Crossing the doorstep, the three felt as if they were entering another world. Cheng Zhen’s house, which from the street did not look remarkable at all, actually occupied a large tract of land. First of all, they used rammed earth as the wall and the rolled-style mud brick as the roof of the ironware factory. Their main product was cavalry sabers. All kinds of tools and equipment were available in there; from this, it could be seen that the ironware industry in Tong Wan City was thriving.
Noticing that Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were looking closely at the mud brick and flat roof construction of the factory, Cheng Zhen said, “This kind of rammed earth is abundant in this region, the supply is inexhaustible; it has strong cohesive property, it is pliable, and easy to dehydrate. The biggest advantage is that it has good thermal insulation characteristic; warm in the winter and cool in the summer.”
The two wanted to ask whether in building each house, Helianbobo would kill either the craftsman building the house, or the soldier testing the strength of the wall, but they thought that this kind of question would be a blot on the landscape [spoil the fun], hence they suppressed the urge and did not mention it.
Ba Fenghan randomly picked up a cavalry saber and said, “Is the iron material coming from the neighboring area?”
Cheng Zhen replied, “The iron is mainly supplied by Tiefuyou of Heshui Division; therefore, doing ironware business here, we must follow his direction.”
Passing through the back door of the workshop, they came to a patio courtyard. On the trellises overhead, they actually grew grapes, while underneath was an open water well, brimming with the breath of life.
Beyond this was the living room of the inner section. The surface of the wall was full of decorative patterns created by pressing wooden mold onto it. The wall also had hanging rugs for decoration. Reed mat covered the floor. There was a kang [a heatable brick bed common in the northern part of China], as well as a stove – attached to the clay wall. A gorgeous multi-colored screen was hanging on the outside. To Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, everything was brimming with exotic flavor.
Finally, there were dining room and kitchen, stable, latrine, cellar, guesthouse, and other ancillary buildings.
Cheng Zhen’s wife died young. He had five sons and two daughters, as well as grandchildren in large numbers. His daughters were already married and lived with their husbands. Three out of five sons were married. Following the customs, they lived in their father’s home and carried on their father’s business.
Toward the three guests, they were all very cordial and attentive, fully demonstrated the hospitality of the foreign tribes beyond the Great Wall.
The evening meal was held in lively atmosphere, only the adult males of the household were in attendance; the hosts and the guests were very happy.
During the meal, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling opened their ears wide, listening to not a few of the strange style and unusual custom of various tribes beyond the Great Wall. For example, the Xi Tribe’s marriage custom: after obtaining the consent of both sides’ parents [or head of household], the new son-in-law would ‘kidnap’ the new bride first, and then together the new bride and groom would return to live in the woman’s family, until the bride was pregnant, then the married couple would return to the man’s family.
Kou Zhong asked Ba Fenghan in Tujue language, which he was increasingly comfortable in using, “Do you, Tujue people, also have this kind of stealing brides custom?”
Ba Fenghan replied, “We are more like you, Han people, that is, we ask someone to be the matchmaker to contact the woman’s family, to negotiate a certain number of livestock as betrothal gift.”
Cheng Zhen’s oldest son, Muke, was suddenly overwhelmed by emotional stirring; he sighed and said, “The reason we make light of traveling a thousand li and move to Tong Wan was precisely to run away from you, Tujue people, because we do not want to be taken in slavery.”
Astonished, Ba Fenghan said, “Although Tong Wan is not a territory under direct jurisdiction of the Tujue, but it is still within the sphere of influence of the Eastern Tujue; I am afraid it is still not a safe haven at all.”
Cheng Zhen said, “Tuli and Xieli have different styles. Tuli has always been tolerant to the various ethnic groups within his territory, unlike Xieli, who will easily loot, kidnap, and rob. And Tong Wan is in Tuli’s territory, hence all ethnic groups can live in peace, large-scale conflicts are rare.”
Muke joined in, “Therefore, all Tong Wan people wish that Tuli can beat back Xieli. But Tuli’s current situation is rather not too encouraging. On one side Xieli’s main forces, which is stronger and more solid than his – is pressuring his territory; on the other side, Limo is founding his kingdom, so that he has enemies left and right, the situation is not favorable to him; we can only ask God to bless and protect him.”
Ba Fenghan went silent.
Confused, Xu Ziling asked, “In the vast, boundless prairie and endless desert, nine out of ten people are nomadic ethnic groups living by the water and the grass; how do you determine national boundary or territory?”
Cheng Zhen replied, “The ethnic group with some power, each occupies large or small pastureland that are moving about following the season, with river or lake as natural boundaries. If any small and weak ethnic group wants to share the pasture, they must offer tribute, which varies according to the number of people, to the master of the stronger group. Take Tong Wan for example; each year we must offer weapons, arrows and darts, and so on, as a tribute to Tuli.”
Scratching his head, Kou Zhong said, “The prairie is so big, the enemy advances I retreat, the enemies retreats I advance; how can we tell victory and defeat?”
Ba Fenghan replied, “The conflicts in the prairie is very different from besieging-a-city, capturing-territories wars in your Central Earth. What we are fighting is a war of attrition by killing the people and looting their belongings. For example, during your Great Sui’s Renshou year, Tujue’s Awusiliqi went down south to invade Qimin Khan, who by that time had realigned his allegiance to the House of Sui. In one strike he snatched more than two hundred thousand livestock, so that Qimin Khan was powerless to strike back, while the other side’s power enjoyed sudden flourish; naturally continuing their raids in killing and burning was not difficult at all. In Tujue, only those who die in battle will receive respect, and allowed to erect a stone next to their grave as a memorial. During their lives some people can only erect one stone, but some others can erect hundreds or thousands.”
Muke said, “There are also young men and women who are taken away by other tribes as slaves, who are forced to work in order to support the war.”
Smiling ruefully, Xu Ziling said, “Such using war to raise war, it will never stop! No wonder each time Xieli going on a raid, other than killing and burning, he also captured a large number of our Han people’s young men and women; turns out it was in order to continue this war of attrition in the prairie.”
Kou Zhong spoke heavily, “That is precisely Xieli’s shortcomings; he is good in attack and plunder, but bad in defending a city, hence he has to rely on Han hunting dogs to attack the troop dispositions for them.”
Ba Fenghan said, “Now that Xieli has Zhao Deyan as his Junshi, the situation might change. Therefore, if Xieli defeated Tuli, not only all ethnic groups in the prairie would bear the brunt, they would also suffer unspeakable misery, and you, Han people would not have peaceful days either.”
Cheng Zhen raised his cup and said, “It’s late! We will chat again tomorrow.”
The three were placed in the guesthouse behind the main residence. The top was flattop tent that looked like it was made of clay. They lay down to rest, but did not feel sleepy yet, so they sat up leaning against the wall to talk.
“What should we do?” Kou Zhong asked, “Trapped in here waiting for Zhu Yaofu’s news, I don’t know how long we are going to painstakingly wait?”
“We’ll set a three-day limit,” Ba Fenghan replied, “If we don’t hear anything from Zhu Yaofu, we’ll immediately set out to find Ma Ji, perhaps we’ll still have time.”
Kou Zhong said, “The strange thing is, since Shi Zhixuan was already at Helian Fort, why did he pass Tong Wan over and did not enter? What’s even more puzzling is that he should be escaping to the wilderness, rather than to a densely populated place like Tong Wan.”
Ba Fenghan said, “The only explanation is that Shi Zhixuan was unable to break away from Zhu Yaofu’s entanglement, hence he turned around and took a detour, so much so that he might even fight hand-to-hand with Zhu Yaofu. And because alone, Zhu Yaofu did not have enough strength to pester him to death, to reach the perish-together-with-the-enemy situation, she was compelled to come to us and spoke in low voice, asking for help.”
Noticing that Xu Ziling remained silent, Kou Zhong looked at him and asked, “Ling Shao, you are sensing something?”
Lowering his voice, Xu Ziling said, “Fenghan Xiong’s guess was not incorrect; Shi Zhixuan eventually lost his patience and decided to fight back with everything he has.”
Greatly astonished, the other two asked how he could be so sure.
Xu Ziling’s tiger-eyes flashing brightly, he said, “During dinner earlier, when we were chatting, I sensed the Relics’ evil qi, twice in succession. Although it appeared to be there but not exactly there, I was very clear about it.”
Greatly delighted, Ba Fenghan said, “Based on Ling Shao’s extraordinary spirit and senses, we’ll dig him out of his hole and chop him in half at the waist tonight and be done with it.”
Shaking his head, Xu Ziling said, “I can’t find him, simply because the Relics is not on him at all. When I sensed him during dinner earlier, I thought I was wrong, only now I begin to feel sure.”
The two suddenly understood.
Because Shi Zhixuan carried the Relics with him for a long time, unknowingly he was infected with the Relics’ death evil qi; therefore, although he hid the Relics in some secret place, the evil qi on his body was still generating reaction from Xu Ziling’s senses. Furthermore, from this, they determined that he was about to strike back.
Twice Xu Ziling sensed his presence, clearly it was because he wanted to ascertain the situation first before launching his surprise attack toward them.
Stretching out his limbs, Ba Fenghan said with a laugh, “Let’s go to bed then!”
The other two agreed. They blew out the sheepskin lantern, and lay down on the bed to sleep, generating an even breathing noise.
In the quiet darkness, the three regulated their breathing and circulated their qi, stored up their strength and waited patiently.
If Shi Zhixuan wanted to make his move, it must be tonight, since the three men’s bodies must be weary, their strength exhausted after a long and difficult trek, resting in a safe environment, they must be sleeping particularly soundly.
Sure enough, not even half a sichen later, Xu Ziling, who was sleeping in the middle, nudged the other two, indicating that once again he sensed the Relics’ evil qi from Shi Zhixuan’s body.
The three kept everything about them the same, because any changes, including breathing, heartbeats, so much so any drastic variation of their pulse – might raised alarm in Shi Zhixuan’s senses.
For an average person, naturally it was not possible, but Kou Zhong, Xu Ziling, and Ba Fenghan were really the most outstanding new talents inside and outside the border of the present age, naturally it was easy for them to do so.
They did not hear the slightest noise, but relying purely on their intuition as martial art masters, they knew clearly without any doubt that Shi Zhixuan was flashing from the dining room’s flat roof down to the ground and was approaching the window facing the courtyard on the stable’s side, shot a glance upward, and then turned around and was standing with his back against the wall.
The three discharged all distracting thoughts completely from the ocean of their mind and the lake of their heart, over ten-thousand-li brightly lit ground, waiting for the course of events to unfold.
What kind of means would Shi Zhixuan, who has always been unscrupulous, use to deal with them?
An instant later Shi Zhixuan was already standing outside the wooden door of the guesthouse. Even though they did not see it with their own eyes, the three still strongly sensed his terrifying, demon-like speed.
Huan Mo Shenfa was indeed not a common chord.
At his peak, with Bu Si Yin Fa and Huan Mo Shenfa, practically no one in the world was able to do anything to him. The Four Great Holy Monks had enough power to defeat him, yet they were helpless to subdue him and keep him from escaping; could they do it now?
Without creating any noise at all Shi Zhixuan’s palm slapped on the door.
The thick and solid wooden door, like a piece of frail tissue being flicked by a finger, could not withstand the force, it disintegrated into wooden chips flying into the room. At the same time, this most terrifying martial art master of the demonic school’s right hand released three daggers, which, as fast as lightning, shot toward the vital point on the three men’s throat. It was vicious to the extreme point.
Suddenly, like a whirlwind, three pieces of thin blankets rose up and rolled toward the daggers.
Shi Zhixuan’s entire body shook severely. It was clear that he was extremely shocked that the three were already on guard. Instead of retreating, he rushed in. With a spin of his body, he pounced in between the two thin blankets imbued with Ba Fenghan and Xu Ziling’s inner power.
In the stretching-the-hand-unable-to-see-five-fingers darkness inside the room, the Moon in the Well in Kou Zhong’s hand glowed. From his angle of view, the line of sight was blocked, so that he could not see Shi Zhixuan, hence it was difficult to carry out a sudden attack. He could not help exclaiming ‘Formidable!’ inwardly. But still, the person following the saber, the Moon in the Well, like a spirit snake, rounded the thin blanket to attack the super martial art master behind it.
Xu Ziling and Ba Fenghan knew that this so-brilliant-that-nothing-could-be-more-brilliant formidable opponent had already seized the initiative; sighing inwardly, they split to the left and right.
Xu Ziling’s two hands, like fresh flowers blooming vigorously, unleashed hundreds and thousands of image methods, so that others were completely unable to grasp his intention, and thus it was also difficult to determine the best way to attack; it was indeed a perfect defense.
After retreating slightly, Ba Fenghan immediately advanced, the Beheading Mystery Sword swiftly shooting toward Shi Zhixuan.
Both sides were making their moves with all their strength; there was absolutely no leeway.
Letting out a cold snort, Shi Zhixuan retreated toward the door. Ba Fenghan and Kou Zhong immediately struck empty air.
The three sucked in a mouthful of cold air. This was simply impossible, yet Shi Zhixuan accomplished it as effortlessly as breathing.
It should be noted that just now the three sensed that he was about attack either Ba Fenghan or Xu Ziling. But turned out it was just an empty move, tricking the three that they tottered away.
Once again they lost the initiative, Shi Zhixuan was still leading them by the nose. If they let Shi Zhixuan slip out of the guesthouse, who had the confidence that he could be intercepted? They originally thought that by catching him off guard, they would be able to inflict heavy losses on him; too bad things turned out contrary to the way they wish [idiom].
First, Shi Zhixuan used attack to break their offense, and then he used retreat to break their defense.
Their defense was actually no-hole-could-be-attacked, but this moment they had no choice but to counterattack in disadvantageous position, making an attempt to keep Shi Zhixuan inside the room. Although fully aware that this might possibly be a dangerous trap, they still had no choice but to advance.
Only by their three men’s joining hands would they have the chance to annihilate this demon head.
‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’
The daggers struck the rolling-in thin blankets. The thin blankets were transformed into debris, but ultimately they did not fail the task entrusted to them, they successfully blocked the daggers.
Ba Fenghan’s Beheading Mystery Sword moved out, it turned into a beam of sword light, rolling toward Shi Zhixuan in total disregard of his own safety.
Only by forcing him to counterattack would he be able to slow down Shi Zhixuan’s retreating momentum, so that Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling would have an opportunity that they could exploit; however, it would mean that he would be trapped in danger in which he could easily lose his life.
As expected, Shi Zhixuan let out a cold laugh and changed his retreat to advance; both hands flat out, he created a burst of qi power like a wall, forcefully pressing down on Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, while at the same time his left foot flew horizontally, aiming at the vital part under Ba Fenghan’s abdomen [i.e. genital].
Fast, ruthless, accurate, and vicious.
Ba Fenghan nearly wanted to call his Niang. Based on his experience and judgment as a veteran of a hundred battles, he was 90% sure that if his Beheading Mystery Sword was just a tad faster, he would hit the left side of Shi Zhixuan’s neck, and wouldn’t he be able to take his demonic life before Shi Zhixuan’s kicking leg hit him?
The problem was that the ‘Demonic King’ Shi Zhixuan’s skill included this ‘not dead’ [‘bu si’ of ‘Immortal Image’] name, hence it would not be this easy for Ba Fenghan to kill him. Supposing Shi Zhixuan’s ‘Not Dead Image Method’ was unexpectedly able to withstand his strike, he, Ba Fenghan, would definitely lose his life.
If he changed his move to defense, he would lose the offensive advantage, and thus it would be difficult for him to entangle Shi Zhixuan to death.
In that instant, he was caught up in the no-room-to-advance-or-to-retreat disadvantageous position.
Among the three, Xu Ziling had the clearest understanding on how formidable Shi Zhixuan really was. This moment, as in this critical circumstance Shi Zhixuan was displaying his real skill, he could not help gasping in amazement. Secretly performing the image art, both feet sprang off the ground, he rose up until his back hit the ceiling, and sent a punch exploding downward, in order to control Shi Zhixuan’s incomparably fantastic qi power, so that Kou Zhong could break through his no-crack-could-be-found, completely-without-any-flaw true power protecting his body.
Kou Zhong mind was interlinked with Xu Ziling’s, he retreated back first, until his body stuck to the wall, and then taking the opportunity while his body and his saber became one, he launched the Striking Strange of the Eight Methods of the Well, the saber turned into yellow light, it shot straight, lightning fast, toward Shi Zhixuan.
If with the combined power of the two boys they still could not break Shi Zhixuan’s rated-as-the-most-outstanding-in-the-world wall of qi defense, then Ba Fenghan would indeed fall into the danger of easily losing his life.
Inwardly Shi Zhixuan was groaning as well. Before his eyes, he was actually confronting a more difficult battle since he fought Bi Xiuxin, the Four Great Holy Monks, and Ning Daoqi. Against Bi Xiuxin, the danger of the battle was not in life or death; although Bi Xiuxin had reached the ‘mutual sensitivity [or tacit exchange of romantic feelings/a meeting of the minds] in the heart’ realm of the ‘Ci Hang Sword Canon’, it was still not enough to break his matchless-under-heaven Immortal Image Method. The danger was in the painstaking longing in his heart toward Bi Xiuxin, which was difficult for him to give up or cut apart.
In the end he won; he even inflicted heavy losses to Bi Xiuxin. Yet due to ‘momentary slip’ he risked the wear and tear of his true energy to save her back, but also snatched away her chastity, which eventually evolved into emotional attachment between the orthodox and the heretic.
The two fights where he was besieged by the Four Great Holy Monks, although along the way the danger was growing without restraint, but from beginning to end the Four Great Holy Monks were men who followed Buddhist monastic discipline against killing, hence although their martial art skill was wide-ranging and profound, the murderous intent in their hearts was not vigorous, they left opportunity to live everywhere, so that although he had no chance of ever controlling the enemy, his chance of protecting his life was actually more than enough.
When fighting hand to hand against Ning Daoqi, a seed of flaw already grew in his spirit due to Bi Xiuxin’s death, and when the turn of events deteriorated, he broke the siege by relying on Bu Si Yin Fa and Huan Mo Shenfa, and Ning Daoqi was unable to do anything to him.
But this time he came with the sole purpose of putting the three men in order, unexpectedly the three laid out a trap to deal with him, which caused him to fall into a situation where it was most difficult for him to retract himself.
Kou Zhong, Xu Ziling and Ba Fenghan’s martial art skill came from countless real combats, the result developed out of thousand-hammered-hundred-refinements efforts. Each move was a gamble using their own life to win a life, without the slightest bit of leeway. If their strike did not hit the target, they would retreat with all their might. I am vanishing the other side flourishing, even if he could force his way out of the room, it would be more or less difficult to avoid injuries.
In the end, whether he could force his way out of the encirclement, it would depend on the severity of the injury. Therefore, having no other choice, he had to give up the idea of luring the enemies into the wide space outside, instead of deciding victory and defeat with the three men inside the cramped space of the bedroom.
This kind of solid mud brick flat roof was built to Helianbobo’s standard; although unlike the construction of the city wall, which had to undergo test using human life, its hardness was indisputable. Although there were window openings on all four sides, but because these holes were comparatively too small, he could not pass through, the only way out was via the door. Furthermore, he exploited this only exit, using thousand ways, a hundred plans, trying to create situation that would be beneficial to him.
With his qi power, he still had 90% confidence that he could break the wall and leave, but it would be difficult to avoid injury from the impact, which would also slow down his speed. In short, a wise man would not take this method.
Letting out a cold shout, the Beheading Mystery Sword shot out of Ba Fenghan’s hand, but reacting to the forward momentum, his body recoiled back, his abdomen retracted, he bounced off the ground. The tip of his right toes tapped the hilt of the sword, unexpectedly he used his foot in place of his hand, in a strange move, which, even for Shi Zhixuan, it was the first time that he encountered such move.
Shi Zhixuan’s leg, which was kicking swiftly horizontally, seemed to be completely free from the limitations of the human body.
From the air, Xu Ziling’s punch hit Shi Zhixuan’s wall of qi. At first the qi power was contained within and was not released, until Shi Zhixuan’s qi power, like a reversing ripple, burst toward the core to attack. The vortex of energy, in Treasure-Vase Qi style, like an iron awl, bored into the wall of qi, completely blocking Shi Zhixuan from borrowing the least bit of strength with which he could cope with the saber strike in which Kou Zhong concentrated all the power of his entire body.
Such utilization of power was still beyond his reach prior to obtaining the primordial essence from the Relics; therefore, he did not have any worry that Shi Zhixuan would be able to see that Yue Shan was his disguise.
The wall of qi, where originally the power was evenly distributed, completely without any hole, immediately showed the Escaping One [see Book 9 Chapter 9]; the strongest point was precisely his weakness.
This change was greatly beyond Shi Zhixuan’s expectation, so that from occupying the upper hand, for the first time he fell into the disadvantageous position.
Kou Zhong’s Moon in the Well, in no-stronghold-one-cannot-overcome [idiom] momentum, split Shi Zhixuan’s wall of qi, which was under Xu Ziling’s control, and shot straight toward the pit of Shi Zhixuan’s stomach.
The tip of Shi Zhixuan’s kicking-upward foot hit the blade of Ba Fenghan’s Beheading Mystery Sword. Immediately Ba Fenghan felt empty and fluttering; the foot pushing the sword did not use any force at all. While he cried out, ‘Not good!’ Shi Zhixuan swiftly spun; rapidly moving, he knocked against Kou Zhong’s Moon in the Well like a whirlwind, hence he knew that Shi Zhixuan was borrowing his true qi.
Xu Ziling suddenly felt that the power of the wall of qi was increasing dramatically; it suddenly caved in like Tian Mo Da Fa. Furthermore, from his contact with Shi Zhixuan’s true qi, he was able to take a peek into the next move that Shi Zhixuan was going to launch. “No attack!” he shouted loudly.
Kou Zhong always listened to Xu Ziling; he simply changed his move and withdrew backward, the Moon in the Well seemed to be attacking, but without any surprising move, so that Shi Zhixuan was unable to grasp the changes.
Letting out a long laughter, Shi Zhixuan said, “Excuse me, I must leave!”
Under the three men’s blank stare, he bore through the door like a demon, and disappeared outside the house.