The Grandmaster Strategist

Follow The Crowd (随波逐流)

Volume 6, Chapter 42: Regret Comes Too Late

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Volume 6, Chapter 42: Regret Comes Too Late

Ding Ming’s heart ached as he pointed forward with his sword and said, “Please let this one experience the world-renowned swordsmans.h.i.+p of the Fengyi Sect. Will you all not attack?”

A gray-haired woman next to Ling Yu scoffed, “Since you all are seeking death, I’ll honor your wishes.” With that, she brandished her sword and attacked.

Ling Yu slightly furrowed her brows, but this woman was her martial aunt, fiery of temper, which made it inconvenient to reprimand her, so she said with a smile, “My sisters-in-arms, bring this seat the heads of those people to avenge the enmity.”

At Ling Yu’s order, the women charged in with swords drawn. In a split second, they a.s.sailed the loyalists and the Lu family’s armed retainers, swords forming a mountain and the steel of the swords glinting like snow.

In an instant, blood spurted, and cries of “kill” came from every side. Ding Ming gave a mental sigh. If he hadn’t learned Lady Lu’s party had become trapped on the mountain road, he wouldn’t have come to the rescue with all his forces. He never expected to fall into the Fengyi Sect’s devious trap. It would have been fine if he himself died, but he truly regretted dragging in many loyalists as well as imperiling Lady Lu’s life. He detested Wei Ying for such treachery and betrayal and lamented the manager of the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets wasn’t allowed to come this time.

Ding Ming no longer held out hope for survival, and the long sword in his hand arced like a rainbow, soaring like a dragon, dancing like a phoenix, to forcefully block several elderly women. They were all expert swordswomen, having run amok through the Central Plains in the past, yet they were stopped by one of the younger generation. They were angered, and their swordsmans.h.i.+p became more vicious. If not for Ding Ming also fighting for his life, the swordswomen would probably have broken through the defensive line.

Seeing Ding Ming and the others in a precarious position due to the strong offensive, Ling Yu thought of how the Fengyi Sect could dominate Jiangnan after this, and a smile tugged at the corners of her lips. It added a bit more beauty to her features, which made her look even more ravis.h.i.+ng.

Carrying Lu Ting, Wei Ying led the ten sole survivors of the Sanguine Guard out of the mountain pa.s.s. His eyes were blank. He allowed Lu Ting to wail and struggle, and Lu Ting had even torn off the scab of the saber wound on his face, blood dripping down drop by drop, which still didn’t result in any changes in his eyes.

After walking for over twenty zhang,1 Cui Xiang was waiting for them on the road by himself. He had sent the rest of his forces forward. Before he received orders from Wei Ying, he truly was afraid to let the two sides b.u.mp into each other. If some people attacked in rage, revolting against Wei Ying, it would be troublesome.

Wei Ying didn’t so much as glance at him, walking straight to the camp they’d been quartered in beforehand. It wasn’t far ahead on the mountain road, so Wei Ying exercised his qinggong, skimming overtop the thick woods on the ridge. After turning left and right for a while, he finally reached a flat valley, flanked on three sides by bluffs, with the outward-facing side a bamboo forest. The interior could hold hundreds of resting men. This was the camp the North Star Hall had selected, but even though the tents still stood, only between seventy to eighty people were still around, and the majority were scarred all over.

When they saw Wei Ying coming over holding Lu Ting, they each went to stand up to welcome him, but they were veterans of jianghu. They quickly perceived that something was wrong, and their gazes landed on the red armband on Wei Ying’s arm, as well as the Sanguine Guard covered in blood behind him. Full of misgivings, they instantly understood. Some among them had already been suspicious, and now their doubts were laid to rest. Some people started cursing at once, completely ignoring that Wei Ying was in front of them.

Cui Xiang grew anxious and was about to step forward to stop them, but he saw Wei Ying scoff and a Sanguine Guardsman behind him whip a hand. The man cursing the loudest was. .h.i.t between the eyes with a throwing knife and died on the spot. Those men fell silent. When they thought of Wei Ying’s usual tactics, they all felt fear grip their heart. Although a murderous gleam shone in their eyes, they were scared of speaking again.

Wei Ying laughed grimly and said, “You idiots. What’s so special about some curs dying? They aren’t your relatives or bosom buddies. If I hadn’t done this, how could we have stayed out of it or gotten a chance to act? Would you really like to be oppressed by those wives and women your entire lives?”

This time, the look in everyone’s eyes changed, the murderous gleam fading away. They had always been cruel brigands by nature and were unwilling to let those women take advantage of them. It was just that since Wei Ying agreed to have the North Star Hall obey the Fengyi Sect Master, Ling Yu, they had no recourse. Ling Yu had arrayed her forces, and they dared not voice their opposition. Hearing Wei Ying’s current tone, it sounded like things were taking a turn for the better, and they promptly forgot about their dead compatriots.

Taking in the situation, Wei Ying further taunted, “If you all have the courage to act together with this seat to eliminate those women in one fell swoop, who in Southern Chu would dare oppose us in the future? Why aren’t you quickly getting ready? Once the two sides wear each other out, we’ll make our move.”

One of the people hesitantly said, “Chief, they have the numerical advantage, and their martial arts are excellent. Our forces have taken heavy casualties, so I’m afraid it’ll be very difficult to succeed.” The speaker then took a quiet step back, worried Wei Ying would fly into a rage out of humiliation and attack him. In fact, these words did rile up discussion. After all, the huge losses to the North Star Hall’s forces were caused by Wei Ying’s hand.

However, Wei Ying didn’t look the least bit angry, his icy eyes sweeping over the group. Everyone thought his eyes were full of confidence. Although he didn’t say much, the crowd had calmed down and were anxiously waiting for Wei Ying to pull out the ace up his sleeve.

Wei Ying looked at the savage faces with cool detachment, feeling downhearted. He thought of how he founded the North Star Hall quickly to achieve rapid success in getting revenge to the extent that the hall was mostly full of these bandits and brigands who traded integrity for coin. Although he’d used his martial prowess and money to firmly take control of them, even using them to do many things for Lu Can, those people still hadn’t reformed much. If he ordered them to intercept and kill the orphaned son of Lu Can, they would do so without any dissent. Other than the Sanguine Guard he’d selected to be somewhat loyal and brave, the survivors before his eyes were all blackguards who were d.a.m.ned. With these thoughts, his last bit of pity faded, and Wei Ying icily ordered, “Bring the chest up.”

Two men of the Sanguine Guard had already carried over a wooden chest hidden somewhere. One of them opened the lid to reveal many fist-sized red pellets. Wei Ying pointed at the chest and said, “This seat purchased these one hundred ‘Laughs of Yama’ for twenty thousand taels from the Poison King, Shen Ruhui. Inside the Laugh of Yama hides acutely toxic gunpowder. If used properly, one pellet can take the lives of several dozen people. Right now, the Fengyi Sect is engaged in fierce fighting with the martial artists of Jiangnan’s wulin community. As long as we seal off their forward path and their escape above, we can wipe out eighty to ninety percent of the women. This seat will personally lead the Sanguine Guard onto the cliffs and eliminate the sentries the Fengyi Sect left behind, then everyone here can do as they please.

“This vial contains the antidote. Anyone brave enough to follow this seat should swallow a pill. With danger comes riches and honor. Once the major action is successful, we’ll become brothers bonded by combat. We’ll definitely share the glory and splendor. Any coward can remain here, and as long as you don’t act arbitrarily, this seat won’t find fault with you. There’s only fifty antidote pills here, with each one worth a thousand gold taels. The fewer people go, the more precious antidotes this seat will keep.”

Most of the group was both surprised and pleased by the words. Some fought to step forward, while others cowered back. In the end, thirty-five people were picked to partic.i.p.ate in the operation. Wei Ying and the Sanguine Guard ingested the remaining antidotes. After planning a strategy, Wei Ying ordered everyone to eat their fill and regain their energy, while he carried Lu Ting into a tent.

Lu Ting had been on the border of consciousness the entire journey, and he’d since fallen asleep with tears in his eyes. Wei Ying looked at his dignified, strong, and cute appearance with pity, the icy expression on his face gradually melting away as he placed him on the bed. Covering him with a blanket, he softly patted him and put him to sleep.

Not long after, a Sanguine Guardsman entered the tent and whispered, “Chief, everyone who was unwilling to go has been disposed of.”

The icy look returned to Wei Ying’s face, and he briefly asked, “Is there a possibility of rebellion?”

The Sanguine Guardsman reported, “Don’t worry, Chief, we put a sleeping drug in those people’s food and drink. They’re all already unconscious. Said it was to prevent them from leaking the information, and the others were quite understanding. After all, n.o.body wants to truly combat the Fengyi Sect. After we leave, one brother will stay behind to kill all of them.”

Wei Ying lightly nodded. “All right, Lei Jiu, do you think I’m so ruthless as to not even let my subordinates live?”

Lei Jiu coldly said, “Those people are disloyal. Grand General was the pillar of the nation and was framed, killed by the treacherous minister. Even those villains of ours who scythe human lives are intolerable. They’re wholly unemotional, so eliminating them is a matter of course. However—” Lei Jiu sneaked a glance at Wei Ying and continued, “Chief, this strategy will harm the Fengyi Sect, Lady Lu, and Swordsman Ding altogether. This subordinate still feels uneasy. Although Ding Ming and those people have always been at odds with us, they were also bosom friends with Grand General, and Lady Lu is among them. Chief’s actions are rather harsh.”

“After Grand General perished, the traitorous Prime Minister took control of all parts of the Southern Chu military and government. The Fengyi Sect are capable a.s.sistants to the traitorous Prime Minister, and if they’re here: first off, the Grand General’s former subordinates can’t rest easy at any time, and second, it’ll be difficult for the Grand General’s family members to escape doom. Therefore, the Fengyi Sect must all be eliminated no matter the reason,” Wei Ying said with a stony expression. “If the Fengyi Sect’s influence can be eradicated, it’ll even be worth the lives of Ding Ming and those people, to say nothing of sacrificing the North Star Hall. What’s more, Wei Ying is an immoral villain who’s betrayed his country. Adding the crime of slaughtering the loyal and honest doesn’t really matter.

“As for Lady Lu, alas, I’m powerless. If neither of the mother and son survive, Ling Yu won’t trust this seat, even if my North Star Hall’s power is greatly crippled, and she’ll be even less willing to allow this seat to depart. Presumably, if Lady Lu knew the specifics, she would also request this seat take youngest young master away. However, this seat has somewhat let you all down. You, my Sanguine Guard, have not only been unwaveringly loyal to this seat, I’ve had you do quite a few major tasks for the state and the people. I’m very disturbed to greatly cripple you now.”

Lei Jiu spoke without mincing words, “Chief needs not say this. Lei Jiu used to be a bandit on his last legs. If not for gaining Chief’s high regard, I would still be muddling along in jianghu, struggling to survive. But all these years, Lei Jiu has been able to live with dignity and even serve the Grand General and the state. Even if I die now, my life would be worthwhile, and I can go face my ancestors. Although many of our brothers-in-arms died today, they died to protect Lady Lu, dying with no regrets. However … however, if Lady Lu can be rescued, this subordinate would be perfectly happy to do so, even if we all die.”

“I happened to meet the best poisoner in the world, the Poison King, Shen Ruhui, four years ago. As chance would have it, I helped him with a small favor, so I was able to purchase these poisons from him for this occasion. The hidden toxin contained in the Laugh of Yama is extremely powerful. If one cannot obtain the antidote within a hundred breaths, one is certain to die. A total of forty-four people followed this seat here, and five antidote pills haven’t been taken yet. One is set aside for the youngest young master, lest something happen, and if the other four can be given to Lady Lu and company, several more people will be saved. It’s just that once we mobilize, I’m afraid it’ll be too late. Because of this reason, I didn’t think too much about it,” Wei Ying sadly replied.

Lei Jiu smiled bitterly. It was true. With the toxin so powerfully effective, there was no way for anyone to make Lady Lu and company believe it and make them take the antidote within a hundred breaths, even if someone could send the antidote down the cliffs after mobilizing. It was no wonder Wei Ying didn’t consider this course of action.

Lei Jiu was also merciless and vicious. With events having reached this point, it was no good to overthink things, so he asked, “It should be just about time. Should I have them prepare to move out?”

Wei Ying nodded. “I think Ding Ming and the others can manage to hold out until dark. Now should be the time to go. Lei Jiu, please don’t go. I’m giving you youngest young master to protect. If I can return alive, it doesn’t matter, but if I die and Lady Lu is safe and sound, give youngest young master to Lady Lu. If Lady Lu also dies, give him to Adjunct Yang, Yang Xiu. As a last resort, you can deliver the youngest young master into the hands of the Marquis of Chu, Jiang Zhe, of Great Yong. Although he’s an important minister of Great Yong, he had an intimate friends.h.i.+p with the Grand General. He would presumably shelter the youngest young master. But that would go against Grand General’s wishes. If unnecessary, it’s best not to do so.”

Lei Jiu said in surprise, “How can this subordinate desert on the eve of battle? Why not ask Protector Cui to go?” He didn’t know of Wei Ying’s suspicions for Cui Xiang, still considering Cui Xiang Wei Ying’s confidant.

“How can this be called deserting on the eve of battle? If Li Ming didn’t have an important mission and couldn’t disengage himself, I wouldn’t have you carry this out,” Wei Ying angrily responded. “If Cui Xiang were to leave, I would worry those people would get suspicious. You should know that the Grand General’s line has decayed. If something bad happens to the youngest young master, I’m afraid … Alas! Of the Sanguine Guard, you’ve followed me the longest. If I didn’t trust you, how could I be willing to entrust you with the youngest young master? You aren’t allowed to question this task. Are you trying to defy orders?”

Lei Jiu dared not protest anymore at the words and could only obey. Wei Ying set his mind at ease and stood up and walked out of the tent, gazing into the dusk beginning to creep over the mountain woods. He felt exhausted. Although he had poisons and concealed weapons as aid this time, in truth, the Fengyi Sect’s swordsmans.h.i.+p and martial arts were extraordinary. Even with more wonder drugs, it would be difficult to predict things. The most likely scenario was both sides suffering. Even if the Fengyi Sect were annihilated, there was no way he could retreat uninjured. Going there would put him on the path of no return. Even though Wei Ying was ruthless, he still felt upset.

Gradually, though, hostility and killing intent appeared on Wei Ying’s features. A return path? He hadn’t had a way back for a long time! He, a dignified son of a prime minister, had become a traitor and rebellious minister. His career prospects had been shattered, and he’d even wandered through jianghu; he’d rotted like the plants. He couldn’t return home, his vengeance was hopeless, and all he had left was a body of hatred.

Fortunately, he’d gained the trust of Lu Can and worked with all his heart to help him on the battlefield and campaign, hoping to take advantage of this sole opportunity for revenge. However, all of it had been destroyed by the shortsighted women of the Fengyi Sect. Since he no longer had the possibility of getting revenge and was even running out of ways to establish himself, why should he remain in the land of the living? He’d already tasted all the myriad sufferings of the world. Survival had long ago become a matter of no concern.

However, even though he intended to die, the hatred in his heart didn’t lessen in the slightest. It was just that the hatred transferred from Jiang Zhe to the Fengyi Sect. By making one wrong move, all moves became wrong. Now he had no way back. And hadn’t the Fengyi Sect led him astray the whole time? If he had to die, he would drag the Fengyi Sect down with him.

These thoughts in mind, infinite killing intent emanated from Wei Ying’s body. Seeing his North Star Hall all kitted up and awaiting orders, he sternly declared, “Success or failure hangs upon this single action. If you wish to win riches, honor, glory, and splendor, risk your life for this seat.” With those words, he strode down the ridge.

Everyone hastily followed him. Some fantasized about getting riches, honor, glory, and splendor without lifting a finger. Others were nervously thinking about how to preserve their lives in the chaotic battle. Still others knew the danger of the situation, but made up their minds to not stop fighting until they died. Dozens of people all had their own thought process as they followed Wei Ying to the field of carnage.

Lei Jiu sadly watched Wei Ying’s figure recede. Only once everyone’s figures had disappeared into the dusk did he lift a saber and walk into the tents belonging to the North Star Hall. Without any mercy, he killed all forty-odd people locked up inside and left at the camp one saber stroke after another, the blood spilled forming rivers inside the tents. He was soaked in blood, fresh blood spattered over the bloodstains from the day’s hard fighting.

Lei Jiu felt uncomfortable and thought that if Lu Ting saw it, it would likely terrify the little kid. So he walked to the spring behind the camp and washed the bloodstains off his body, then changed clothing. Walking back to the camp, he made to obey Wei Ying’s orders. First, he would lead Lu Ting into hiding. After the general situation was decided, he would decide how to act.

Lei Jiu felt himself freeze when he lifted the curtain and walked into the tent. He saw to his surprise a gorgeous man in snow-white clothes with bladelike eyebrows and bright eyes sitting on the bed. The man had two fingers on Lu Ting, feeling his pulse. A young man in black clothes stood behind him carrying a zither case on his back. He was also a handsome personage. The expression on his features was as biting as a sharp blade. The two men had suddenly appeared, and both their looks and bearing stood out from the crowd.

Lei Jiu’s thoughts were whirling, but he couldn’t think of any in Jiangnan who matched them. If not for seeing that the white-clothed man didn’t have any malice towards Lu Ting, Lei Jiu would’ve been overwhelmed by horror. Even so, he stuck out his saber, gripping the handle, and asked in a severe tone, “Who are you? What are you here for? What are you attempting with the youngest young master?”

Hearing the rapid-fire questions, the white-clothed man didn’t seem to care. But the black-clothed youth sneered, “We don’t need to tell you who we are. And this child is seriously pitiful, injured by you ruffians to this state. My fourth young master took a liking to him upon sight and plans to take him away! Who are you to him? If you’re neither kith nor kin, don’t stick your nose in.”

Lei Jiu flew into a rage. He brandished his saber and sliced forward, ruthless to the extreme, the glinting of the blade brighter than the sun. This blow was his ace in the hole. In the many years he’d traveled Jiangnan, few people could completely dodge it. To his surprise, the black-clothed youth met it with his bare hands.

Lei Jiu’s vision blurred, and he felt his wrist go numb. The steel saber slipped out of his grasp. Reacting exceedingly quickly, he raised his left hand and launched a throwing knife at the young man’s vital regions.

The young man reacted instantly again and deflected the throwing knife with a flick of his wrist, the palm strike aiming for Lei Jiu’s chest. The cold wind stirred up by the palm strike spilled forth, and although it didn’t yet hit, it seemed unstoppable.

Lei Jiu was stunned and ignored the danger of the palm strike, risking his life to bound over to the bed, but he could only watch with wide eyes as the throwing knife sliced toward Lu Ting. He screamed, “Youngest young master!”

The man in snow-white clothes flicked his sleeve to block the throwing knife. His eyes landed on Lei Jiu’s terrified and indignant face, but he didn’t stop him, allowing him to leap over to the bed. With a snap of his hand, he ordered the black-clothed youth, who was pursuing Lei Jiu, to withdraw.

When Lei Jiu saw the throwing knife had been knocked to the ground, the burden on his shoulders lifted. He couldn’t but check over Lu Ting’s entire body. When he looked up, he saw the white-clothed man’s eyes clear as a river in colder weather. He was shaken. He thought of how an attendant of the man could easily defeat him, which caused a feeling of weakness to surge within him, powerless to stop it. But when he thought of the responsibility his chief had entrusted him with, he endured the humiliation to prostrate and say, “Please, sire, release the youngest young master. This one has orders to take care of him. If this one allows sire to take him away, this one will have no ability to explain it to Chief.”

The white-clothed man’s eyes glimmered. “This child has caught an illness and also suffered a scare. If this seat were to give him to you boors to tend to, I’m afraid his life would be at risk. This seat happened to be pa.s.sing through this area and treasures this child’s heritage and energy. I intend to keep him by my side. This is a kindness, and you aren’t an older relative of his either. What qualifies you to stop me from taking him away?”

Lei Jiu was about to speak but faltered, not knowing the ident.i.ty of the man, and he couldn’t reveal the youngest young master’s status at will.

Seeing his reaction, the white-clothed man picked up Lu Ting and was about to walk out when Lei Jiu flinched and tried to get in front. However, the black-clothed youth blocked him. Lei Jiu knew he wasn’t a match for the youth and was forced to say in a dejected tone, “The youngest young master is Grand General Lu’s youngest son. This one had orders to take care of him. The youngest young master’s elder brother and elder sister have both gone missing. I fear this is the only offspring the Grand General has left on earth. Please, sire, stay your hand in pity. Don’t s.n.a.t.c.h away the youngest young master.”

The man in white clothes froze in his tracks and his gaze wavered. After a long time, he finally said, “As he’s the youngest son of Lu Can, he should be with Lady Lu right now, migrating to southern Fujian. Why is he here?”

Lei Jiu feared he would take away Lu Ting. Thinking that Wei Ying should have made his move already, he didn’t need to hide everything, so he made mention of some of the events that happened, avoiding important details. He only hoped the man would leave Lu Ting behind after listening, and would at worst give his surname to let Lei Jiu know who was taking the youngest young master away. In the future, he would have a trail to follow. He didn’t expect the man to sigh deeply and reply, “So that’s how it is. I thought Wei Ying’s actions and behaviors didn’t add up. I didn’t expect him to also have this resolve. I underestimated him.”

Lei Jiu was shocked. He realized on the spot that the man had comprehensive knowledge on the others and him. He had intended to sound the man out, but he flew into a rage, caring about nothing, and picked up the steel knife that had fallen to the ground and attacked the man. To his surprise, the moment he moved, the white-clothed man flicked a sleeve, and several of Lei Jiu’s acupoints went numb, and he fell to the ground.

Through his peripheral vision, he watched the white-clothed man carry Lu Ting out. He shouted, “Don’t take away youngest young master! Who are you exactly?”

He heard the voice of the black-clothed youth reply, “Lu Ting will stay by our fourth young master’s side safe and secure. Don’t you worry. I, Ling Duan, have seen that you’re a brave man, so I’ll give you a way out. Whether it’s the Fengyi Sect or Wei Ying, they can only die this time. You should run for your life.”

Hearing the words, Lei Jiu heard only cras.h.i.+ng and banging in his head. An unimaginable thought rose to mind, and he yelled crazily in his head, They must be Yong citizens! They must be! His blood was boiling in an instant, but he couldn’t scream a single word. Lei Jiu then went unconscious.

***

Ding Ming stabbed to death a woman in snow-white clothes who’d just killed one of his companions. Afterwards, he skittered two steps back and returned to his own formation. The sharp sword chasing him was blocked by two long swords working together. Meanwhile, a crossbow bolt flew out of the opening that had just developed in the formation. Although the enemy knocked it down, it successfully forced the enemy back.

He instinctually looked back as he wiped the beads of sweat off his head to see a boy around twelve years old holding a crossbow, who was gazing at the Fengyi Sect swordswomen around them with burning eyes, and searching for an opportunity to shoot.

Ding Ming marveled at it in his head but also grew anxious. He may have set up a circular defensive formation in time, but the Fengyi Sect’s strength was as unfathomable as expected. It hadn’t yet been two hours, and only half of the people he’d brought still remained, and only five or six of the Lu family’s armed retainers were still alive. The others were all women and children. As to the royal guard, over twenty may have still remained, but they were terrified. However, because the Fengyi Sect showed no signs of mercy, they had to fight to the death. Seeing their position untenable, Ding Ming got the idea of breaking out, but the Fengyi Sect had surrounded them on all sides, from top to bottom, not giving them any way out.

A woman with gray hair in a high bun stabbed a Lu family armed retainer to death. A middle-aged woman standing next to Lady Lu, who Ding Ming and the others were protecting, shrieked and fainted. At the same time, the boy wielding a crossbow and aiding in battle shouted in sadness, “Daddy!”

Ding Ming shuddered on the inside, and he flitted over, once again pa.s.sing through the swirl of battle. His sword glowed like the Milky Way, and he killed the gray-haired woman, then he sprang back in swift retreat as numerous glinting swords came his way. Ding Ming knew that if he kept retreating, the enemy would break through the circular formation, so he stopped in his tracks and resisted the mountain of swords swings all on his own.

Ling Yu saw exactly what happened and ordered, “Don’t allow him to return.”

Following her orders, several white-clothed swordswomen, who had been watching from the sidelines, moved up to aid in combat. Everyone in the Fengyi Sect knew that as long as they killed Ding Ming, the surrounded group would become powerless to resist, so they all charged at him with all their might. Swords cut and thrust through the air; blood sprayed.

Ding Ming knew it was the moment his fate hung in the balance, and he couldn’t afford to reserve stamina, so he exerted his swordsmans.h.i.+p to his utmost.

The two sides in combat didn’t notice that the eyes of a royal guardsman in the middle of the Lu circular formation suddenly changed. The guardsman was just a normal royal guardsman. If there were anything different about him, it’d have to be his negligible martial arts, but somehow he’d survived until now.

At the moment, he was a.s.sisting a jianghu expert withstand the offensive of a white-clothed swordswoman. However, he suddenly heard a rhythmic and clear warbling of bird song. As the music changed, his expression slowly transformed.

All of a sudden, the steel saber in his hand jumped sideways, the slash extraordinarily vicious. Even the Wuyue volunteer army expert fighting shoulder to shoulder with him was taken aback, to say nothing of the Fengyi Sect swordswoman facing them. The saber burrowed into the chest of the swordswoman, then he offhandedly s.n.a.t.c.hed the swordswoman’s long sword. The sword raining down a flurry of blows, quick as a meteor or lightning, he sliced open the throat of a different Fengyi Sect swordswoman. Afterwards, he briskly withdrew toward Lady Lu, ignoring the incredulous looks of everyone around him.

n.o.body could have expected a normal royal guardsman would have such skill. He sprinted through them like a hot knife going through b.u.t.ter to get to Lady Lu’s side. Shouting a sharp rebuke, the two maids beside Lady Lu protecting her simultaneously brandished their sabers to stop him. With a twirl of the sword in his hand, the guardsman knocked their steel sabers away. He snapped, “Lady Lu, I am a disciple of Marquis Jiang.”

Lady Lu and everyone with her showed expressions of confusion and horror. At almost the same time, bellowing came from the escarpments above, and countless red pellets fell from the sky and exploded. In an instant, white smoke rolled over the two sides engaged in combat.

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The sun was hanging low in the sky, dusk falling heavy. The blood red rays of the setting sun reflected onto the white smoke, making the thick white smoke a bit lovelier. However, few people could appreciate the beautiful scenery. Screams and shrieks came from inside the white smoke. Dozens of dark figures appeared on the cliffs and threw down pellets in quick succession. Below, white smoke rolled through the mostly enclosed s.p.a.ce, filling it, with no human figures to be seen.

In the blink of an eye, Wei Ying and Ling Yu both fell off the cliff. Ling Yu could hear the buffeting of the wind in her ears, and she could feel through her five senses and eyes, ears, nose, and mouth the unusual sensation of the toxic smoke intruding. Then, after smas.h.i.+ng onto the mountain road, swells of intense pain from all her bones breaking and muscles snapping washed over her, making her lose consciousness on the spot.

The Fengyi Sect disciples on the cliffs looked at each other in dismay. They didn’t expect Wei Ying to turn the tables and bury Ling Yu with him. Just the toxic smoke alone at the bottom could kill Ling Yu, let alone the height of the cliffs. Ji Xia saw the situation and harshly said, “Don’t worry. After the smoke clears, we’ll go down to look for the Sect Master’s body.”

Ji Xia was the highest-ranking among them, and everybody nodded wordlessly. Seeing it, Ji Xia was gladdened, but when she thought of how the Fengyi Sect’s power was wiped out here, she grew unspeakably melancholic. She was right about to give the order to find a place to shelter when scoffing suddenly sounded in the encroaching twilight around them. “Long time no see, Lady n.o.ble Consort.”

Ji Xia was given a fright, looking in the direction of the voice. A person in the darkness suddenly lit a torch, after which dots of fire lit up one at a time, both near and far, more or less surrounding them. Not long after, the entire area was aglow. Ji Xia immediately saw a handsome man in the bright torchlight standing with his hands clasped behind his back. The man wore brocade clothes, his hair bound together by a jade hairpin, charming and graceful. He looked even more gorgeous in the torchlight. Multiple layers of figures stood around them, blocking all routes of escape.

Ji Xia said in astonishment, “Xiahou Yuanfeng, how are you here! This is impossible!”

Seeing Ji Xia acting hysterically, Xiahou Yuanfeng smiled and replied, “Lady n.o.ble Consort, no, your t.i.tle of ‘n.o.ble consort’ has long since been removed. I should call you Lady Ji. This official has imperial orders to take the trouble of infiltrating deep into Southern Chu. If the Fengyi Sect isn’t eliminated, the Emperor can’t rest easy. You all wouldn’t forget past events, nor has the Emperor, so although I have the honor of managing the Bright Inspection Department, I dare not live comfortably in Chang’an. I must come to send you off. However, I didn’t expect someone to act first, which has saved this seat a lot of time.”

Ji Xia felt discouraged, and the long sword in her hand nearly fell to the ground. But thinking better of it, she plucked up her spirits and harshly said, “Everyone, break out with me. It’s evening now. If they want to kill us all in one fell swoop, it won’t be that easy.”

She raised her sword and charged. She always knew Xiahou Yuanfeng looked out for his own hide, so she simply lunged at Xiahou Yuanfeng, trying to force him to dodge to take the opportunity to rush out. To her surprise, upon taking no more than three steps, she heard the unbroken sound of crossbows firing. She cast all worries aside to bound forward.

The crossbow bolts flew through the air, chasing her shadow. Right as she was about to reach Xiahou Yuanfeng, a white figure streaked through the torchlight, and a person in snow-white clothes stood before Xiahou Yuanfeng. He gently pushed a palm strike forward.

Ji Xia, having fought hard for most of a day, was at the end of her rope. Her recent action was just the last bit of her strength coming out, and she had essentially no opportunity to counterattack. The man’s palm strike cut into her heart. Ji Xia slowly collapsed to the ground, and an indescribable sensation of relaxation stole over her. She suddenly thought, If I had known death was nothing to fear, would I have struggled to eke out a living all these years? No longer able to hear the screams of her peers, a tired smile curled up at the corners of Ji Xia’s mouth as she slowly slipped into the dark abyss.

A moment later, Xiahou Yuanfeng inspected the dozen corpses with the help of the torchlight. Some had been shot dead by crossbow bolts, while others had been cut down by bladed weapons. Among the bodies were five women who nearly made it out, but they had all been killed by the white-clothed man. Xiahou Yuanfeng showed a satisfied smile and turned to the white-clothed man and saluted him. “Thank you, fourth young master, for your kind a.s.sistance.”

The handsome face of the man in snow-white clothes contains hints of disinterest, and he briefly said, “I didn’t expect I wouldn’t have to exert myself much. If I’d known beforehand, I truly wouldn’t have needed to come here.”

“Fourth young master is too humble. If not for fourth young master’s skill, who could’ve sniffed out the movements of the various forces on the journey? How could we have just surrounded and annihilated the dregs of the Fengyi Sect with such ease? This one shall report about fourth young master’s accomplishments to the Emperor,” Xiahou Yuanfeng said with a smile.

Qiu Yufei coldly said, “I don’t value rewards. Just don’t meddle.” He turned into the darkness and walked off, vanis.h.i.+ng in the blink of an eye.

Xiahou Yuanfeng fluttered his eyes, not quite understanding the meaning of Qiu Yufei’s words. Eventually, he calmed down and ordered, “The mountain winds have dispersed the toxic smoke. Go down and examine all the corpses of the Fengyi Sect. Also, don’t forget to collect Wei Ying’s body. He’s done a great service this time. If he weren’t here, the Fengyi Sect wouldn’t have been annihilated that easily, and he’s a person the Emperor kept an eye on. Alive or dead, we must report back about him.”

He thought about how if it weren’t for Wei Ying’s various plans to bait the Fengyi Sect to this killing ground, if he’d solely used his own methods, it would’ve been very difficult to avoid the eyes and ears of the Fengyi Sect to kill them in one fell swoop. Appreciation arose within him, and he decided to properly inter Wei Ying’s body.

The members of the Bright Inspection Department saw that the toxic smoke down below had indeed cleared away and went down to investigate, holding torches. Not long after, someone went back up and reported to Xiahou Yuanfeng, “Daren, over twenty people from Lady Lu and her entourage and the personages of Southern Chu’s jianghu are nowhere to be seen.” The person’s eyes flickered, worried about being criticized severely.

Surprisingly, Xiahou Yuanfeng could finally rest easy. He had received a letter from Jiang Zhe that told him to send people south and eliminate the Fengyi Sect with the Intelligence Management Section. He felt this was a rare opportunity to contribute, so he made an excuse that the Intelligence Management Section was busy with military affairs to personally lead people south. As expected, he’d made great contributions and completely eradicated the Fengyi Sect.

He’d already learned of everything that had happened here from the mouth of Qiu Yufei. He had just been late to act in order to succeed on the first attempt. When he thought of how Lady Lu could have died in the toxic smoke, he couldn’t help being apprehensive if Jiang Zhe blamed him for it, although he didn’t cause it. Only now could he set his mind at ease. He guessed it had to be the doing of Jiang Zhe’s subordinates, and he esteemed them a great deal. He couldn’t believe that man who had fallen sick in Chuzhou had such uncanny methods still.

At this moment, someone else hurried over and whispered a few words into Xiahou Yuanfeng’s ear. He was stunned and sprinted off the cliff, winding around to the mountain road below. He ignored the sights of the field of carnage illuminated by the torches. His gaze landed on the body of the man several of his subordinates were carrying over. The man was covered with wounds made by swords, skin torn and flesh gaping, drenched in bloodstains. His left arm had been hacked off, and even his legs were hanging limp. It was clear his legs were broken, but Xiahou Yuanfeng could sense the man’s chest was still rising and falling. There was still a hint of breathing.

After a bit of deep thinking, Xiahou Yuanfeng sighed lightly and took out a pill and stuffed it into the man’s mouth. Then he received a waterskin and made the man drink a few sips. After some time pa.s.sed, the man groaned and slowly came to. Xiahou Yuanfeng sighed softly again. “Brother Wei, we haven’t met in many years. Do you still remember your junior?”

Wei Ying opened his eyes, feeling sharp pain all over his body. It was like his limbs and body were no longer his. His features and eyes had also been blinded with blood, so his vision was blurry, making it impossible to make out the appearance of the man standing before him in the torchlight. However, once he heard Xiahou Yuanfeng’s voice, he almost instantly recognized the ident.i.ty of the speaker. Enduring the intense pain, he serenely replied, “Water? Help me stand.”

The man sighed softly, stooped over, and picked him up. Wei Ying tried hard to move his right arm. Although it was painful, he could slowly feel sensation returning to it. He extended a hand, and the other man poured clean water into his hand. He scooped the water to wash off the blood on his face, revealing handsome and elegant features.

Although blade scars and sword wounds were still on his face, as well as many marks of age, Xiahou Yuanfeng felt like an illusion had appeared before his eyes when he smiled at Xiahou Yuanfeng. The Wei Ying before his eyes didn’t seem like he was dying and was still the handsome and graceful son of the prime minister of the former emperor. Xiahou Yuanfeng remembered the martial arts compet.i.tion performed before the emperor like it was yesterday, and a hazy, nostalgic expression showed up on his face. After a long while, Xiahou Yuanfeng sighed and said, “What other unfulfilled desires does brother Wei have? As long as it doesn’t go against the Emperor’s wishes, this one will spare no effort.”

Wei Ying’s eyes roamed about as he gazed around. He briefly asked, “Did Lady Lu die?”

Surprise s.h.i.+mmered in Xiahou Yuanfeng’s eyes. “No, Lady Lu’s whereabouts are unknown. She’s presumably escaped.”

Wei Ying showed a smile and breathed a sigh of relief. “This truly is the best news I could hear. This way, even if I die, I’ll have the dignity to meet Grand General.” He raised his head to look at Xiahou Yuanfeng, his eyes reflecting the flames of the torches and growing ever more vibrant. They looked nothing like the dullness of a person about to die. He smiled and said, “During the martial arts compet.i.tion thirteen years ago outside the Vermillion Bird Gate, you, Qin Qing, and I were the best among them. It’s a shame General Qin died during the coup attempt at the Hunting Palace. I’m going to be leaving today as well. Only you will still be alive, but you can’t stand openly in the court. You still hate it when you remember the glory of us three was stolen by one person.”

Xiahou Yuanfeng could see Wei Ying’s breathing weakening, so he didn’t drag things out. He calmly said, “How could I not hate it? I, Xiahou Yuanfeng, have always thought highly of myself. Of the excellent compet.i.tors of Great Yong that year, I thought nothing of any of them besides brother Wei. However, once Jiang Suiyun arrived in Great Yong, we paled in comparison. How could I not resent him? But I’ve always been adaptable. In terms of intelligence and trickery, that man is the best in the world. He acts when needed and shows mercy when necessary. I’m ashamed to say I’m not this resolute and shrewd, so I naturally admired him. Maybe I still resent him a little, but I wouldn’t destroy my bright future to oppose him.”

Wei Ying laughed in reply. “All right, all right, if I had discerned that at the beginning, I wouldn’t have ended up like this. You and I are old friends. Since you have this in mind, I won’t put on airs. I’ve done many things wrong in my life and badly regret them when I think back. Being buried in a foreign land is also n.o.body’s fault but my own. Please, cremate my body to ash and take half of it back to Chang’an. I’m ashamed to be buried in the ancestral tomb of the Wei clan. I ask of you to bury me on a mountain where I can gaze over my late father’s tomb. Let me guard my father’s grave in the afterlife to atone for sins of disloyalty and lack of filial piety.”

Xiahou Yuanfeng silently nodded. “That’s no problem. Brother Wei, although you committed unpardonable crimes, you reformed yourself today and turned over a new leaf. You took the Fengyi Sect down with yourself and only requested to be buried in your homeland. If the Emperor knew, he would acquiesce too. Now then, brother Wei, what do you want to do with the other half of your cremated ashes?”

Wei Ying’s eyes gradually lost focus. He said in a low voice, “I’m a turncoat and despised by the people. Only Grand General Lu Can of Southern Chu trusted me and employed me. This favor and kindness is impossible to repay even if I’m smashed to pieces. Today, I betrayed his great kindness, wanting to be buried in the Xianxia Mountains. Please scatter the other half of my ashes on Grand General’s grave. Even if I die, I won’t forget his compa.s.sion.”

Xiahou Yuanfeng was astounded by the words. Finally, he sighed and said, “Lu Can must’ve been a hero of the age to be rewarded with such loyalty from brother Wei. It’s a pity I can’t ever personally meet that man. I’m afraid it’ll be a lifetime regret.” He slowly shook his head and was about to leave, as Wei Ying was about to stop breathing. He knew Wei Ying could no longer hear his voice or see his face anymore.

Wei Ying’s vision was a patch of black. He knew death was coming, but he didn’t have any more grudges. He sang at the top of his lungs, “Rivers cascade over flat ground, / Each flowing north, south, east or west—”

He intended to sing loudly, but in reality, his voice was extremely weak. And after singing two lines, his voice suddenly cut off.

Xiahou Yuanfeng couldn’t help but look back and saw Wei Ying had stopped breathing, his face extraordinarily tranquil and peaceful.

Footnotes:

About 50 meters (around 55 yards)

Over 3 meters (more than 10 feet)

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