Duan Lingxiao had been prepared to react for some time. However, based upon his status, it would be a significant loss of face if he were to act as soon as I spoke. As a result, he stood there calmly and did not flinch, wishing to clearly see which direction the attack would come from. If it came from behind, then the distance of fifteen zhang was more than enough to ensure Jiang Zhe’s death. At this moment, he had long abandoned all thought of capturing Jiang Zhe alive. It was best that this kind of individual met an early death.
As the sound of my voice resonated, the sediment in front of the two guards and half a step away from me suddenly burst apart. Two figures erupted forth from the ground. In a flash, the two figures kept me protected behind them. Duan Lingxiao felt a chill run up his spine and unwittingly retreated half a step. How was this possible? At such a close distance, how did he fail to discover someone’s concealed presence? After the dust had cleared, Duan Lingxiao was finally able to clearly discern the two figures’ appearances. They were two Buddhist monks about thirty-five or thirty-six years old. The two monks were reserved and had average appearances. However, they wore determined expressions on their faces. Duan Lingxiao snorted, “So it’s monks from the Shaolin Temple.”
At this moment, my clear and melodious voice rang out as I explained, “Great Master Upright Dharma and Persevering Dharma are the Eighteen Arhats from the previous generation. Several years ago, after the battle with the Fengyi Sect Master, only a portion of the Eighteen Arhats returned alive. After surviving that battle, the two Great Masters dedicated themselves to Zen cultivation. Buddhist martial arts specialize in curbing the practitioner’s breathing. That is how elder young master was hoodwinked. However, there is no need for elder young master to worry. The two Great Masters concede that they are not Sire’s match. As a result, I have invited other experts as reinforcement.”
Duan Lingxiao’s heart sank. Being fortunate enough to survive that duel to the death with the Fengyi Sect Master, these two monks were already difficult to deal with. Who would have thought that Jiang Zhe would have so many concealed experts by his side?
At this moment, he heard a steady voice speak up from behind him, “This poor Daoist, Zhang Jinxiong, pays my respects to elder young master Duan.”
Afterwards, a gentle voice said, “Lingzhenzi1 of Emei pays my respects to elder young master Duan.”
Duan Lingxiao darted, retreating over a zhang. Then he angled his body and looked at the two individuals behind him. From the horizon, he watched two individuals walk over unhurriedly. One of them was a Daoist priest in azure robes. His appearance bold and powerful, he walked with steady vigor and footsteps. His hands were empty.
The other was a female Buddhist nun in black robes. Her beautiful appearance carried an indifferent expression on her face. In her hand she held a horsetail whisk. Duan Lingxiao could not help heaving a sigh. Who would have thought that Jiang Zhe would go to such lengths to ensure victory?
Hiding behind Upright Dharma and Persevering Dharma, the corners of my mouth could not help curving upward hearing Duan Lingxiao sigh. However, I quickly exercised restraint. I had carefully selected these four after long deliberation. For this invasion of Qinzhou, in order to defend against the disciples of the Devil Sect, the Prince of Qi had long ago submitted a petition requesting the assistance of experts from the virtuous sects of jianghu. The top experts of each sect were in secluded cultivation. This in itself was not surprising. Once one’s martial arts reached a certain threshold, the tests of the battlefield were no longer of any help to their cultivation. The experts who remained within Great Yong’s military were not the best martial artists. In addition, several experts were within the imperial palace. As a result, I had specifically asked the emperor to conscript several jianghu experts to await instructions within the army. Of course, this matter was done secretly. After all, the identity of these experts were the most confidential of military secrets.
The Shaolin Temple had dispatched the most experts. Of the twelve survivors of that battle, six came. In addition, there were many other disciples from various generations.
Because of their previous support of the crown prince, the Kongtong Sect didn’t receive any benefits though Zhang Jinxiong’s return to the right path ensured they were not implicated. This time, to benefit, the Kongtong Sect had made significant investments, sending its head disciple, Zhang Jinxiong, to lead twelve elite disciples to join the army. After Zhang Jinxiong had returned to the Kongtong Sect, because of his experiences, he had grown disillusioned with the mundane world and become a Daoist priest. His martial arts had advanced leaps and bounds, and he had learned several of the Kongtong Sect’s secret, finest techniques. At present, although his cultivation was still a step away from the Xiantian realm, his martial arts had exceeded the level of top-quality experts.
The Emei Sect was also unequivocal in its support. Lingzhenzi was the leading expert of the sect. Although she was over forty years old, she looked no more than twenty years old. Her cultivation of Emei’s Chaotic Cloak Technique had reached the point of perfection. Her mastery of the horsetail whisk was known throughout the world.
In the letter I had sent to the Prince of Qi, I had him deliver experts beforehand and had these experts arrive at this location ahead of time. Afterwards, they set up this trap and waited for Duan Lingxiao to be ambushed. Of course, I was also prepared for the possibility that Duan Lingxiao would not come. But, according to my reckoning, there was at least a sixty percent chance that I would be able to meet Duan Lingxiao. As expected, he had ultimately come. Even though none of the four experts had reached the Xiantian realm, they were extremely close to breaking through (this was Xiaoshunzi’s judgment). Combined with Xiaoshunzi providing support, Duan Lingxiao had no way of escape.1
Pleased with myself, I spoke in a clear voice, “If elder young master Duan is willing to surrender, I am willing to swear an oath to never harm you. I wonder if elder young master is willing?”
A look of understanding appeared in Duan Lingxiao’s abyss-deep eyes. He replied, “There is a time for life and a place to die. This place is as beautiful and secluded as a paradise. Even if I died here, I would have no complaints or resentments. Marquis Jiang, this one admires your divine strategies.”
Hearing his words, I found myself become thoughtful. A matter I had overlooked suddenly surfaced in my mind. I wanted to kill Duan Lingxiao because his martial arts were too powerful. Thinking of how I would likely have drowned if Su Qing couldn’t have escaped, I had become increasingly worried about Duan Lingxiao’s existence. His martial arts were outstanding. If he discovered my arrangements, wouldn’t defeat be snatched from the jaws of victory? That was why I risked my own life to lure him into this trap and have him killed. However, as my goal neared success, I thought of another matter. These days, I had only thought about the threat this man posed and had forgotten that he was the chief disciple of the Devil Sect. If he died here, then Jing Wuji would have a reason to personally act. Wouldn’t this mean I was asking for trouble? As long as Duan Lingxiao did not die, Jing Wuji would not act freely unless we directly attacked Jinyang. As a result, Duan Lingxiao could not die here and also could not be captured alive. He must be seriously injured and allowed to escape. Only this course of action would be of benefit to the Yong army.
As I was deep in contemplation, Duan Lingxiao had already acted, his figure pouncing directly towards where I was standing, almost as if he wanted to kill me in one strike. Of course, Upright Dharma and Preserving Dharma had already established a tight formation to welcome his attacks. Before they had come, the Prince of Qi had issued strict orders: if anything happened to the Marquis of Chu, everyone would suffer. The two were already apprehensive when they were waiting in the dug holes and listening to the conversation between Jiang Zhe and Duan Lingxiao, terrified that something unfortunate would happen to Jiang Zhe. Although they knew that Jiang Zhe wore a set of armor underneath his robes and were also prepared to block Duan Lingxiao’s attack, the two of them could not help being anxious. Right now, how could they allow Duan Lingxiao to succeed?
Just as the two of them made their moves, three internal energies collided. Faster than he had advanced, Duan Lingxiao retreated. He somersaulted in midair, intending to escape. At this moment, the only one who was faster than Duan Lingxiao, Xiaoshunzi, did not intervene. Instead, he rushed to my side to ensure my safety. Just as Duan Lingxiao was about to escape the trap, three red lights flashed through the air, blocking Duan Lingxiao’s departure. Duan Lingxiao flung his hand out, creating a gale. The red lights penetrated through the gale that he had created before slowly falling to the ground. Even so, Duan Lingxiao slowed and was surrounded by the four martial arts experts. The three lights were blood caltrops Zhang Jinxiong had shot out using Kongtong Sect’s secret techniques and were extremely poisonous concealed weapons capable of piercing the aura of a Xiantian expert.
Seeing that his only opportunity to escape had been lost, Duan Lingxiao’s face became grave. Standing resolutely and steadily, he concentrated upon receiving the enemy. As the five of them fought, although Duan Lingxiao admittedly had superior martial arts, his four opponents had long ago trained to work together. Upright Dharma and Persevering Dharma both had high internal energy. Using it fully, they practically assumed responsibility for the majority of Duan Lingxiao’s attacks. Zhang Jinxiong’s martial arts were a bit skewed, vicious and ruthless to the extreme. He was the most destructive. As for Lingzhenzi, the techniques she cultivated were most versed in using softness to defeat hardness. She was not impetuous. Instead, she used her qinggong to obstruct from the outside. Whenever Duan Lingxiao wanted to escape, he would have to face her all pervasive offensive. With the four of them collaborating, they were very formidable. Although, Duan Lingxiao lived up to his reputation as the chief disciple of the Devil Sect and was able to cope, revealing no signs of defeat. At the same time, however, it wasn’t that easy if he wanted to escape. Further, there was also Xiaoshunzi waiting in the wings.
Staying at my side to protect me, Xiaoshunzi watched the fierce battle. However, he did not intervene. First, he was worried about my safety. Second, he was studying Duan Lingxiao’s weaknesses, hoping to defeat him in one strike. It was impossible for him to conceal his intentions from me. Frowning slightly, I pondered how to handle the current situation.
By this moment, Huyan Shou and Su Qing had come over, leading over twenty Stalwart Tiger Guard. Delivering six severed heads, Huyan Shou loudly pronounced, “Reporting to daren, the six infiltrators that came with Duan Lingxiao have already been beheaded. Daren, please examine them. All of these men had strong martial arts and should be disciples of the Devil Sect. However, three of our men also suffered injuries.”
I sighed lightly. Alas, when Duan Lingxiao had infiltrated the hamlet, those following him had already been discovered by the sentries that I had secretly positioned. As a result, when Duan Lingxiao had killed my bodyguards and changed into a disguise, I had already learned that he had come. It was quite a pity for those dead bodyguards, as I was powerless to do anything to prevent their deaths at a young age at the hands of the enemy. I unenthusiastically replied, “General Huyan, bring these heads to serve as sacrifices to the departed souls of our warriors.”
Understanding my intentions, Huyan Shou did not rise and replied, “All of us had long known of daren’s plan to set a trap. Every one of us knew of the dangers. There are no regrets even if we lose our lives. Daren, please do not blame yourself.”
I felt my heart warm. Looking deeply at Huyan Shou, I asked, “If I had no alternative but to allow this man to go, would you still continue to not hate me?”
Although Huyan Shou was startled, he quickly answered, “Daren would only come to such a decision after careful deliberations. This general and company will definitely not have any complaints.”
Relaxing, I glanced at Su Qing, seeing her gaze at Huyan Shou with shining eyes. Her expression was somewhat amazed. Noticing me looking at her, she spoke, “Daren is farsighted and brilliant. There is definitely a profound reason for this decision. Su Qing supports any decision that daren makes.”
With this, I finally set aside my worries and said, “The men Duan Lingxiao brought with him were presumably all experts. Killing the six of them is enough compensation for the losses we suffered. Withdraw for now.”
After Huyan Shou and Su Qing withdrew, the Stalwart Tiger Guard under their command formed a perimeter and circled the area, forming the saber formation they had diligently practiced. If Duan Lingxiao could escape the four experts, he would not be able to easily escape the saber formation. With the dragnet set, Duan Lingxiao was already caught, making escape difficult for him. I was still finding it hard to decide whether to allow him to escape or to kill him.
After another hundred-plus exchanges had been fought, Duan Lingxiao’s mind was as calm as water. Although the four experts assailing him were experts of the era, they were greatly inferior in comparison. Although Houtian and Xiantian had only a miniscule separation, the contrast was quite deep. However, if there were only these four individuals, Duan Lingxiao was certain that he would be able to annihilate them even if he suffered some injuries. However, there were over a hundred Stalwart Tiger Guard gathered beyond who had established their saber formation. In addition, although that young man in azure standing by Jiang Zhe did not intervene, his frigid gaze was penetrating. As a result, Duan Lingxiao had to use half his mind to stay guard. With the trap set, even if his master were present, he would not necessarily be able to escape unscathed. However, in this dangerous situation, Duan Lingxiao only felt delight well up from inside. It was quite difficult for him to experience the boundary between life and death. As such, this embarrassing situation actually caused him to become excited.
Gleams flashed across Xiaoshunzi’s eyes, because he could sense the small changes to the battle. Although Duan Lingxiao was still battling four opponents and the four were interchanging fluidly, blending together quite well, almost as if a single person had four pairs of hands, Duan Lingxiao seemingly had some cards up his sleeve. He came and went as he pleased, unobstructed. Although he could not escape the assault, no matter how the four employed their clever and wonderful techniques he repelled them easily. Although this man was a dangerous enemy, Xiaoshunzi was still filled with admiration at heart.
Extremely sensitive to the changes in Jiang Zhe’s mood, Xiaoshunzi had already sensed that Jiang Zhe felt a bit of anxious. As a result, Xiaoshunzi softly said, “Young master, I need to intervene.”
With a quiver, I returned to my senses. Gazing at the arduously battling Duan Lingxiao with calm expressions and poised bearing, I thought to myself, If I have Xiaoshunzi capture him alive, it will likely stymie Xiaoshunzi. It is best to leave Duan Lingxiao’s survival in the hands of fate. At worst, I’ll directly face the Devil Sect. The look on my face returning to normal, I stonily instructed, “Go intervene. Be careful though. I don’t care if he lives or dies.”
Xiaoshunzi nodded his head slightly and slowly advanced. Seeing this, Huyan Shou and Su Qing walked to my side to ensure my safety. After all, my safety was of the utmost importance. The Devil Sect’s martial arts were profound and mysterious. Who knew if Duan Lingxiao had techniques that ensured both sides would be defeated? If he were allowed the opportunity to harm me, they would be unable to escape blame even if Duan Lingxiao were chopped into mincemeat.
Duan Lingxiao shivered. He had clearly seen what was going on beyond the fight. If Xiaoshunzi joined in, then it would be impossible for him to have any hope of escaping alive. However, he also knew that this was also the only opportunity for him to escape. Once Xiaoshunzi joined, the four experts currently attacking him would definitely reveal an opening. In addition, with the enemy’s best expert joining in, the four already fighting would naturally relax some. If he could grab that moment, Duan Lingxiao knew he would be able to break through and escape. If this opportunity were missed, there were no other hopes. However, how was he going to take this opportunity? Willingness to die swelled in Duan Lingxiao. His mind cleared and his senses reached their most sensitive state. Although this change was subtle and nothing affected Duan Lingxiao’s moves, the four assailing him were close to the Xiantian realm and could sense the ripples from Duan Lingxiao. All of them knew that the crucial moment that determined life or death had arrived. Concentrating, they prepared to relax their attack perimeter at the appropriate moment and allow Xiaoshunzi to join in. This wordless tension even caused the Stalwart Tiger Guard who were unable to sense anything strange to hold their breaths and stare with rapt attention, not daring to relax in the slightest.
Although I did not know martial arts, I had constantly watched Sir Sang, Xiaoshunzi, Dong Que, and company spar in the Eastern Sea. With my superior six senses, I could sense the changes in everyone’s bearings. Besides, fights in jianghu frequently entailed incorporation of the art of war. A flash of insight struck my mind and I suddenly realized the crux of victory or defeat. The moment Xiaoshunzi joined in was also the moment my trap reached the zenith of its power. The instant before he joined in was the nadir. As long as this instant was passed, Duan Lingxiao would fall completely into my hands.
As my mind turned, I watched Xiaoshunzi slowly approaching the five battling. I calculated how to provide help and destroy Duan Lingxiao’s sole thread of survival. I swept my eyes over the scene, coming to a decision in my mind. To Su Qing beside me, I asked in a whisper, “What is your most formidable swordsmanship?”
In a low voice, Su Qing answered, “Master once passed a sword technique to me called Indiscriminate Destruction.2 It’s just that Su Qing has not fully mastered this technique and cannot employ it in its entirety.”
Her response was quick and humble, not hesitating in the slightest. I felt great appreciation. As expected, she was a well-trained soldier and did not have the slightest intent of defying a superior’s order. Not being too formal with her, I replied, “Use your most formidable swordplay to stop Duan Lingxiao, who is going to use Xiaoshunzi’s entry to try to escape.”
By now, Xiaoshunzi had already arrived outside the perimeter. Fortunately, he had been unhurried in his progress in order to allow the four experts to have ample time to prepare, otherwise I would not have had the opportunity to dispatch Su Qing to check Duan Lingxiao’s flight. Living up to her reputation as Wen Ziyan’s disciple, she was able to thoroughly understand my intentions even though I had spoken ambiguously. Taking advantage of everyone’s focus upon the battle, she softly shifted her position. With her right hand on the handle of her sword, her pair of beautiful eyes carefully watched each and every one of Duan Lingxiao’s movements. As for Huyan Shou, he also stepped up, covering the hole Duan Lingxiao had just revealed.
At this moment, the four experts surrounding Duan Lingxiao simultaneously shifted positions. They were as swift as lightning. Everyone felt flashes appear before their eyes. The four experts had already changed positions. The originally tight perimeter revealed an opening. His figure like a devil, Xiaoshunzi appeared at this opening. The five of them seemed to move like a fire fanned by the wind. Their timing could be said to be flawless.
However, like nature, the moment when the formation became the strongest was also the weakest moment. At that instant, Duan Lingxiao’s figure seemingly became an illusion and like a bolt of lightning broke through the encirclement. Like a flowing rainbow or a lightning bolt, Duan Lingxiao shot towards the lake.
At the time, everyone relaxed when they saw Xiaoshunzi join the battle. This barely perceivable opening had been fully grasped by Duan Lingxiao. He had carefully selected the direction he had chosen to escape toward. Although this direction was seemingly dangerous, Jiang Zhe was in that direction. As a result, Huyan Shou and Su Qing would definitely seek to ensure Jiang Zhe’s safety first. With those two’s martial arts, Duan Lingxiao knew that it would be impossible for him to take Jiang Zhe’s life in one strike. Duan Lingxiao did not have any thoughts. He only sought to cross the lake and conceal himself in the forest beyond.
Duan Lingxiao’s plan was originally certain of success. Just as Duan Lingxiao flitted past Xiaoshunzi, all five of the experts encircling him were greatly alarmed, exhausting everything they had to block his flight. Letting out shouts, the two Shaolin experts attacked, loosing Skyward Strike and Hundred Paces Divine Fist towards Duan Lingxiao’s back. As for Zhang Jinxiong, his complexion became deep red. Exhaling a loud breath, he struck his own right ribcage. This was Kongtong Sect’s most powerful and profound martial arts, Seven Harms Fist. Within this fist were concealed seven different internal energies. If someone was hit, their bones and arteries would all be convulsed to ruin, while leaving no outer signs. Lingzhenzi let out a shout and forced the countless silver threads on her horsetail whisk to become as straight as a ramrod. Like this, the whisk was sent slamming towards the back of Duan Lingxiao’s head. The most threatening was Xiaoshunzi. There was very little difference in terms of martial arts level between Xiaoshunzi and Duan Lingxiao. He had long ceased to need to use that hairpin forged from a meteorite. A single finger shot through the air. Like a sharp blade, a gloomy and chilling internal energy shot towards one of Duan Lingxiao’s acupoints.
Within this narrow space, everyone’s internal energies intersected and raged. The Stalwart Tiger Guard light armor that Duan Lingxiao wore burst apart like the wings of a butterfly. Under the whistling and piercing gale, Duan Lingxiao was able to successfully escape the encirclement. Transforming his path into an arc, he prepared to avoid the direction Jiang Zhe was in. After all, he did not wish to enrage his enemies and be encircled again. Endangering Jiang Zhe’s life was the matter most likely to cause everyone to be enraged.
Just as Duan Lingxiao broke through the encirclement, the hiss of a sword shattered the air. A black figure flew high into the air, diving in the direction Duan Lingxiao was escaping toward. The glinting steel was like the parting of a spring cloud. The sword itself was filled with an unstoppable and unequaled force. When the sword approached him, Duan Lingxiao exhaled a breath and struck out with a fist. The fist and sword met. That exquisitely refined sword shattered into pieces and Su Qing was sent flying backward. As for Duan Lingxiao, he also retreated half a step. At this moment, he was three steps away from the lake. However, he was so close and yet so far away, like the distance separating life and death.
A grave look on his face, Xiaoshunzi had already appeared before Duan Lingxiao, blocking his retreat. As for the four experts, they had moved up. The five of them encircled Duan Lingxiao. With their envelopment established, there was no further openings for Duan Lingxiao to exploit. Heaving a deep sigh, Duan Lingxiao knew that his only opportunity to live had been severed. His eyes passed over everyone and fell upon Jiang Zhe. Duan Lingxiao saw the slight smile on Jiang Zhe’s face, almost as if everything was within his calculations. Su Qing’s face was deathly pale as she stood by Jiang Zhe’s side. It seemed she had suffered enormously because of that sword move. Although Su Qing was the one wielding a sword, Duan Lingxiao knew that she did not have the depths to discover that he was about to escape. As for the most likely candidate, it was naturally Jiang Zhe, the only one who could command Su Qing. Who would have thought that I would also lose my life at this young man’s hands? Duan Lingxiao revealed a wry smile.
Watching Xiaoshunzi and the four experts force Duan Lingxiao back, I could finally relax. With this, it was guaranteed that Duan Lingxiao would be forced to remain. If we wished to capture him alive, we would still have the opportunity. Just now, when he attempted to escape, he had definitely been seriously injured. The attacks from Xiaoshunzi and the four experts could not lightly be avoided. With Xiaoshunzi and company now inevitably humiliated and angry, they would be even more careful in their attacks. If Duan Lingxiao was able to escape under such circumstances, then he would likely be worthy of inclusion among the grandmasters of the era. However, in my view, this was impossible. However, I still admired this man. Xiaoshunzi’s martial arts were probably on par with his. However, Xiaoshunzi fell short in terms of experience. After all, he was still young. However, after today’s battle, Xiaoshunzi’s martial arts should be able to advance.
After some more time had passed, even someone like me who didn’t know martial arts knew that Duan Lingxiao had lost all power to retaliate and was only resisting out of sheer force of will. Xiaoshunzi and company cooperated soundly. With matters becoming increasingly smooth, while I was wondering whether to order Xiaoshunzi to capture Duan Lingxiao alive, Xiaoshunzi suddenly continuously attacked with killing techniques. Flashes appearing before my eyes, the situation had changed once again. Xiaoshunzi and Duan Lingxiao began to forcibly exchange blows, while the four experts surrounded them, waiting for the opportunity to strike at any openings that Duan Lingxiao revealed.
Before I could even react, Xiaoshunzi had already struck Duan Lingxiao’s shoulder. Just as Duan Lingxiao staggered and retreated, the two Buddhist monks seized the opportunity and attacked with grappling techniques they had mastered. As he was seized, Duan Lingxiao let out a harsh shout, spitting blood out of his mouth. As experts from the Shaolin Temple, both Upright Dharma and Persevering Dharma understood the secret techniques of the Devil Sect. The two dodged at all costs the Bloody Arrow that Duan Lingxiao had spewed, refined from his blood and internal energy.
Although Duan Lingxiao obtained this opening, Zhang Jinxiong and Lingzhenzi had both leaped forward to occupy it. As he ducked to evade Lingzhenzi’s horsetail whisk, Duan Lingxiao felt a pain in his right knee. Xiaoshunzi had pointed a finger, and from a distance its power struck Duan Lingxiao’s weizhong acupoint.4 Feeling an icy energy invade such an important acupoint, Duan Lingxiao was no longer able to remain standing. With no alternative, he allowed his right knee to drop to the floor and rolled, avoiding Zhang Jinxiong’s palm strike by a hair’s breadth.
Well aware that he had no hope returning alive, Duan Lingxiao understood that the enemy intended to capture him alive. Otherwise the two Buddhist monks would not have used grappling techniques. Immediately, a resolution to commit suicide popped into his mind. As the chief disciple of the Devil Sect and the future Sovereign of the Devil Sect, how could he suffer such humiliation? Sighing inside, when Duan Lingxiao was about to sever his heart arteries, at that moment between life and death, everyone suddenly heard a stern shout, “Everyone, stop or I will kill this man!”
凌真子, lingzhenzi – lit. master genuine virtue
插翅难飞, chachinanfei – idiom, lit. even given wings, you couldn’t fly; fig. impossible to escape
玉石俱焚, yushijufen – idiom, lit. to burn both jade and common stone; fig. to destroy indiscriminately
The popliteal fossa, the hollow at the back of your knee