The shadows of the whip flicked through the air like a black dragon dancing in the clouds. However, that empty and illusory figure came and went as he pleased amidst the layers of whip shadows. Each and every finger and palm was biting and severe, and yet almost was as nature itself. The longer the fight dragged on, the more fearful Qiu Yufei became. Although he had long ago known that Demonic Shadow Li Shun’s martial arts were outstanding, it was difficult for him to exchange two hundred blows. If his senior apprentice brother, Duan Lingxiao, were here, he probably would be able to fight against Li Shun.
As for the Stalwart Tiger Guard, they only stood surrounding the two duelers, presumably extremely trusting of Demonic Shadow Li Shun’s abilities. As a result, none of them interfered, only on their guard to prevent Qiu Yufei from escaping.
After exchanging several dozen blows, Qiu Yufei felt himself heavily perspire. He inwardly rejoiced that although he had neglected his martial arts training, under the supervision of his master and his senior apprentice brother, his martial arts were quite good. At this moment, he heard Jiang Zhe’s furious order, demanding that he be captured alive. Qiu Yufei felt his heart ache. Disregarding life and death, he attacked at all costs. Although an unhappy look appeared on Demonic Shadow Li Shun’s face, his techniques backed off a bit. From this, Qiu Yufei actually was able to gain the advantage.
It was already difficult for Qiu Yufei to win as he was forced to use killing techniques. Furthermore, he wasn’t sure if he was willing to sacrifice his life. He had completely forgotten the warning from his master before he departed, the importance of waiting for the opportunity before acting. However, he understood that although his love for the zither was above everything, if Northern Han were conquered and his sect met with disaster, he was willing to die alongside it. Since he didn’t value his life, what room did he have to think about friendship and benevolence? Even if he had to die, he would definitely assassinate Jiang Zhe. This zealous and mad thought gradually appeared in his mind.
After exchanging several more blows, Qiu Yufei’s expression suddenly became solemn as he continuously and unyieldingly attacked Xiaoshunzi. Xiaoshunzi met him with his palm. However, Qiu Yufei did not seem to see it, lashing out with a palm strike while sending his whip towards Xiaoshunzi’s back, trapping Xiaoshunzi within his attacks. Xiaoshunzi frowned. He had no intentions of dying together with Qiu Yufei. He rolled, avoiding the whip and the palm strike. Suddenly, Qiu Yufei opened his mouth and a bloody arrow like a splashing rainbow shot out, aimed at one of Xiaoshunzi’s vital parts. Although Xiaoshunzi’s movement techniques were unpredictable, he found this attack difficult to deal with. Fortunately, he had reached the Xiantian realm. He forced his internal energy to reverse within his body. As a result, the bloody arrow brushed past Xiaoshunzi, making him grimace from the acute pain coming from his shoulder. It could be assumed that the injury he had suffered wasn’t light. In addition, reversing the flow of internal energy within his body wasn’t something done without damage. He could not help vomiting a mouthful of blood.
The hot rage that Xiaoshunzi was feeling became increasingly vigorous, while his mind actually became increasingly cool-headed, as he launched an attack with his palm. Just now, Qiu Yufei had used the secretly passed down demonic technique of the Devil Sect, the “Bloodshed Arrow,” using his blood to form a sharp weapon. Nevertheless, this technique was extremely damaging to one’s vitals. Xiaoshunzi’s palm strike was filled with his anger, incomparably bizarre. Seeing that he could not avoid the attack, Qiu Yufei steeled his heart and forcibly took the blow. An absolutely unrestrained icy energy rushed into Qiu Yufei’s body. Using the force of the blow, Qiu Yufei flew backwards. Although he rapidly retreated, the snow on the ground of the courtyard was splattered with fresh blood. However, he was able to successfully extricate himself from Xiaoshunzi, directly charging towards Jiang Zhe.
When his right palm smacked into Qiu Yufei, Xiaoshunzi felt as if he had hit a wad of cotton and was unable to use his strength. Immediately knowing that something was off, he quickly pursued Qiu Yufei.
From some distance, I watched as blood splattered everywhere after only a few dozen exchanges between Xiaoshunzi and “Gao Yan.” The duel between the two was exceptionally desperate. I could not help trembling inwardly, worrying about whether Xiaoshunzi was a well-matched adversary for “Gao Yan” and also regretting that I had not trapped “Gao Yan” using a ploy. At this moment, I saw “Gao Yan” fly towards me. I was terrified. Fortunately, he was blocked by Huyan Shou and the Stalwart Tiger Guard. Although none of them were his match, it would be impossible for “Gao Yan” to penetrate their defenses without taking some time. I only relaxed when I saw Xiaoshunzi hurrying over in pursuit and the impossibility of escape for “Gao Yan.”
Who knew that, just as I breathed a sigh of relief, the handsome young man fluttering in the air like a goshawk would suddenly turn towards me and smile? When I saw that his handsome features were pale and bloodstained, I felt distressed at heart. Before I could calm down, he had once again borrowed another’s force to fly through the air, avoiding the weapons. Two golden missiles shot out from his sleeve, skirting through the guard and streaking towards me. Two of the guards drew their sabers to deflect, but missed. However, they used their bodies to stop the two missiles. The two missiles actually shot through their bodies, their speed not diminishing as they continued towards me.
I felt my legs grow weak, powerless to dodge. Just then, a pale hand appeared before my face. Between his index and middle fingers was a jet-black hairpin. The hairpin knocked the two golden missiles to the ground. I was saved by Xiaoshunzi. His mind was quick. When he had noticed “Gao Yan” attack without valuing his life, Xiaoshunzi knew that something unexpected would occur. For him, my safety was of the utmost importance. As a result, he had rushed back to my side just in time to use the hairpin made from meteorite that I had forced him to carry on him at all times.
At this moment, the two guards who had been hit by the missiles fell to the ground, howling painfully without end. They were originally men who did not fear pain or death. For them to be suffering so, it was clear that the missiles had done enormous damage to their bodies. Blood splashed out endlessly, unable to be stemmed.
Qiu Yufei looked over from the distance, his expression dull. The concealed weapon that he had just used was extremely vicious and sinister, made from an exotic crystal unexpectedly discovered by Jing Wuji in the Gobi Desert. That kind of crystal did not fear fire or water and was exceptionally hard. Unfortunately, they were only the size of a date or a chestnut. Jing Wuji had a skilled smith carve the crystals into a concealed weapon the shape of a shuttle over a period of several years. The result was a sharp weapon that, with the application of a little bit of internal energy, could penetrate even the most exquisite and solid steel armor, and even penetrate the internal energy used to protect one’s body. Jing Wuji only had six of these missiles. Since Jing Wuji did not use concealed weapons, and because Qiu Yufei’s martial arts were a bit weaker, Jing Wuji had bestowed three of the missiles unto Qiu Yufei to use to defend himself. These missiles were Qiu Yufei’s life-saving talismans and he would never use them lightly. Who could have expected that, when he used two of them today, they would be blocked by Xiaoshunzi? He could not help regretting that, when he had undertaken the assassination, he had not used these concealed weapons at the start. If he had, he probably would have already succeeded.
I felt myself shiver in fear. Having seen what those missiles had done to those guards wearing leather armor, I could foresee what would have happened if I had been hit. I stooped down and picked up the two missiles. Although I did not know what material they were made from, I could tell that it was extremely precious. Furthermore, I also knew that there was no poison on them. I could not help rejoice endlessly. Presumably, “Gao Yan” was extremely haughty and was not someone who stooped to using poison.
In a loud voice, I commanded, “There’s no poison on these missiles. Use the medicine in this bottle to staunch the bleeding.” So speaking, I took a jade bottle out from within my bosom and handed it to a guard by my side.
This guard hurriedly went to help the two injured guards. It wasn’t long before the blood flow was stopped. Fortunately, they had managed to avoid being hit in vital areas. Otherwise, with the vicious sharpness of the missiles, they would likely have died immediately.
While all this was happening, Qiu Yufei had been trapped by the saber formation created by six of the Stalwart Tiger Guard. All of these guards were experienced and dauntless warriors who had survived countless battles. Their martial arts were all second-rate or higher. Right now, they were not seeking results, but rather ensuring that they did not make any mistakes. Qiu Yufei felt like he was trapped in a net and unable to extricate himself. However, with his natural arrogant character, although he was in such a predicament, he still gritted his teeth and fought desperately. Fortunately, Xiaoshunzi was preoccupied with Jiang Zhe’s safety and did not join in. Otherwise, Qiu Yufei knew that he would have been unable to hold out long ago.
I felt vexation rise inside me. This “Gao Yan” was truly too vicious and savage. I had originally hoped that he would understand and back out of this situation. If he wished to escape, combined with Xiaoshunzi holding back, it would not have been impossible for him to do so. However, seeing him fight to the death, it seemed like the only option before me was to capture him alive and hold him under custody on the pretext of being unwilling to execute him, before allowing him to escape. Alas, the vast majority of things in the world left much to be desired.
After several dozen more exchanges had passed, Xiaozhunzi became somewhat impatient, picking snow up from the ground. Concentrating his internal energy, it wasn’t long before the snow became ice. Rubbing the ice in his hands, he formed several icy fragments. He repeatedly used his fingers to flick the fragments, causing those icy fragments to become unpredictable missiles. It wasn’t long before Qiu Yufei was no longer able to dodge and was hit in the numb acupoint. He felt his body grow sluggish and was hit on his back by the flat of Huyan Shou’s saber. As Qiu Yufei tumbled to the ground, two guards jumped forward, trussing him up and holding him down. A guard skilled at “Eagle Claw” grappling techniques rushed over and efficiently dislocated the joints of Qiu Yufei’s arms. Afterwards, Huyan Shou and several guards brought him in front of me, forcing him to kneel on the ground. Huyan Shou personally grabbed onto Qiu Yufei’s hair and forced him to look up. I could clearly see the beads of sweat forming on his brow, his complexion as pale as snow, his unwillingness to voice his pain, and the indifference on his face.
While I was strenuously calculating how to let him go without revealing any weaknesses, I inquired, “Gao Yan, what is your real identity? I do not believe that you are a truly a prince of Goryeo.”
Hearing Jiang Zhe’s words, Qiu Yufei coldly responded, “There is no harm in me speaking honestly. This one is a direct disciple of the Devil Sect, Qiu Yufei. That day, at the Battle of Qinze, I used a bugle horn to support the Northern Han army and was defeated by your drumming, making me incredibly resentful. As a result, I came to assassinate you. The hatred between our two countries is as deep as the ocean. There is no point in speaking any further. If you want to kill me, do so. If you hate my deception, regardless of torture or any other punishments, I am able to bear it.”
I sighed. “So you are actually a disciple of the Devil Sect. Alas, the disciples of the Devil Sect are, as expected, lofty and unyielding. Although I did not have the chance to personally witness your distinguished country’s Vanguard General Su Dingluan die within the Yong capital, the Emperor has repeatedly spoken of General Su’s heroic bravery. Qiu Yufei, you are worthy of being a disciple of the Devil Sect. With so many experts by my side, I was still nearly assassinated by you. If you are willing to surrender, I can be lenient and forgiving since you have yet to bring about an irretrievable calamity. If you are obstinate and refuse to surrender, don’t blame me for being vicious and merciless.”
His expression apathetic, Qiu Yufei replied, “Since you know that the disciples of the Devil Sect are lofty and unyielding, you should not be trying to convince me to surrender. These last few days, you have treated me with great kindness, going so far as to bestow your esteemed father’s zither score unto me. I am extremely grateful. However, since our two countries are at war, we serve different masters. Although it is not my desire to assassinate you, I have no choice in the matter. Now that I have fallen into your hands, if you still have concern in your heart, then send me to the underworld.”
I felt my heart stir. Hiding the look on my face, I sighed and said, “Xuzhi, no, I should call you Yufei.… Neither of us can act as we want. By rights, I should have you executed right now, sending your severed head to Northern Han as a show of force. However, our interactions these last three days have been amiable. I do not have the heart to kill you. In addition, having bestowed the zither score to you, I do not have any intention of taking it back. Fine. Xiaoshunzi, cripple his martial arts. Then deliver him to the army encampment to be held under arrest.”
Although I had spoken these words, I had shot Xiaoshunzi several meaningful looks from behind the sleeves of my robes. He presumably understood my intentions. Unexpectedly, Xiaoshunzi’s complexion was dark and gloomy, almost as if he didn’t notice my meaningful glances, as he walked to Qiu Yufei’s side. He studied Qiu Yufei’s deathly pale and determined face, slowly reaching out with a finger towards Qiu Yufei’s cultivation sea. I was greatly alarmed. If Qiu Yufei really had his martial arts crippled, how was I going to have him escape? However, I did not dare intervene. If a flaw in my acting were revealed, then Qiu Yufei would likely want to die. How could I have the heart to allow him to do so? As Xiaoshunzi’s finger almost reached the point to forever seal Qiu Yufei’s cultivation, he stopped. Rising to his feet, he turned to me and said, “Young master, this man’s injuries are serious. If I destroy his cultivation sea right now, it will likely ensure that his injuries persist and it won’t be long before he loses his life. Since, the young master wants to preserve his life, how about acting once he has recovered a bit from his injuries?”
I almost breathed a sigh of relief, immediately understanding that Xiaoshunzi was bearing a grudge at the risks that I had taken today and was using these actions to frighten me. Giving him an apologetic look, I replied, “Since that is the case, I have truly studied medicine in vain. I actually forgot that without internal energy those of you who train in martial arts are not as healthy as an ordinary individual. Fine. Temporarily hold back from acting. Reconnect his joints. For now, bring him back to the encampment and hold him under custody. Oh, that’s right, he also has two servants. They should also be treated as assassins. Go and capture the two of them, so that we can bring them back and properly interrogate them.”
Escaping the fate of having his cultivation crippled, Qiu Yufei breathed a sigh of relief at his good fortune. No matter how proud and unyielding he was, he did not dare to speak any offensive words, thinking, If I can regain a tenth of my strength, I will be able to find the opportunity to escape. It is best that I do not infuriate him for now. Reaching this conclusion, his expression calmed greatly. Not saying a word, he allowed the guards to reconnect the joints of his arms.
Not having rope, the guards exchanged looks of dismay. For them, it was simpler to kill an enemy than to capture them. As a result, they never had rope on their persons. They could only seal several of Qiu Yufei’s acupoints, dropping him onto the steps, prepared to bring him along whenever they set out.
Just then, the guards dispatched to arrest Cui Jiucheng and Jin Zhi quickly returned to the courtyard. Not seeing Qiu Yufei’s two servants, I knew that they had failed in their mission. In all honesty, I did not take those two servants seriously. From their fluent Goguryeo, I knew that they were more likely than not actually from Goryeo. If the two of them were to escape, it would only benefit my plan; and if they were captured, it was insignificant. As long as I was able to safely return back to the Yong army encampment and Qiu Yufei was able to escape smoothly en route, then my trap was set. As a result, I intentionally delayed my orders to arrest the two servants. Right now, it seemed like they had run as expected. I placidly told Zhuang Jun, “Bodyguard Zhuang, you head back first as fast as you can. Have His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, issue arrest warrants for the two of them and Ling Duan.”
Zhuang Jun had stayed by my side. Not knowing the particulars, he had broken into a cold sweat seeing my near assassination. He replied, “Daren, do not worry. This subordinate will immediately change horses and hurry back to report to His Imperial Highness. They will definitely be captured.” He had already learned of what had happened to Ling Duan and only treated it as an additional individual that needed to be captured, not taking it all that seriously.
Smiling, I nodded my head. Just as I was about to speak a few words of praise—after all he was going to depart immediately—two silhouettes appeared on courtyard walls. One was an old man, the other a graceful and pretty maiden, Cui Jiucheng and Jin Zhi. In unison, the two let out a sharp, piercing whistle, swinging their hands and sending a dozen small black balls from their hands. The balls exploded in midair, the explosions scattering smoke and needles. This was a rarely seen concealed weapon made using gunpowder. In a split second, the courtyard was completely covered in black smoke, cutting off everyone’s sight. All of the guards immediately found cover, dodging the needles. Fortunately, although these concealed weapons had wide impact radii, they weren’t that powerful. In addition, the guards all wore leather armor and they only needed to protect their faces. However, it seemed that the two servants did not want to harm Qiu Yufei, as the concealed weapons did not shoot towards the steps.
Seeing the situation, Xiaoshunzi grabbed me and jumped onto the steps. In a stroke of luck, we arrived next to Qiu Yufei’s prone body. I was not frightened in the least. The two servants’ martial arts were definitely not great. Xiaoshunzi was more than capable of protecting me.
At this moment, Qiu Yufei was paralyzed, his body laid on the steps. Although his appearance was quite sorry, when he occasionally opened his eyes, a cold light could be seen. The Devil Sect had numerous unique martial arts that were not known by outsiders. Of these martial arts, there was a cultivation method that was most suitable for use during the current circumstances. Qiu Yufei carefully regulated his breathing, using his internal energy to unseal his acupoints. Although they had been sealed, these ordinary techniques weren’t all that effective against him. Taking advantage of the attack by Cui Jiucheng and Jin Zhi, and not caring if he was discovered, Qiu Yufei focused completely on the flow of his internal energy. When Demonic Shadow Li Shun landed not far from him with Jiang Zhe, Qiu Yufei had already unsealed more than half of the sealed acupoints.
Although Qiu Yufei had carefully covered up his actions, Xiaoshunzi’s cultivation was far above his. Without needing to turn and look, Xiaoshunzi could tell from Qiu Yufei’s strange breathing patterns that something was fishy. However, Xiaoshunzi did not reveal this knowledge, thinking, Since this man has been taken prisoner, if he were to escape en route, it would surely be suspicious. It would be better to use this chaos to allow him to unseal his acupoints by himself. This time, he shouldn’t be single-mindedly focused on assassinating the young master.
According to Xiaoshunzi’s original intent, he would only be happy if he killed Qiu Yufei. However, Xiaoshunzi knew that this man was of utmost importance and was the perfect chess piece to sow dissension. If this man slipped out of his role, then Jiang Zhe likely would once again place himself in danger. As a result, the best solution to the problem was to follow the young master’s intent. Xiaoshunzi was always a quick-witted individual. In no time at all, he had come with a plan.
By that point, Cui Jiucheng and Jin Zhi had already jumped down from the courtyard walls. Both of them had radiant and dazzling daggers in their hands as they rushed to where Qiu Yufei was lying. Although their concealed weapons were vicious, the Stalwart Tiger Guard was, after all, Great Yong’s most elite force. It wasn’t long before the two servants were surrounded by a battle formation. Xiaoshunzi deliberately stood between Qiu Yufei and Jiang Zhe, on guard against an assassination attempt on Jiang Zhe by Qiu Yufei, who eschewed his life.
Seeing Cui Jiucheng and Jin Zhi do their best, Qiu Yufei knew that the window was closing. Not caring whether he would be discovered by Li Shun, he reversed the flow of his internal energy. He could not help spewing out a mouthful of blood. At the risk of suffering internal injuries, he finally unsealed all of his acupoints. Xiaoshunzi’s response was as Qiu Yufei expected. In the moment when he had spat out the blood, Xiaoshunzi had already grabbed Jiang Zhe and floated away. Qiu Yufei rolled over and jumped to his feet, raising his legs and kicking out, sending snow up into the air, attacking in the direction of Jiang Zhe and Li Shun. As for himself, Qiu Yufei leapt towards the courtyard wall.
At this same moment, Cui Jiucheng staggered back, the dagger in his hand sent flying. He tumbled to the snow-covered ground. Two sabers chopped down, forcing him to do everything to roll in evasion. Captivating red blood fell to the ground. Jin Zhi shrieked, throwing the dagger in her hand and sending it flying towards a guard who was about to behead Cui Jiucheng with a saber. Although the guard could not see the dagger flying towards him, he heard the warnings from his comrades. Disregarding everything, the guard rolled to evade and the dagger dropped to the ground after concluding its flight. Just then, Cui Jiucheng sat up with difficulty, his hand trembling. Black concealed weapons shot out. None of the guards wished to die together with him, naturally avoiding the smoke and the needles. Using Goguryeo, he shouted, “Quickly leave!”
Qiu Yufei and Jin Zhi both heard him clearly. At this moment, Qiu Yufei had already leapt onto the courtyard wall. When employing his qinggong to the fullest, he was not someone who could be stopped by the guards, let alone the fact that the majority of the guards were not focused on him. In addition, the only one who could stop him, Li Shun, was unable to disengage himself. As Cui Jiucheng was shouting, Jin Zhi had already seen Qiu Yufei’s actions and had sent her last concealed weapon flying in Jiang Zhe’s direction. Although her attack was blocked by the Stalwart Tiger Guard and Xiaoshunzi, she successfully ensured that Xiaoshunzi could not pursue Qiu Yufei without being worried.
Right when Qiu Yufei’s figure disappeared, Cui Jiucheng finally crumpled to the ground from his saber injuries. As for Jin Zhi, she was completely unarmed.1 Huyan Shou was extremely angry. Although he had received a secret voice transmission from Xiaoshunzi to not arrange for anyone to halt Qiu Yufei’s escape, so many Stalwart Tiger Guards being flustered by only three people left him deeply enraged. Seeing that Cui Jiucheng was already dead, his eyes fell upon Jin Zhi, surrounded by many guards. At this moment, Jin Zhi could only rely upon her exquisite movements to evade the attacks and was gasping for air. The hairpin in her hair had fallen out and her hair was a mess. Huyan Shou could not help feeling his bloodlust wane. He shouted, “Brothers, withdraw a step! Miss Jin, why haven’t you surrendered yet? If you continue to resist, there is only death.”
Hearing Huyan Shou’s order, the guards surrounding Jin Zhi took a step back, watching her like a tiger stalking its prey.
Jin Zhi felt her entire body grow powerless. Her legs weakening, she sat down on the snow-covered ground. Huyan Shou’s gaze turned to me, revealing a look to ask for instructions. Sighing, I shouted, “Jin Zhi, you are from Goryeo. Why are you getting involved in the matters of the Central Plains? Now that Qiu Yufei has already escaped, you have probably already completed your mission. Why not surrender? You are a weak woman forced into exile in a foreign country. I will not make things difficult for you. As long as you reveal the behind-the-scenes schemer and the support methods, I will allow you to leave. What do you think?”
Weakly, Jin Zhi lifted her head and replied in Goguryeo, “His Royal Highness received great favor from young master Qiu’s sect. He had no choice but to transfer Senior Cui and I to young master Qiu. Daren is a nobleman of the Central Plains and is greatly magnanimous. Every wrong has its agent; every debt, its debtor.2 Please do not blame the Sixth Royal Highness. These are all actions done of our own accords.” Finished speaking, jet-black blood seeped out from the corners of the young girl’s mouth. Her tender body twitched before weakly collapsing onto the ground, passing away.
After falling silent for some time, I said, “Xiaoshunzi, take half of the guards and go pursue Qiu Yufei. Return in four hours.”
Xiaoshunzi frowned. He naturally understood what Jiang Zhe’s real intentions were. However, he would be worried leaving Jiang Zhe behind by himself. While he was hesitating, a clear and bright voice said one of the names of the Buddha, “Amitabha. Benefactor Li, please be reassured. This old cassock is willing to replace Benefactor and protect Marquis Jiang for a period of time.”
Everyone’s gaze fell upon Great Master Compassionate Distance standing in the doorway of the courtyard with several young monks radiating health and vigor. Xiaoshunzi let himself relax. Great Master Compassionate Distance’s martial arts were in the top ten within the Shaolin Temple. In addition, these young monks were all distinguished disciples of the temple. There would definitely not be any problems in the short-term with their protection. In fact, if they were at Jiang Zhe’s side earlier, Qiu Yufei would not have dared to act. Everything had been deliberately arranged by Jiang Zhe beforehand, not allowing them to appear, leading to today’s panic.
Watching Xiaoshunzi and the guards’ figures depart, I thought, Since Qiu Yufei has already escaped, we need to ensure that our performance is perfect. We need to ensure that Qiu Yufei returns to Northern Han with the poisonous bait that I have prepared. With Ling Duan, Qiu Yufei, and the slaughter unfolding in Qinzhou, there is no need to worry that Long Tingfei won’t be ensnared. Long Tingfei, oh Ling Tingfei. After you have lost your wings and with your vitals seriously damaged, I wonder if you will still have the courage to resist Great Yong?
手无寸铁, shouwucuntie – idiom, lit. without even an inch of steel in the hands; fig. unarmed, defenseless, barehanded
冤有头，债有主, yuanyoutou, zhaiyouzhu – idiom, lit. for every grievance, there is a responsible party; for every debt, there is a debtor; fig. when settling disputes one should not involve third parties