The three stood on the highest watchtower of the Helian Fort, living high and looking down on the enemy moving the army and sending a general, completing their siege.
Earlier they thought that they still had a ray of hope to stay alive, but now they knew that that hope had already disappeared, the only opportunity remained was to fight until their last breath.
The enemy’s total strength was estimated between thirty-five thousand to forty thousand; such strength was enough to flatten the prairie; even crisscrossing the Central Plains, no one would be able to stop them.
At the bottom of the hill where the Helian Fort was built, the uniform-looking cavalry was moving about as if in a military show of force, and was ready at any time to charge up to the top of the hill.
They had considered breaking through the siege, but all the escape routes were sealed off. There was nothing outside the Helian Fort that could prolong the time they killed or be killed.
Not too far away, the Golden Wolf banner was flying in the evening breeze from the prairie. Xieli and a group of great generals were sitting high on horseback, talking and pointing to their direction; needless to say, they must be discussing the strategy to kill them as quickly as possible.
The enemy was divided into groups, and then different groups assembled to form a larger combat unit. These units spread out as far as the eye could see, covering every single strategic point in the prairie, forming an inescapable net enveloping the Helian Fort; a display of military glory at its peak, enough to scare anybody out of their wits.
The entire prairie was lit up by torches, only Helian Fort, standing on the hilltop, was hidden in the dark, outside the reach of the torches’ light.
Ba Fenghan said, “East, west, and north, three slopes are steep and full of rocks; only the south slope is most suitable to attack with the fast horse. Shaoshuai and I are in charge to defend the south slope, the rest will be left to Ziling to deal with.”
Kou Zhong said with a sigh, “No wonder Xieli can call himself the mighty over the prairie. The speed and wonder with which he dispatches the troops and horses, it is indeed the first time that Xiaodi has ever seen. When our headache is over, it will be Tuli’s turn to have a headache. Tell me frankly, Old Ba, do you still hate Tuli now?”
Smiling ruefully, Ba Fenghan said, “Right now, how do I have the leisure to hate anybody outside the battlefield. If with heart and soul, with all my strength, I can, according to my capabilities, weaken the military strength with which Xieli is going to attack Tuli, won’t it be worthwhile?”
Xu Ziling spoke indifferently, “Kou Zhong, in your heart right now, do you have any special thought of someone?”
Kou Zhong dejectedly replied, “The first person came to my mind was unexpectedly Shang Xiufang, only then did it turn to Zhizhi; before, I also thought about Chuchu. If Xiaodi died in this battle, who might be the most broken-hearted among them? My guess would be Chuchu. This thought makes my heart feels extreme depth of sorrow.”
“In my heart, I only want to kill people,” Ba Fenghan said, “But listening to Shaoshuai’s speech, which evolved from the bottom of your heart, I suddenly had to search deep within me. Is it possible that because I, Ba Fenghan, am so engrossed in the way of the sword, I am missing the opportunity to pursue all other things in life? In the end, am I really strong, or am I weak? Because the one thing I am most afraid of is coming upon something that would cause anybody extreme depth of sorrow. The brotherly love between the two of you is something that I never dreamed that it could happen.”
Kou Zhong roared in laughter and said, “Listening to the tone of your voice, it seems like after killing Xieli, you are going to look for that Dai Wa’er [baby; reminder: Ba Dai’er]; am I right?”
Laughing involuntarily, Ba Fenghan said, “Go to your granny; death is near at hand, Xiaodi is still afraid of extreme depth of sorrow? Thinking about it, I did not have the courage to act. Ay! It’s a mess! I actually really want to see her again before I die, to offer my deepest apologies for the hurt she has suffered.”
Kou Zhong was greatly delighted. He looked at Xu Ziling, and saw that his pair of eyes emitting an incomparably deep emotion, as he slightly lifting up his handsome face to stare into the vast starry sky over the battlefield. Could not help being shaken, Kou Zhong asked, “Ling Shao, who are you thinking of?”
As if he had just been awakened from a dream Xu Ziling moved his gaze toward Xieli, Tonyukuk, Zhao Deyan, and the others. “Come!” he said.
The sound of hoof beats rumbled in the sky. From the east, south, west, and north, each direction ran out a group of a hundred riders, darting back and forth across the hill, dazzling the eyes, while at the same time generating a chill in the heart.
Ba Fenghan said, “Shouldn’t the first dish set the prairie on fire?”
Pulling the Moon in the Well, Kou Zhong lifted it high above his head; laughing calmly, he said, “To be able to fight Xieli’s Golden Wolf Army to the death, even though I die, I will have no regret! The first dish, let Xiaodi take care of it. As long as we can hold out until daybreak, it will be enough to become a mythical legend that will be passed on to the later generations.”
Xu Ziling said, “The enemy is using wheel tactics. The first fire should be released before we exhaust our strength.”
“You guys are the guests,” Ba Fenghan said, “The first dish should be mine to take care of. It seems simple, but it’s not easy, especially during this season where the air is heavy with spring moisture. Fortunately I have ample experience in this regard, and am well prepared. The ingenious fire-arms that I bought when leaving the Central Earth are still well-preserved. Ay! I hope half of them have not lost effectiveness; that would be extremely ideal.”
The bugle horn sounded again. The other team of five hundred men nearest to the net dismounted from their rides together, and took out their sabers and hatchets, and then, the hatchets rising and the sabers falling, they cleared away the tall grass and shrubberies all around the hill, as if they already knew their grand plan of setting the grassland on fire.
Watching this, the three were dumbstruck and did not know how to deal with it.
“It’s the Xiang kid!” Xu Ziling said.
The other two cast their gaze in Xieli’s direction. Surprisingly, Xiang Yushan was showing himself among the enemy ranks, separated from Xieli by only one person, Zhao Deyan. From this, it could be seen that he was very important to Xieli.
Kou Zhong hated it so much that his teeth itched; he said, “Even if I die, I want to pull this deserved-to-be-chopped-a-thousand-times kid to accompany the burial.”
His expression grave, Ba Fenghan said, “Now it’s only the enemy who can come to set fire to burn us, but it’s difficult for us to retaliate. Next moment the wind will come from the northeast. If they set the two slopes, east and north on fire, although the blaze may not threaten us directly, but the thick smoke blown by the wind will roll in, the enemy may take advantage of the thick smoke to attack from four sides, eight directions. If we could hold out for the time needed to drink a cup of hot tea, it would be considered amazing already.”
The three looked on hopelessly as the vacant and vast grassland all around were constantly turning into bare ground, yet they clearly could not do anything about it.
They were unafraid of the thick smoke, but their line of sight would be blocked, surely they would not be able to prevent the enemy from launching surprise attack into the castle, and their horses would be the first to suffer a calamity.
Smiling bitterly, Kou Zhong said, “Shall we kill our way into the enemy ranks, to try to get more people to accompany us on our way?”
Shaking his head, Xu Ziling said, “That will be our Plan B. Only inside the unique environment of this Helian Fort will we be able to display the superiority of using-the-few-to-strike-the-many tactic. The most ideal will be if the enemy attacks for a long time without success, Xieli and the others will come to attack personally, and then our death will be more valuable.”
Ba Fenghan nodded and said, “Ziling is right. Let me go down to cover all small windows and battlement holes opening toward the east and the north sides with felt and various bits and bobs, to prevent the smoke bits from permeating the fort. When the enemy attack, we will set the other two sides on fire, I hope we could buy some more time.”
Finished speaking, he leaped down from the third floor observation platform onto the city gate tower platform on the second floor before entering the ground floor via the broken-down stone steps inside.
The bugle horn sounded again. The Golden Wolf troops, who were clearing up about thirty zhang bare ground all around the fort hill return to the horseback, and retreated to four directions, and then another five-hundred-man team took up their place, neat and orderly.
The Golden Wolf banner began to advance toward them. Battle drums were blaring, the cavalry moving around the hill stopped. Wherever they were stopping under the slope of the hill, they waited with stored up momentum to attack. The atmosphere grew tense very quickly.
Withdrawing the Moon in the Well, Kou Zhong laughed toward Xu Ziling and said, “Don’t you feel proud? The grand Tujue Supreme Khan, leading the most elite Golden Wolf Army, as if they are facing big enemy, come to wait upon us, insignificant three persons. If death can be divided into glorious and not glorious death, this time our death is surely glorious.”
Looking up to the sky, Xu Ziling said, “We are not without any way out at all. If another thunderstorm like the other night came, all the torches would be extinguished, perhaps we could take advantage of the darkness to break the siege.”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “Now it is at most only three sichen from daybreak, yet there are only a few thin clouds in the sky. Even if I don’t know how to read the wind and read the clouds, I know that there is no chance of rain. When the sun is out, our barely-there advantage will be lost, and then our allotted share will only be taking the beating.”
And then his pair of eyes emitted a determined look, he said, “If we can hold out until daybreak, even if I die, I will have no regret!”
Xieli and a group of his high-ranking generals moved to the south slope and reined their horses to stop. Xieli let out a burst of shaking-the-heavens long laughter, the no-less-than-forty-thousand Golden Wolf Army on the prairie immediately roared in response. The entire prairie seemed to be rocking and shuddering; the momentum was terrifying.
Kou Zhong took one step ahead, he shouted in Tujue language, “What’s so funny? If you have guts, why don’t you, Xieli come to have a one-on-one duel with me, Kou Zhong? Let your subordinates see that if we are not under the-many-bullying-the-few situation, how useless you really are.”
The men on Xieli’s left and right immediately shouted and cursed; the crowd’s emotion was surging up violently.
Xieli signaled with his hand to stop the battle of cursing and scolding; he said, “Shaoshuai is indeed a tough man who is not afraid of death. This Khan loves tough men the most. If the three of you are willing to abandon your weapon and surrender, kneeling in front of this Khan’s horse to swear an oath to vow loyalty and devotion forever, this Khan can guarantee that you will enjoy endless beautiful women, wealth and power. Wouldn’t it surpass dying by violence in your young age inside this dilapidated fort?”
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, “Less nonsense talk. How could we, three brothers, be people who are willing to surrender? You might as well give me all you got! Let me see whether Golden Wolf Army’s name is not in vain.”
Furious, Xieli said, “Death is near at hand, you still dare to boast shamelessly. You’d better not be captured alive; otherwise this Khan will make your life not any better than death. Attack!”
The bugle horn sounded. Sure enough, not deviating from Ba Fenghan’s guess, one after another the Tujue warriors on the east and north slopes tossed some tinder toward the grassy slope, they also used torches to light the tree leaves and tall grass on the slope. Following the slope, the blaze spread upward, thick smoke rolled in.
Battle drums were struck again. The several groups of cavalry waiting with stored up momentum under the south slope, each group consisted of a hundred riders, brandished their broadswords, bent their bows and put on the arrows, and charged up the hill; the momentum was terrifying.
Xu Ziling quickly told Kou Zhong, “I deal with the rest, you must not worry about anything else, just defend the south slope to the death.”
He soared and leaped toward the thick smoke rolling over from the northeast slope.
The thick smoke rose straight up, like a haze floating around the Helian Fort, before rolling upward and dispersing in the air.
Kou Zhong roared violently. Using the fastest technique he pulled the bow and released the arrow. All the enemy riders reaching the middle of the slope were entirely inside his arrow’s range. Hardening up his heart, he targeted the horses. As the warhorses were hit by the arrow, they rolled down the hillside. The majestic cavalry on horseback turned into rolling gourd sliding down the hill in confusion, striking the men and horses behind them that everybody tumbled down, no longer able to maintain the acute spirit of the assault formation, and were turned into chaos.
Those who flew off their horses and were fortunate enough not to be injured wanted to charge up the hill on foot, but with the Extinguished Sun Bow Kou Zhong met them one by one in every possible way. Although it was one-person-defending-the-pass situation, but because he was on the higher elevation, the arrows were able to reach farther, so that the riders were intercepted in the middle of the slope below.
The sound of bugle horn reverberated across the grassland. Another three groups of the enemy dismounted from their horses and using the thick smoke as cover, charged up the hill on foot toward the Helian Fort. Momentarily from four sides, eight directions the cavalry were advancing like a tide.
Ba Fenghan stormed out of the only gap on the south gate, both hands moved together, specks of flame streaked across the darkness on both sides of the Helian Fort, toward the south and the west slopes that had not caught fire.
After successfully setting the slopes on fire, Ba Fenghan pulled the Perished Moon Bow and rushed to the top of the west slope, where he released a string of powerful arrows. Relying on the steep and rugged western slope, he was able to set up his defense line, so that the enemy could not leap over the thunder pond [thunder pond is the name of a river; idiom: blocking the enemy that they can not pass through the place (Courtesy of Akolaw)], they were unable to counterattack with the arrow.
The slope of the southern hill of the Helian Fort was the gentlest, hence the inclined path was the longest. The northern slope was the shortest, but it was also the steepest. The grass, trees, and bushes among the rocks caught fire, but it would not be completely burnt in an hour or two, hence the enemy could not advance. They could only stand outside the fire range, hooting and putting on an attitude, temporarily they did not pose any threat.
Assisted by the wind, the fire on the east slope reached the waist of the hill. Hundreds of warriors on foot slowly approaching; if they managed to advance fifty more paces, then Kou Zhong would be inside their firing range. If that happened, it would be very difficult for Kou Zhong to hold fast to the watchtower of the third floor.
From external breathing, Xu Ziling changed to inner breathing, and rushed into the thick smoke. The tip of his toes tapping the rocks on the slope, he leaped from rock to rock toward the enemy. Both hands reached into the pouch, using the thick smoke as cover, iron bullets shot out of his hands. Not knowing what hit them, one after another the enemies were shot down and rolled down the slope.
By the time they shot arrows blindly into the thick smoke, Xu Ziling was already leaping onto another rock. He was continuously moving and shooting, creating huge panic among the enemy, so that momentarily everybody, striving to be first and fearing to be last, scrambled down the hill.
Breaking out of the smoke, unexpectedly Xu Ziling chase after the enemy’s tail, so that they were completely routed, and momentarily were even more powerless to strike back. It was not until the enemy at the foot of the hill shooting powerful arrows wildly toward his direction that he calmly returned up the hill. Dead bodies were strewn everywhere along the slope.
The fire on the west and south slopes spread and intensified, emitting thick smoke into the air, covering the hiding-the-sky-and-covering-the-earth enemy ranks.
Xieli was afraid they might seize this opportunity to break the siege, he issued an order to pull the assault team back toward the grassland, and then the entire force was spread out in all directions, forming a layer of siege, quietly waiting for the flame to completely burn the grass and the trees on the hill.
The Helian Fort was completely surrounded by thick smoke and fire particles.
Actually, it’s not that the three did not want to break the siege. Rather, in breaking this first wave of offensive, the wear and tear to their true energy was extremely severe; they practically did not have any strength to break the siege. When the wildfire subsided, their great difficulty would come.
The three reconvened at the highest watchtower, which was engulfed all around with smoke and fire; it was difficult to see far.
Gasping for breath, Kou Zhong asked, “Are the horses all right?”
Ba Fenghan replied, “I used wet cloth to wrap their mouth and nose, so that they could freely go to the lower level where there’s not much smoke; they should be all right.”
Kou Zhong pressed his palm on Xu Ziling’s back, while Ba Fenghan’s palm was pressed against his broad back; he said, “Let’s see if we could rapidly recover our qi like when we obtained the Jade Annulus of He Clan that time, then perhaps we will be able to force our way out of the encirclement under cover of the thick smoke.”
Shaking his head, Ba Fenghan said, “My good brother, surrounding us right now is not just a few hundreds or even a few thousands men; rather, it is a few tens of thousand men. Charging out is practically without any chance at all. Defending ourselves here, we can kill a few more to accompany us in burial. Let alone if we do not have a sichen or so, we can forget about restoring our primordial qi.”
Kou Zhong said, “If I were Xieli, I might as well wait until daybreak before launching the offensive. In terms of the situation, at that time it would be surely difficult for us to narrowly and luckily escape. If Xieli has this kind of patience, we will have a chance to recover our strength.”
Xu Ziling’s heart was moved, he said, “Suppose we can stir up the traveling-quietly-and-hidden-deep-beneath-the-surface power within our body which has not been used, won’t that be the same as quickly recovering our primordial qi, while also buy us some more time, waiting for the smoke and fire to disperse, the intensity of the fire to weaken, then their death knell will be ringing.”
Frowning, Kou Zhong said, “The situation is urgent, how could we find the time to ponder and grope around?”
Xu Ziling said, “I do have the Huan Ri Da Fa from Yue Shan that he learned from a Tianzhu Monk in my possession; I am able to integrate this method within my hand image method, only I have never tried practicing it separately.”
A glimmer of hope grew in Ba Fenghan’s heart, he said, “Since we have the stealing-the-heaven-exchanging-the-sun ability [fig. to engage in fraudulent activities; reminder: ‘huan ri da fa’ means great method of exchanging the sun], there is no harm in trying.”
Stretching out his hand, he pressed it onto Kou Zhong’s back.
Performing the lotus flower image with his hands, Xu Ziling said, “Huan Ri Da Fa is different from the Central Earth’s Buddhist and Taoist, two schools. It specializes in training the five qi, three meridians, and seven chakras.”
While giving explanation, he let the true qi circulated naturally within his body, using his own body in giving the most accurate demonstration in teaching the other two, with whom he had built a very close relationship with.
The three men’s qi chakra burst forth at the same time, all the barely remaining true qi in their body gathered together into a stream. This kind of progress had never happened before to anybody outside Tianzhu [reminder: Indian subcontinent] who cultivated this different method. If this moment the enemy attacked, they would not have the slightest bit of power either to attend to or to resist.
Compelled by circumstances, the three did not have any choice but to take this risk. Just now the attack to the Fort only happened in half the time to drink a cup of hot tea, yet the dead and wounded on the enemy’s side exceeded a hundred men. It was desperate to the extreme point; yet their strength was also like the bow which momentum had been spent.
The thick smoke gradually dispersed. Under the illumination of the torches and the starlight, the Helian Hill has turned into scorched earth, full of charred corpses. The frightening scene was like the infernal hell.
The sound of bugle horns and battle drums shook the heaven and rocked the earth. From four directions and eight sides, the Golden Wolf Army was advancing toward the Helian Fort.
Xu Ziling’s hands performed the inexhaustible hand images, but not a single one was premeditated, everything was following the variation of the true qi within his body, but also in response to the various internal shapes and external changes.
The true qi within the three men’s body changed from small springs, small streams into long river and big watercourse [fig. Yangtze and Yellow Rivers], surging and rolling inside their body, rushing through another system of qi meridians, releasing the unused and hidden deep potential. If they were able to successfully accomplish it, this new system might fuse together with the old system and became one. Although it could not make their power to grow by leaps and bounds immediately, it was like opening up a large amount of wasteland, which could provide them with a large amount of primordial qi.
They paid no heed to the enemy down the slope; they were throwing their heart and soul into the breakthrough brought about by the Huan Ri Da Fa.
The enemy calmly moved into position, ready to launch a new round of attack. Xu Ziling suddenly let out a long whistle terrifying the grassland, while performing the Motionless Fundamental Image to distribute the true qi surging back and forth within the three men’s body. The true qi converging into river and ocean changed into thousands creeks and hundreds of streams, rushing into every qi gathering point in the three men’s body.
The three young grandmasters finally finished their cultivation, from one entity they reverted back to three independent individuals.
The sky above the grassland was still filled with glittering starlight, but it was even more unfathomably deeper than before, even more majestic beyond description.
Ba Fenghan felt as if he had shed his mortal body and exchanged his bones, his essence, qi, and spirit had reached the pinnacle; even if Bi Xuan came in person, he had the confidence that he would have enough power to battle him. He shouted loudly, “Little baby Xieli, if you have enough guts, release your horse and come over [i.e. bring it on!].”
Enraged, Xieli replied, “You want to die sooner, I’ll help you accomplish your aim. Attack!”
The enemy, who had been waiting with stored-up momentum, shouted in chorus, and charged up toward the Helian Fort at the top of the hill.
The fastest cavalry took the southern slope, while the infantry attacked via the other three slopes.
The three knew that the moment the enemy broke into the fort was the moment Xielu and his team of special grade martial art masters joined the battle.
Xu Ziling reached into the bag, and discovered that all the iron bullets he had in both pouches added together were less than two hundred. When the iron bullets were exhausted, he would have to enter the enemy ranks to fight a fierce hand-to-hand combat.
“I’ll take care of the south gate defense,” he spoke heavily, “You guys don’t worry about me.”
With a somersault he leaped off the high platform.
Kou Zhong and Ba Fenghan did not have time to reply, the Extinguished Sun and the Perished Moon Bows immediately started to shoot toward the enemy charging up the slope.