit of his stomach was full of bitter and astringent emotion, which could make other people sigh, yet the tone of his voice was extraordinarily tranquil. He spoke in daze, “But I long to see her again, to listen to her exceptional, incomparably touching flute sound, to let her tease me in her style, to embarrass me. Therefore, when you propose to look for her to treat my injury, I never objected.”
Hou Xibai was silent.
Changing the subject, Xu Ziling said, “When you and Yang Xuyan were about to fight, I stepped out from inside the room to the inner courtyard; it that instant, I completely forgot my own injury. Moreover, I had a wonderful feeling, sensing that if, when my consciousness was clear and bright, I could still forget my internal injury, from being entering into nothing, I would be able to recover completely naturally.”
Staring blankly, Hou Xibai said, “It makes sense. This is precisely the real meaning of the Taoist School’s ten thousand thoughts turning into one intention, one thought does not rise, ten thousand thoughts become empty. What Ziling trained was the Taoist School’s most mysterious ‘Secret to Long Life’, hence you have this fantastic feeling in line with the essence of that principle.”
Xu Ziling sighed and said, “But I know myself, I really am incapable to accomplish it, because each time I tried to meditate, to circulate the qi and move the power naturally, I am reminded that my body still bears injury at the same time. This is a deep-rooted habit from training the ‘Secret to Long Life’, it cannot be changed. Therefore, the progress is not much; after reaching a certain point, I am stuck and not moving forward. At most, the yongquan acupoints on my feet turn one cold one hot; that’s it.
Dejected, Hou Xibai asked, “What do we do then?”
Xu Ziling cast his gaze toward the undulating mountain forest and hilly plains on the southern bank, his eyes emitted tender feeling, he softly said, “Whether Qingxuan received her mother’s handed-down teachings or not, her flute sound is surely an effective cure, miracle medicine that can make me forget everything, including my injury and worry over Kou Zhong and the others. Therefore, Xibai’s proposal is indeed my best choice.”
Kou Zhong stood still on top of a small hill, sweeping his gaze over far and near, Wuming was standing on his shoulder. Under the light of the dawn, his clothes were fluttering in the wind, his posture and expression were grand, full of confidence, carrying the Moon in the Well, which name shook the world – on his back, his appearance was like a deity.
Yi River and Ru River were flowing at great speed, winding in the distant on his left and right, respectively, moistening the fertile land on both shores, bringing about unlimited vitality to the neighboring river plains, mountain and fields, forming ten-thousand-qing bluish-green grassy forest region [1 qing = 100 mu, approx. 6.67 hectares/16.5 acres]. On the distant plain in the southwest direction, a row of mountain range rolling up and down continuously, it could be imagined that when he was near, he would feel its magnificent towering mountain terrain even more.
However, he was sad and depressed, thinking about Yang Gongqing and thousands and hundreds of the officers and soldiers following him would never be able to witness the beautiful scenery before his eyes, his beloved horse Thousand-Li Dream would never have a chance to taste the wild grass of the mountain, and they all sacrificed their lives heroically for him. The hatred between he and the Li Family’s House of Tang, even the entire water of the five lakes and four oceans [i.e. all parts of the country] would never be able to wash clear.
Suddenly Shang Xiufang’s flowery jade countenance appeared in his heart. Has she arrived at Gaotang, he wondered, searching for the ideal musical composition in her heart? He also remembered Liexia, who was doing everything he could to win her favorable impression and striving to capture her fragrant heart, which was covered all over in scars and dripping blood inwardly. Immediately he also recalled Song Yuzhi, the majestic beauty with noble character who has been heavily hurt by him. A hundred and one kinds of emotion swirled in his heart.
It has been a long time since he remembered these women. After arriving in Luoyang, the war has been filling his mind, his entire spirit, entire thought was focused on how to strive for victory, his whole being was exhausted for the Shao Shuai Army, whether it would exist or perish, for the struggle of survival; there was no place for other things. However, when he was waiting here, he was unable to stop himself from falling into the abyss of painful regret and bitter memory; it was difficult to extricate himself.
Even a short period of affair with Chuchu also made him feel uncomfortable. Toward Chuchu, he had more pity than love, the attraction and passion of youth planted the long-life affection between two persons that was difficult to bear, lament and remorse were already useless.
No matter how painful his heart was, he could only bury the sorrow deeply, because at the present time, the most important thing for him was to deal with the cruel struggle related to the survival of everybody in the Shao Shuai Army. Whoever is ruthless enough will be able to survive. He simply had to throw away everything, using the pinnacle of attitude, in the most nasty situation, exhausting his capabilities, to create miracle.
In the struggle against Li Shimin, he continuously made mistakes, and thus he had to miserably taste the bitter fruit. He simply must not make another mistake, because he no longer had any capital to make a mistake.
The sun was exposing a little bit of its face behind the mountain range on the east, casting its dazzling light on the mother earth.
Since Li Shimin already guessed that he might go to Zhongli to seek help, Qu Tutong must have taken precautions against it. Nothing could be said about surprise attack without the surprise element. Whether his firearms operation would be defeated and reach the end, he neither had the confidence nor the assurance before leaving the gorge. If Ba Fenghan failed to arrive in time, he had no choice but to kill his way back into the gorge path, and then live or die together with his officers and soldiers.
Right the moment when his thoughts were surging in his mind, on the mountain forest in the south, dust was rising. Kou Zhong was pleased beyond his expectations; crying out inwardly, ‘Heaven help me!’ he rushed at full speed down the mountain to meet them.