Chapter 6 – Revenge of a Sword
Extremely shocked, Xiang Yushan moved aside, the dagger in his hand stabbed as fast as lightning, ruthlessly and maliciously.
Xu Ziling spun around abruptly, his sleeve flew out, generating a bust of powerful vortex of qi, to force the other people to stagger and tumble down. Only then did he calmly stretch out his finger to meet the blade of the dagger.
All his anger and resentment were vented in this one finger attack.
Xiang Yushan’s dagger was jolted off his hand, while he himself was thrown away, his back slammed onto the courtyard’s west wall, blood seeped out of his eyes, ears, mouth and nose.
Like a shadow attached to Xiang Yushan, Xu Ziling’s hand moved at lightning speed to grab the clothes at the pit of his stomach, and lifted him up so that Xiang Yushan was floating a few cun above the ground, while his back was pressed against the wall. Seeing their master was under the enemy’s control, his men did not dare to attack.
Yun Yuzhen’s scream came from behind.
Xu Ziling looked like a deity; the might in his eyes radiated all around, but he fixed his gaze into Xiang Yushan’s eyes. Without looking back, he shouted, “Shut up!”
The meridians in Xiang Yushan’s entire body was under Xu Ziling’s control, luckily he was still able to talk. Hastily he said, “Xu Dage, please listen to Xiaodi, this is simply …”
Xu Ziling’s internal energy penetrated his body, Xiang Yushan immediately lost the strength to talk, his face turned deathly grey.
Xu Ziling’s pair of tiger-eyes shone with deep hatred. He spoke slowly, word by word, “In vain we regarded you as a brother, turns out you harbor evil intentions from the start. If you want to deal with us, give me all you got! Why did you use despicable trick to harm the innocent, kindhearted Su Jie?”
Standing about a zhang behind him, Yun Yuzhen spoke with trembling voice, “Susu contracted a foul disease on her own, it has nothing to do with Yushan.”
Xu Ziling let out a laughter brimming with sorrow, and then he said coldly, “How did Su Jie contract the disease? Don’t worry! I am going to take only half a revenge today; I’ll take half of his life, and leave the remaining half for Kou Zhong. Yun Bangzhu’d better hide far away, because Kou Zhong is not going to let anybody who harmed Su Jie away.”
Finished speaking, he soared to the sky.
Xiang Yushan’s body, from head to toes, shook violently and slid down along the wall, and slumped on the ground.
Shouts sprang up everywhere; the martial art masters of Baling Army, including Xiao Xian, who had just heard the news, rushed over and tried to pursue him, but they were one step too late. Xu Ziling took a breath in the air and flew sideways toward an empty spot, and disappeared in the darkness.
Yun Yuzhen rushed toward Xiang Yushan, who was still trembling incessantly. “How do you feel?” she asked anxiously.
Distressed, Xiang Yushan replied, “He is very ruthless! I was beaten back to my original condition, the vile injury I suffered before the two of them healed me.”
Yun Yuzhen immediately felt her scalp turned numb. This was the first time she realized Xu Ziling’s true power. This technique was many times more difficult than when the two boys treated and healed Xiang Yushan’s injury in the past.
※ ※ ※
After three days of discussing the plan to attack Donghai, the Shao Shuai Army already gathered at Xiapi secretly prepared the gongs and tightened their drums, in preparation for going into war.
This morning, Kou Zhong, accompanied by Xuan Yong and Jiao Hongjin, inspected their weak navy, which only consisted of five comparatively big warships. Climbing aboard one of the ships, Kou Zhong pointed to the sail and said, “Naval battle rely mainly on fire, but fiery arrows are too powerful; when shot against the sail, they would pass through the fabric completely, oftentimes they failed to burn it. But if on the arrows’ body we add a cross-shaped stick, the arrows can then stay attached on the sail, and will burn it without leaving anything.”
Everybody agreed that was a good idea.
Jiao Hongjin submitted cheerfully; he said, “Such a simple method, yet we never thought about it. Shao Shuai’s brains indeed surpass ordinary men.”
Kou Zhong inwardly replied that it was Lu Miaozi’s brain that surpassed ordinary men! But naturally he would not reveal it; laughing cheerfully, he said, “There are more formidable gadgets, more formidable that fiery arrows; it’s some kind of secret projectile to light a fire, but it relies on the strength of the hand throwing it. It’s called ‘Fire Flyer and Catcher’!”
Being a layman in naval warfare, Xuan Yong asked in astonishment, “What is that?”
Kou Zhong said, “It’s like a big wooden firecracker, shaped like a wooden club [used to beat clothes in washing], using a knife, make a hole from the top, and fill it with firecracker, fireworks gunpowder, carve seven or eight holes all around so the fire can go out, and then add some nails so that it will stick onto any hard surface; wrap the outside with oilpaper to make it waterproof. When facing the enemy, ignite the fuse, throw it by hand, either high onto the sail, or low onto the deck; guaranteed the enemy will be burn that they will only know how to shout for help.”
Xuan Yong and Jiao Hongjin were emotionally moved.
This moment the three climbed up the steps onto the lookout station. Kou Zhong cast his gaze to the east, took a deep breath, and said, “Donghai County is a big county on the waterfront, the defenders must be adept in naval warfare, and their size must be more than we can handle. Therefore, if we appear to be stupid enough to launch an all-out naval invasion, Li Ziyun and Tong Shuwen would have their whole nest come out to fight us. At that time, these tricks of ours can be out to good use!”
Xuan Yong and Jiao Hongjin suddenly saw the light; now they understood why Kou Zhong wanted to inspect their deficient naval fleet.
Smiling ruefully, Kou Zhong said, “Our navy ships are going to be used as sacrifice. Ha! It ought to be the time to look for that fellow Li Xingyuan.”
※ ※ ※
After catching up with Bu Tianzhi, Chen Laomou, and the others, Xu Ziling did not speak even half a word, all day long he sat in the hearse to accompany Susu, who was soaked in chemical to preserve her body, only occasionally he looked at the other carriage where little Lingzhong was being taken care of by a maid and a wet nurse.
Every time he saw the child, who has lost his mother, his heart was bleeding.
Susu’s tragic ending, he and Kou Zhong must take full responsibility. Feeling of sadness, despair, guilt, and remorse, like surging tides violently eroded away the reef of the cliff of his heart, making him extremely miserable.
Extreme loss and anguish made him really want to drown his sorrows in wine, but he knew that he must pull himself together to deal with any danger in the future.
The dead cannot be brought back to life; it didn’t matter how grieved and indignant he was, he would never be able to change the ironclad reality.
It was not until they reached the Huai River and boarded the three Jukun Bang warships waiting for them there that his heart started to calm down.
After setting sail, it was only the following evening that he leave the cabin – where Susu’s remains was kept, for the first time, and headed toward the aft, where he stood against the wind to think silently.
Thick and dark clouds were hanging low in the sky, several hanya birds [Eurasian jackdaw] were circling above the forest by the riverbank, emitting their mournful cry, adding to his sorrow.
Bu Tianzhi emboldened himself to come behind him. Deeply concerned, he said, “Nobody can escape death! The most crucial thing for Ziling to do is to restrain your grief, and accept fate; don’t be excessively sad that it will harm your body. The bad influence will be difficult to fix.”
Forcing himself, Xu Ziling spoke hoarsely, “I really wish I could leave this place far, far away, where nobody knows me, where I don’t need to think about anything, and can forget everything that has happened.”
Bu Tianzhi sorrowfully said, “I understand Ziling’s mood, but running away is not the solution. Nobody exempts from grim, painful experience. Perhaps after a long time it will be forgotten, but to some extent, there will always be some traces that cannot be obliterated completely. Life is always like this!”
Xu Ziling recalled Shi Feixuan’s story about the alchemist who concocted pills of immortality. Smiling ruefully, he said, “I am not running away, I just want to pursue my dream. Once, Ba Fenghan told me: in the western region, there is an endless grassland and great desert, with extreme hot and cold weather, mountains and creeks that are frozen all the year around, boundless sparkling sea of sand, so that when you set foot on those strangest places in the world, alone, you will feel that there is nothing outside of you. The nature will make you forget everything, including yourself.”
After a short pause, he continued with a sigh, “Man’s heaviest burden is himself, that one thing, ‘me’!”
A chilling wet wind blew from the direction of the bow, brushing the two men’s clothes, creating fluttering noise. Naturally Bu Tianzhi had no idea that Xu Ziling was recalling the story of the servant of the man concocting pills of immortality. His way of thinking was far below Xu Ziling’s deep and penetrating mind. Momentarily he did not know what to say.
Fortunately, Xu Ziling changed the subject by asking, “Is Fu Bangzhu [deputy gang leader] ready to formally break your relation with Yun Yuzhen?”
Letting out a cold humph, Bu Tianzhi said, “A person who disregards benevolence and righteousness like that is not qualified to be our Bangzhu. Hereafter we are going to follow Kou Ye to conquer the world, to do some big thing.”
Frowning, Xu Ziling said, “All along I feel that Yun Yuzhen’s innate character is not as unbearable as this. Hence, although I clearly had the opportunity to kill her that day, in the end I could not be that ruthless. However, I can see that Kou Zhong is not going to spare her.”
Bu Tianzhi sighed and said, “These past couple of years, she suddenly became very difficult to endure; otherwise we would not have any intention of leaving.”
Puzzled, Xu Ziling said, “Could it be that she is influenced by Xiang Yushan?”
Bu Tianzhi’s eyes shone with strange expression; instead of answering, he asked, “Ziling, what do you think of this ‘Passionate Prince’ Hou Xibai?”
Taken aback, Xu Ziling asked back, “Do you think the problem lies in him?”
Bu Tianzhi sighed and said, “This is just my suspicion, I cannot prove it. It’s just that after a chance encounter with him, Yun Yuzhen seems to be beside herself, her temperament underwent huge changes. In Jianghu, people who roll about in the thicket of flower and moon, who idle about like Hou Xibai can be found everywhere. But someone who keeps himself pure like him, who consider himself emissary to protect the flowers, whose martial art skill has reached that kind of brilliant stage, whose origin and history remains a mystery, he is the only one. Do you think I shouldn’t doubt him?”
Xu Ziling shivered inwardly.
He was well aware that his greatest weakness was that in everything, he was always thinking about the benefit; unlike Hou Xibai.
Bu Tianzhi mused, “To be able to train first-class martial art skill to that stage, one must have aspiration and unswerving determination, to keep on fighting in spite of all setbacks, and ideally is one with ambition. Hou Xibai is able to have today’s achievement, the conduct and character he currently displays is not something that can be pursued. Outside appearance and inner reality differ, he is extremely secretive and dangerous.”
Xu Ziling nodded and said, “Zhi Shu’s insight is very original, I will remember it. Ba Fenghan has also had his suspicion; he asked him about the material used to make his Fan of Beauty. It’s just that at that time I did not think about it too much. But now, thinking back, I do feel there is a problem somewhere.”
Bu Tianzhi said, “One time Chen Gong [honorable gentleman] guessed that the one he wanted to deal with is Shi Feixuan, but upon further consideration, it does not seem so. Because he is showing his passion everywhere, any woman would think that this kind of man is difficult to grow old together with.”
The Chen Gong he was talking about was Chen Laomou.
Knitting his brows, Xu Ziling said, “When Zhi Shu said ‘dealing with’, are you referring to capturing Shi Feixuan’s fragrant heart? Is that unlikely?”
Bu Tianzhi spoke heavily, “This man is extremely heretical, we must in no way recklessly ignore him. Besides, until today, Hou Xibai is the only young man obtaining the honor of roaming the world together with Shi Feixuan. Supposing Hou Xibai indeed turns out to be what we fear, he must have come from a demonic school, an outstanding martial art master of the new generation of the demonic school.”
Distressed, Xu Ziling said, “I really don’t understand why there are people in the world who specialize in doing bad things. Even those extremely vicious and utterly evil big bandits must have various reasons to justify their conducts; they can’t possibly do bad things because they are bad.”
Bu Tianzhi said, “I think people from demonic school did not think that what they are doing is offending Heaven and reason. Most likely it has to do with how they cultivate their skill, or perhaps it is related to their belief and creed, so that differences like Ci Hang Jing Zhai and Yin Gui Pai exist.”
Xu Ziling’s eyes flickered brightly; he nodded and said, “Whether Hou Xibai is righteous or evil, I still have to warn Shi Feixuan to be careful.”
A gust of strong wind blew, followed by raindrops. Huai River turned into boundless haze.
After heaving a sigh, Xu Ziling spoke in low voice, “Why don’t Zhi Shu go back and have some rest? I still want to stay here a bit longer.”
※ ※ ※
Seven warships departed from Xiapi, sailing along the Mu River toward Muyang.
Kou Zhong was standing on the bridge of the command ship. He exuded the aura of the king of the world. Although the ‘Little Lu Bu’ Jiao Hongjin standing by his side was also tall and mighty, with valiant build, in side-by-side comparison, he could only assume the tree peony’s green leaf role [i.e. supporting actor].
It was not solely due to Kou Zhong’s particular body build and personality traits, but because he was standing as stable as the mountain, deep-pavilion, highest-peak posture and the lightning-like and perpetuity of his penetrating gaze, as well as the strong confidence he conveyed.
In the eyes of the generals and soldiers under his command, he was not only the Commander-in-Chief who triumph in every battle, but also an invincible, matchless-under-the-heavens saber expert. These two views added together, this Shao Shuai became like a deity who received respect and adoration from his men.
At a glance, the ships seemed to be full of troops. The fact was that every ship only carried about a hundred men, for a total of less than a thousand. Since Luo Qifei made contact with Li Xingyuan three days ago to inform him about the plan to advance toward Donghai, the Shao Shuai troops stationed at Xiapi were subjected to fake mobilization to deceive the eyes and ears of the enemy. The real combat force was actually the one thousand strong light cavalry under Xuan Yong’s command, plus Luo Qifei’s squad of intelligence gatherers. The rest of the force, Kou Zhong included, was only putting on an act of attacking on this unable-to-withstand-a-single-blow navy fleet.
The morning sun ahead was slowly rising, the earth was brimming with vigor and vitality. On both sides of the river, there were cultivated fields everywhere, and rippling green open space as far as the eye can see.
Kou Zhong’s mind seemed to be flying over the scene in front of his eyes, to an unknown distant place. Suddenly he asked, “Do you think Tong Shuwen is going to fall into the trap?”
Jiao Hongjin thought for a moment before replying, “In term of military power, Donghai County has a navy fleet of thirty big battleships, their total strength is several thousand more men than ours, plus we are out of our base, in a military expedition, hence we do not have the advantage of familiarity with local terrain. It all depends on Li Xingyuan, this unreliable bamboo guide for the blind. If I were Tong Shuwen, even if I knew that this is a feign attack, I would be happy to deliver a frontal assault.”
Kou Zhong nodded and said, “Well said! Therefore, our chance of victory this time is entirely in seeking victory in the midst of danger. Other than perfect coordination between our ambushing troops and the scouting troops, the most important aspect is the selection of the ambushing position, and when the time comes, the usage of secret weapons to face the enemy. As long as we can break the Donghai County’s navy fleet, we will be able to paralyze the agility of the Li Army of Donghai County. Not only they would not be able to provide assistance to Muyang speedily via the waterway, their coastal defense will also crumble, which will enable us to seal off Donghai city from both the water and the land routes. Ha! At that time, Li Ziyun and Tong Shuwen can only kneel to beg for mercy.”
Jiao Hongjin secretly heaved a sigh of relief, glad that he was not Kou Zhong’s enemy.
Any superior commander, even Li Mi, Li Shimin, Du Fuwei, Dou Jiande’s caliber, would have battle style that was always traceable. For example: Li Mi loved to use deceit and decoy; Li Shimin used both carrot and stick, and was an expert in grasping the situation, in using defense for offense. Du Fuwei’s Jianghuai’s Army come and go like the wind, using battle to support battle.
But Kou Zhong’s battle style was completely without any set method; irresolute like a heavenly steed soaring across the skies [fig. unconstrained in style (calligraphy)], leaving the enemy completely without any way to assess, conventional and subtle, and extremely daring, so that others could only be amazed and admit his ingenuity.
Such an opponent, who did not feel intimidated?
Kou Zhong shook his head and said with a laugh, “If my guess is correct, the enemy ought to wait for us around the river section after Muyang, but before we go out to sea. At that time Li Xingyuan would break our troops’ retreat route, and then we would end in total annihilation. However, I also think that it would be best if Li and Dong’s entire nest come out and setup massive military force on both sides of the river, then not only we can easily detect the correct position of their interception, we could also destroy the enemy’s main force at a stroke. That would be ideal!”
Jiao Hongjin nodded his head in agreement.
On the surface, their plan was to advance toward Donghai from both the land and the sea, with Muyang as the support. After the navy went out to sea, they would coordinate with the Shao Shuai Army traveling on land, plus Li Xingyuan’s Muyang Army, to put Donghai under heavy siege.
But beneath the surface, it was a different matter altogether.
Revealing a smile brimming with confidence, Kou Zhong reached out to grab Jiao Hongjin’s shoulder. He sighed and said, “Perhaps by the evening of the day after tomorrow, we can drink victory wine inside Donghai City!”