The originally bustling with noise and excitement, prosperous and peaceful Tong Wan City, due to its people and livestock left until none remained, became so quiet like a ghost domain.
The setting sun in the sky was like a monarch overlooking the boundless, infinite prairie, illuminating Tong Wan that it looked like a shiny white jade. Inside Cheng Zhen’s house, the three fed their horses until they were full first, before leading them into the street and loading them with travel necessity, especially the leather bag containing large amount of fresh water, to provide enough water for the horses as they were running for their lives. However, the horses must not be overloaded either. The large quantities of darts and arrows they collected were already a heavy load.
Were it not for their secret method of man-and-horse-as-one, carrying that many things, the three divine steed definitely would not be able to overrun Xieli’s Golden Wolf Army.
While arranging the luggage, Ba Fenghan spoke with a bitter smile, “Some say that Xieli has more than ten thousand men, some others say thirty or forty thousand, yet some others say it is a large army of a hundred thousand; each statement is different. In my opinion, it ought to be one or two thousand men. Do you agree?”
Xu Ziling put the barely remaining a hundred or so iron bullets entirely into his outer robe’s pocket. He said, “Although what they saw may be only a thousand or so men, they might mistakenly think that it was only the vanguard unit, hence they estimated that the main force ought to be close to ten thousand men. I don’t think Xieli would deploy that many men to pursue us.”
Kou Zhong reminded Xu Ziling, “Ling Shao, don’t use the Five-Colored Stone as an iron bullet to attack Xieli’s Golden Wolf Army.”
Xu Ziling responded in displeasure, “I already keep it in the inside pocket!”
Ba Fenghan said, “Those several Heshui troops that I asked, not one saw Xieli’s men with their own eyes. They got their information from the grassland tribes fleeing from calamity. I hear Xieli was killing and burning along the way, destroying a lot of camps, raping and murdering not a few of women and children.”
The murderous aura in Kou Zhong’s pair of eyes flaring greatly, he fiercely said, “Debt of blood must be paid in blood [idiom], Xieli, you just wait and see!”
Muttering to himself irresolutely, Xu Ziling said, “Shaoshuai, do you think that kid Xiang Yushan would be by Xieli’s side, giving him advice? Only he would know this kind of trick to force us to stay and fight.”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “That possibility is quite high. That Xiang kid is indeed a calamity within our bosom [idiom].”
Warning sign arose in the three men’s heart at the same time; they looked at the street. Like a specter, Zhu Yuyan leaped down from the roof of the building across the street into the middle of the street and came over to the three. She wore wide hemp cloak, her face was covered in a layer of muslin cloth. “You want to throw away your lives?” she spoke indifferently.
Ba Fenghan smiled and said, “If we are not throwing away our lives, the people of Tong Wan will definitely die, or perhaps even if they live, it would not be better than death.”
“Nonsense!” Zhu Yuyan coldly said, “You, Ba Fenghan, were not a blockhead like this before; you must be infected by these two foolish kids to do this kind of foolish things. In the prairie, these matters happen every day since ancient times; since when does it become your turn to mind it?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Kou Zhong said, “Other things we need not mind, but this time Xieli is coming because of us; we are duty bound.”
“Does Zhu Zongzhu have any information about Xie Wang?” Xu Ziling asked.
Zhu Yuyan was silent for a moment before slowly said, “I have searched the area within a hundred li from here; there is still no trace of him.”
Ba Fenghan spoke indifferently, “He was here last night, and wore us out that we did not have a good night sleep.”
“What?” Zhu Yuyan blurted out.
Even hidden behind two layers of black muslin, the three could still feel the demonic light flaring out of her eyes.
Kou Zhong explained briefly, and then added, “The reason Zhu Zongzhu did not sense his presence it just because the Relics is not on him at all.”
Zhu Yuyan coldly said, “He will always have to take the Relics with him. In the end, are you going to come with me to pursue him, or are you going to stubbornly insist on seeking a death path? In the prairie, Xieli has never met his match.”
Xu Ziling sighed and said, “If we are lucky and don’t die, we will definitely cooperate with Zongzhu to get rid of Shi Zhixuan.”
Laughing coldly, Zhu Yuyan said, “Do you know where to find me?”
Xu Ziling replied, “To be quite honest, we also know the secret to sense the Relics; otherwise, we would not have pursued him directly to Tong Wan.”
Zhu Yuyan’s tender body slightly shook, she said, “That’s impossible. Only demonic school people know this technique very well.”
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, “The fact is like this; when did we ever tell lies? There is not much time, Zhu Zongzhu, please.”
Putting the saddle on the horseback, Ba Fenghan said, “You, Senior, better be a bit more careful; Shi Zhixuan definitely will not give us, four people, the opportunity to join hands to deal with him.”
Zhu Yuyan spoke softly, “Nujia precisely wish that he would be willing to come out and decide to fight to the death.”
A strange feeling welled up in the three men’s heart at the same time; Zhu Yuyan had never spoke with them using this kind of intonation.
Putting her fingers to her mouth, Zhu Yuyan produced a sharp whistle. From far away came the sound of hoof beats; a steed, its entire body was snow white, appeared from the other end of the long street, and quickly, as fast as the clouds, as swift as an arrow – galloped over.
This top martial art of the demonic school floated up to the horseback; laughing tenderly, she said, “Although you guys are fools, but you are genuinely good men; nujia is full of admiration.”
Finished speaking, she urged the horse to get out of the city, and rapidly disappeared in the distance.
After the sound of hoof beats vanished, Kou Zhong said with a wry smile, “I wonder if we are indeed big fools through and through?”
Xu Ziling laughed calmly. He replied, “I am afraid we will have to wait until after the fact to make the judgment.”
The three laughed heartily as they got on their horses and galloped toward the south gate.
On the northeastern horizon, the fire illuminated the sky, raging flames were like fiery dragon spreading out with the wind, making those who saw it had their legs trembled, their heart startled. The three reined their horses and stopped north of the Helian Fort.
Frowning, Kou Zhong said, “What’s going on there?”
Ba Fenghan said, “That is the forest at the west bank of Wuding River, a tributary of Heshui [the Black River]. The wind brings the blaze toward the river and the opposite bank, cutting off the waterway traffic. Furthermore, it makes the warriors of the other tribes who are rushing over from the waterway do not have any place to hide. This is a game that Xieli is accustomed to play. It is both to lure the enemy and confuse the enemy, but also has substantive role.”
“Will Xieli be there?” Xu Ziling asked.
Shaking his head, Ba Fenghan replied, “Such a small matter like setting fire to the forest, Xieli could randomly select a dozen of his men, and it can easily be done; there is no need for him to personally lead the troops, toiling his army and moving his crowd.”
Pointing to the distance, Kou Zhong said, “That place also catches fire.”
Ba Fenghan and Xu Ziling focused their eyes to look toward the south, there was indeed a bit of red light at the end of the prairie, only it appeared pale under the brilliant moonlight and the splendor of the stars.
Ba Fenghan said, “There shouldn’t be any dense forest like the bank of Wuding River over there. Let’s go over there to take a look. Right now I really want to kill someone.”
The three rode their horses traveling through the night [orig. with the moon draped over their shoulders and the stars worn over their bodies], rushing over the great prairie, until the forest fire of the Wuding riverbank became a few moving lines on their left rear. Ahead, they could clearly see the raging flames soaring into the sky, sending thick smoke rolling in the air, covering the sky above, so that the moon and the stars lost their light.
Kou Zhong suddenly pulled the reins and shouted, “Enemy ahead!”
They saw from the direction of the fire, several dozens riders were coming at full speed.
Xu Ziling’s left hand immediately went inside the pouch and held four iron bullets inside his fingers. This kind of secret projectile skill, he had already mastered to able-to-receive-and-send-following-the-heart’s-desire level. On top of that, with his hand image plus the spiraling energy, he could send it flying to and fro, so that others could not guard against it, could not evade from it.
Kou Zhong grabbed and pulled the Extinguished Sun Bow, while his other hand went into the quiver by the saddle to fetch an arrow, ready to put the arrow on the bow. But Ba Fenghan put up his hand to stop them. He said, “They are Huihe people.”
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling immediately thought of Da Ming Zun Jiao.
Seven or eight men rushed over toward them. Kou Zhong took this opportunity to put away his bow and hold back his arrow to express his good will. When he looked at the more than thirty riders rushing over, he saw that none was not wounded and was bleeding; he knew that they had just gone through intense battle.
The leader was tall, his shoulder broad and thick, on the side of his square-shaped face he grew a cun-long lonesome beard joined with each other. His face was full of dust, blood and sweat. Under his thick eyebrows were slender and pretty eyes, which were not quite in contrast with his high cheekbones and sticking out nose. The warrior outfit he wore was full of dried-out blood and grass and mud. But his eyes were still so staunch and sober and cool-headed. He looked to be around twenty-five, twenty-six years old, reminiscent of the protector Vajra warriors inside the temple.
Ba Fenghan’s tiger body shook, he shouted in Tujue language, “Is it Huihe’s Yaoluo Tribe Shijian Houjin’s son, Pusa [the Bodhisattva] who must be first in battle, sweeping everything before him?”
The man reined in his horse to a halt and stopped about a zhang away in front of them. One after another his followers also stopped, in full display of exquisite horsemanship.
The fire, which was still at least five or six li away from them, was gradually fading; it appeared that it was nearing its end.
The man’s luminous gaze was fixed on the three. Suddenly he shook and said, “Ba Fenghan.”
Ba Fenghan cheerfully said, “I am indeed Ba Fenghan. These two brothers by my side are coming from the Central Earth, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling. I wonder if Pusa Xiong has heard of them.”
And then he turned around to introduce the two to them.
Pusa threw his head back in laughter and said, “In the prairie, those who do not know the names Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling are not heroes. By the way, I, Pusa, am no longer the son of Shijian. Shijian was bewitched by treacherous villain and expelled me from the Huihe people.”
Ba Fenghan was stunned, “Is there such thing?” he said.
Shaken, Kou Zhong said, “Is it related to Da Ming Zun Jiao?”
Pusa did not expect that he could speak Tujue, his face showed appreciative look. He said in surprise, “Unexpectedly Shaoshuai has heard about Da Ming Zun Jiao, moreover, your guess is spot-on.” [Translator’s note: for the last three or four times (maybe more), Kou Zhong’s nickname was changed from ‘Shaoshuai’ (young/junior commander) to ‘Shaoshi’ (young/junior master/teacher). I believe it was a typo, unless one of you tell me otherwise. There are so many of them; just so you know.]
Turning his head around, he looked at the fire, and then sighed and said, “There is not much time. We’d better find a place to drink and talk.”
“Did Xieli’s men set off the fire?” Ba Fenghan asked.
The murderous intent in Pusa’s pair of eyes flaring up suddenly, he spoke with hatred, “That was Tuyuhun people’s traveling camp. By the time we rushed over, the Tuyuhun people, men, women, young and old, more than seventy people, had met with treacherous assault. In one breath we did our best to annihilate more than fifty Golden Wolf troops, until a one-thousand strong Golden Wolf Army headed our way, pressing down on us that we were forced to flee this way.”
Kou Zhong coldly said, “Xieli’s brutality, Heaven cannot tolerate this. Pusa Xiong, please continue on your journey, we will fight to the death against Xieli.”
Pusa and his men were stunned; they all revealed a look of disbelief. Just relying on the three men’s strength to fight the unequalled-in-the-prairie Golden Wolf Troops’ magnificent army with thousands of men and horses [idiom], it was tantamount to spreading one’s chest and arms to stop a runaway chariot; they were following the path to their own doom.
Knitting his brows, Pusa said, “Three gentlemen are not joking, are you?”
With resolute expression, Xu Ziling said, “We are not just flaunting ignorant people’s bravado, but we must confine Xieli to the Wuding River area; otherwise, people running away from Tong Wan would meet the same fate as the Tuyuhun people.”
Feeling deep veneration, Pusa shouted, “Good men! Tonight I, Pusa, make three new friends. Your deeds, the people of the prairie will sing the praises for a thousand autumns, a hundred generations.”
And then, together with his men, they saluted. Their movement uniformed and orderly, immediately provoking the ‘howling wind easily make the water cold, once the warrior leave, he will no longer return’ heroic atmosphere.
Laughing involuntarily, Ba Fenghan said, “Pusa Xiong, don’t worry, we will survive and will come looking for you to drink and chat. Please!”
Standing amidst the shout, the three stepped out of the way to let the warriors pass through, before rushing over toward the remaining embers of the fire.
The beautiful prairie had turned into the scene of post-robbery slaughterhouse, where more than a dozen tents had been reduced to ashes, and human bones and dead bodies of the beasts scattered everywhere, making people unable to watch.
The torches in the distant was slowly coming near, indicating that the Golden Wolf Army was advancing in this direction.
Ba Fenghan’s gaze was fixed on the different-looking dead body of a Golden Wolf Army troop; he sighed and said, “Whether it was the aggressor or the victim, death is death, there is not the least bit of difference. This is perhaps the only place where Laotianye is showing impartiality.”
Kou Zhong’s gaze was fixed on the constantly approaching enemy soldiers. He wondered aloud, “Don’t Xieli and his men need to rest? Even if the men can endure, the horses will be wearied to the death.”
Ba Fenghan said, “That is Xieli’s shaking-the-prairie strategy. Each time they approach the battlefield, he divides his warriors into several groups to fight in turns. By keeping the troops in peak offensive condition, he does not give the opponent a moment of rest. This tactic is very effective in the plains, combined with him dispatching small teams everywhere to disturb the enemy; everywhere they go, it’s like locust devouring everything on their way. Although I am a Tujue, I am so ashamed of his brutal means.”
“No wonder Pusa detests Tujue people so much,” Xu Ziling commented.
Ba Fenghan said, “It was not until Chuluo Khan raided and looted Huihe tribe that Huihe people no longer willing to be the Eastern Tujue’s hunting dogs. Before that time, the Tujue had always been controlling the vast northern region via the Huihe.”
Kou Zhong asked, “But I see Pusa as a strong and courageous person; where exactly is Huihe?”
Pointing to the distant northwest, Ba Fenghan replied, “Huihe is divided into two branches; the Weijue is scattered around the northern area of Duluo River, the other branch, Niaohu is located west of Yiwu, roughly on the foot of the northern hill at the eastern end of the Tianshan mountain range. If the two branches unite, they can raise up to fifty-thousand strong army that can influence the general situation. But now the two branches are unified under Shijian Houjin. Houjin is like a great khan. In my opinion, the reason Shijian disown Pusa is most probably because he is standing in opposition against Xieli. After Xieli gained enough momentum, he did everything in thousand ways, a hundred plans, to repair his relationship with Shijian.”
At this time the Golden Wolf Army was only about a li away. The sound of hoof beats could be faintly heard, the rising dust covered the moon and the stars.
Kou Zhong breathed a sigh of relief; he said, “Indeed only a few hundred men. Even if he is dead, Xieli’s character won’t change. A thousand, maybe two, are still divided into four groups. What strategy should we take?”
Ba Fenghan spoke heavily, “The most delightful is of course meet them head-on and feel the pain later. However, fighting three, four hundred Golden Wolf Army, even if there are no martial art masters supporting them, would Kou Ye believe that you can deal with them?”
Smiling bitterly, Kou Zhong said, “We are as close as brothers, yet you are also teasing me? If I could resist a hundred, there’s no need to humbly ask for your, LaoGe’s advice.”
Pulling the Perished Moon Bow, Ba Fenghan roared in laughter and said, “We’ll meet them with long distance arrow strike first, and then carry out hit-and-run tactic, luring them to pursue relentlessly and unwilling to let go. By the time the men are weary the horses tired, with a sudden thrust, we catch them off guard and attack, leaving them no time deal with it.”
“Xiaodi has a good proposal,” Xu Ziling said, “If we could lure them into Helian Fort, won’t we be able to occupy the invincible position?”
Kou Zhong took out the Extinguished Sun Bow and laughed aloud, “Might as well make you the Junshi [military adviser], and Old Ba as the Da Jiangjun [great general]. If we could slaughter Xieli, on the prairie, who would dare not to kneel and bow in worship to us as gods and Buddhas?”
Xu Ziling’s left hand grabbed the mulberry wood bow, his right hand fetch an arrow, he spoke cheerily, “Get out of here, you and your Shaoshuai Kingdom. Fenghan Xiong, please look clearly whether they are indeed Golden Wolf Army; we must not kill good people by mistake.”
Focusing his power to his eyes, Ba Fenghan exerted his strength to pull the bow into a full moon; he spoke softly, “In the prairie, Xiaodi has never failed to recognize the enemy. Ziling, you may set your heart at ease.”
The bugle horn sounded. The enemy riders stopped less than half a li away; they regrouped and arrayed themselves in battle formation.
“What are they doing?” Kou Zhong asked in astonishment.
Ba Fenghan said, “They already guessed that we are here, hence they do not dare to take it lightly.”
“Could it be that they are waiting for the others?” Xu Ziling wondered.
Shaking his head, Ba Fenghan said, “They are ready to launch an offensive. Xieli’s Golden Wolf Army is a full-scale attack army, fully displaying the flexibility of the cavalry’s mobility. Their usual tactic is sudden raid from long distance, to win by a surprise move. Their frontal attack unit is in fan-shaped formation, which carries defense in the middle of offense. But the real killer move is the assault team from the left and right flanks, so that we are unable to focus on the attack from any single one direction.”
Speechless, Kou Zhong said, “This kind of grassland battle tactic is indeed hard to deal with. We can use the few to strike the many, to win from a position of weakness. Besides, currently the opposite side is a hundred times more than us.”
Ba Fenghan revealed a hint of smile brimming with confidence; he said, “If there is no man-and-horse-as-one technique, we will surely die tonight. But now we have the hope of great victory. Brothers, they are coming.”
The sound of bugle horns filled the earth, the sound of hoof beats shook the heavens. From the enemy ranks, more than a hundred riders rushed out. Like a tidal wave, the fan-shaped formation charged forward, everybody with bent bow and arrow at the ready, waiting with stored up momentum.
After the center forward of the enemy formation burst forth for a thousand paces or so, the bugle horn sounded again. The remaining two hundred or so riders separated themselves into two groups and turned to the left and right, charging out along an arc toward the outside first before turning back inside, so that when they finally attacked, it could come either from both left and right flanks, or from behind. Even if they could withstand the opposite side’s center forward, eventually they would be caught in the inferior position of chaotic warfare.
The three groups of enemy troops constantly varied their speed in coordination with each other. The tactic was exquisite, so that people cannot help gasping in amazement.
Xu Ziling said, “Finally Shaoshuai can obtain first-hand experience of the formidable power of the equestrian archery battle of the prairie.”
Ba Fenghan shouted, “Shooting people, we must shoot the horses first. Release the arrows!”
Ba Fenghan and Kou Zhong released strings of arrows, so that the cavalry coming directly at them suffered a crushing defeat. Xu Ziling’s mulberry wood bow’s firing range was comparatively shorter, so he was looking for any gap within the enemy’s net and entered in to launch a head-on offensive into the enemy ranks.
The center forward unit changed tactics. Under the command of the bugle horn, they separated, but their attack speed did not diminish at all. The two wings of the enemy ran fast from the left and the right, like two clumps of dark clouds coming to envelop them.
In a few blinks of an eye, the moving-at-high-speed center forward team of the enemy consisting of approximately thirty riders swayed to the left and right, but the remaining eighty-something riders already passed their safe distance and released the arrow to strike back.
“Go!” Ba Fenghan thundered.
The three spurred their horses to turn around, and as they were leaving, they also released arrows to return fire.
Retaining their three-group battle formation, the enemy pursued relentlessly on their tail.
Kou Zhong suddenly cried out, “Not right!”
Shocked, the other two swept their gaze around, only to see the prairie horizons, ahead, left and right, were entirely covered in the brilliant rays of the torches. They estimated that the enemy’s strength must be above ten thousand men.
His countenance changed, Ba Fenghan said, “We are falling into the ambush!”
Xu Ziling’s arrow penetrated the chest of a pursuing troop. He shouted loudly, “Before the enemy closing in, we must rush to Helian Fort.”
The three did not have time to shoot dead the pursuing troops; they unleashed the man-and-horse-as-one technique with all their strength to flee toward Helian Fort, the only place that could give them a ray of hope to stay alive.