Book 21 Chapter 3 - Right Place, Right Time
After hastening on his journey for two days and nights, Xu Ziling finally reached the Great River.
On the vast surface of the river, surprisingly there was not even half a sail of boat, but the water was surging, from west to east, the torrent flowed endlessly. Although the Yangtze River was like this, it did not pose any problem to Xu Ziling at all. It's just that he was in no hurry to cross the river; therefore, he simply followed the river upstream, hoping to find a narrower section of the river, so that he could save a bit of energy.
When the sun set over the western hills, the twilight glow made the river resplendent with bright, multicolored light, bringing about some kind of melancholy, yet colorful and beautiful feeling.
After turning a bend, four, five li upstream, surprisingly he saw a crossing, and nine medium-sized boats moored along the coast. The banner fluttering in the air indicated that they belonged to the 'Chang Jiang Lian' [Yangtze River Alliance].
Xu Ziling's curiosity was piqued, thinking that didn't Yangtze River Alliance under the leadership of Zheng Shuming? It consisted of Qingjiang, Cangwu, and Tiandong, three Pai [Sects], plus Jiangnan Hui, Mingyang Bang, and the others as the backbone of the Alliance. Why were they gathered here today?
His mind churned at the speed of light, he ran two more li, through a sparse forest and an open prairie dotted with trees, climbed to the top of a small hill, and down below he had a panoramic view of the Yangtze River Alliance around the dock and on the surface of the river.
The earth gradually sank into darkness. The nine sailboats did not have any light, so that they appeared ghostly and mysterious.
Suddenly a big ship appeared from the bend upstream, coming down at full speed.
Xu Ziling focused his attention to look, suddenly his heart jumped, because this ship was not unfamiliar to him at all, he and Kou Zhong even spent some time aboard this ship: the Jukun Bang's flagship, where the Bangzhu herself, Yun Yuzhen rode on.
In his heart he felt that something was really out of place.
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Kou Zhong sat straight on the horseback. From his high vantage point, he cast his gaze onto the barren plains and woodlands, undulating hills, under the night sky studded with stars and the moon.
Xuan Yong and Jiao Hongjin were standing on his left and right, respectively. Behind them were a dozen high-ranking military officers under their command, more than half were Luoma Bang men.
As soon as the news about the Xiao Chun Guang incident and Du Ren's death reached Ku Ge, he promptly ran away in the direction of the ocean, hoping that relying on their fast horse, he would be able to reach the sea before Kou Zhong could catch up with him.
Who would have thought that Kou Zhong already planned in advance? He assigned Luo Qifei, an expert in spying and reconnaissance, to keep watch along the way, and accurately ascertain the route of his withdrawal, letting him to escape for two days and two night, and then concentrating the military power, poised to wait at the road where the lone troops must follow.
Amidst the sound of hoof beats, Luo Qifei urged his horse passing through the sparse forest at the foot of the hill, came to Kou Zhong's presence, and reported, "The enemy finally can't endure anymore, they stopped to take a rest at the small hill about ten li from here, to let their warhorses to rest and have water and grass."
Kou Zhong's eyes shone with cold, sharp lightning flashes, he spoke in heavy voice, "In Qifei's estimate, does this bunch of Khitan dog thieves still have any strength left for battle?"
Luo Qifei replied, "Although the Khitan dog thieves have become a bird that startled by mere twang of a bow, they have always been able to subdue pain and resist hardship. Even if they are fleeing in fright and panic, they are scattering but not in confusion, their battle array is still intact, plus they selected the wilderness of the plains as their escape route, so that in case they are intercepted, they can still rely on their horses to break away from the siege."
Kou Zhong nodded his head in praise, "Qifei is absolutely right. Although this time we are more familiar with the terrain, we are holding advantage both in terms of morale and the number of people, and thus victory is within our grasp, we must figure out how to maximize the outcome of the war while minimizing our casualties."
Using his horsewhip, Jiao Hongjin pointed at the continuous high mountain about ten li behind them, saying, "Flying Eagle Gorge lies within the route they have to take if they are heading toward the ocean. If we setup an ambush over there, Ku Ge's complete wipeout is guaranteed."
Kou Zhong laughed and said, "Although Ku Ge cannot be considered intelligent, but he is definitely not stupid either, plus he is experienced in marching the troops, naturally he knew where the dangers are."
Luo Qifei nodded and said, "As Shao Shuai noted it clearly, Ku Ge and his troops have more than enough strength to travel more than ten li, yet they decided to stop in the middle to rest; clearly they wanted to explore the terrain before deciding whether they ought to enter the gorge, or take a detour via different route."
Frowning, Xuan Yong said, "If they take a detour, due to their fast horses, they can easily leave us far behind. If that happened, the towns and villages around the coastal region would suffer a calamity."
Kou Zhong shook his head and said, "They won't take the detour, because if they could travel faster, they can't possibly waste time. We are going to take a two-pronged approach [orig. to paint holding two brushes]; we are not going to place a single man, a single troop at the Flying Eagle Gorge, but we will bluff from the rear, creating the illusion that we are pursuing to kill them, so that they won't have enough time for a full rest, and will have to escape in poor condition."
Stunned, Jiao Hongjin asked, "Where are we going to intercept them then?"
Kou Zhong replied resolutely, "Outside the mouth of the gorge. At that time, Ku Ge would start to feel relaxed, his men and horses are also full of energy, we are going to deliver a frontal assault, as well as left and right pincer attack. If we manage to drive them into the gorge, that will be considered a total victory."
And then he smiled and said, "If I cannot capture Ku Ge alive, how could I display my, Kou Zhong's, ability?"
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The Jukun flagship extinguished their lanterns as they slowly approached the coast.
When Yun Yuzhen's ship pressed close to one of the Yangtze River Alliance's warships, and the distance between the two ships was only about three zhang, more than a dozen men soared from the warship and landed on Yun Yuzhen's ship.
By this time, Xu Ziling had just had his head out of the water; he reached out to grab the hull, his five fingers firmly embedded into the solid wooden wall, and thus he attached himself there.
The Jukun Flagship moved away from the riverbank and turned around, one after another the other warships followed.
The deck was heavily guarded. Even with Xu Ziling's skill, he had no confidence that he would be able to sneak into the ship's hold without their eyes and ears detecting it, so he did not want to take the risk.
Pasting his ear to the ship's wall, he focused his power into the ear, and his sense of hearing immediately multiplied several times over; he was able to hear footsteps and voices inside the ship, even the rough and heavy breathing of the people inside, amidst the different noise of the ship breaking the waves, like the sound of a battle. Not a trace of noise escaped his ear.
Xu Ziling closed his eyes; in this world that was purely composed of sounds, his heart and mind search for the target. When he heard Zheng Shuming and Yun Yuzhen's familiar voices, automatically all other noises were filtered out. Just like when the eyes are focused on certain objects, other things will automatically become indistinct.
They must be inside the cabin. Due to Xu Ziling's familiarity with the layout of the ship, he had no difficulty in visualizing in his mind that in the cabin, the two were sitting as the host and the guest, and Yun Yuzhen's trusted aide, the pretty maid Yun Zhi, was serving the guest a cup of fragrant tea. In his mind he saw everything so clearly, as if he was witnessing it with his own eyes.
After some pleasantries, Yun Yuzhen went straight into business, "This time your honorable Alliance and our Great Liang become allies, join hands to work together, the time that Zhu Can and Zhu Mei, father and daughter, meet their ends will not be far."
Xu Ziling suddenly understood. Relying on their power, Zhu Can, who was calling himself the 'Garuda King', and his daughter, the 'Venomous Spider' Zhu Mei, have always run amuck, without shrinking from any crime. Inevitably they posed a threat to the existence of the Yangtze River Alliance; therefore, they had no choice but to rely on help and attach themselves to Xiao Xian, whose influence gradually expanding from the south of Yangtze River to the north of the river, to resist Zhu Can, father and daughter's Garuda Nation. And Yun Yuzhen was the go-between person. Perhaps they even started talking in Luoyang.
Xu Ziling thought that listening to this matter would not do him any good, but as he was thinking of leaving, Zheng Shuming suddenly said, "Yun Bangzhu said that you wanted to borrow out humble alliance's power to clear away the traitor within your Gang. Naturally this matter is very serious. I was wondering if you could give us clear instruction, to enable us to efficiently dispatch our dogs and horses to deal with this matter."
Inwardly Xu Ziling was severely shaken. Immediately he understood that in his struggle against Yun Yuzhen, Bu Tianzhi had fallen into disadvantageous position and was in a very dangerous place.
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The sound of hoof beats rumbled over the canyon, growing louder and louder by the minute, making the already tense atmosphere even graver.
However, Kou Zhong, hiding in the forest along the hillside, was unusually calm, because the entire battlefield was in his grasp. Everything would proceed and happen just like he planned; no exception.
Although he has had discussion with Xu Ziling about 'battlefield as a game' with assurance and composure, it was not until tonight he experienced exactly the fantastic perception of that kind of 'game'.
From the appointment of the Commander-in-Chief, to the conscripting of a troop to be in a squad of five soldiers, to the selection and structuring the squads, the training, the banner and drum assignment, reconnaissance, communications, equipment, battle array, marching, setting up camp, defending a city, besieging a city, tactics and implementation, everything has given him the real feeling of 'game' against others.
The goal was to be the ultimate victor.
Standing on his side, Luo Qifei called out in low voice, "They are here!"
Kou Zhong gazed coldly as the Khitan group of horse-mounted bandits appeared at the mouth of the gorge, fast as lightning galloping toward the ancient road outside the mouth of the gorge.
Just like Kou Zhong expected, after rushing through the nearly ten li distance anxiously like stray dogs, and then passing through the strategically situated and easily defended canyon, the enemy was already like an arrow at the end of its flight; their acute spirit wasted away, their speed obviously slowed down.
Ku Ge's tactics have always been the four-character mantra, lai qu ru feng [come and go like the wind]. If he was unable to defeat the enemy, he would leave, so that others could not touch his tail. Furthermore, his ability to crisscross Shandong unhindered could be attributed to his important relationship with the 'Wolf King' Mi Fang, who was familiar with the local geography, natural conditions and social customs.
Entering this completely unfamiliar territory, Ku Ge and the others were like the blinds, and Mi Fang was like the bamboo stick guiding the blind.
Mi Fang's death has forced Ku Ge to only follow the old, familiar road to retreat; without any other way, he simply entered Kou Zhong's inescapable net.
By this moment, most of the horse-mounted bandits were already out of the canyon. Suddenly one after another a dozen or so riders in front lost their hooves, and tumbled down to the ground.
The Luoma Bang men, who had just recently joined the Shao Shuai Army, ambushing on both sides shouted together, and then, amidst the sound of the drums shaking the heavens, from the forest on the left and right the archers shot their arrows at the same time, to take down the men, but not the horses. One after another the Khitan group of horse-mounted bandits fell down in a great mess.
Next, the spear and lance wielders, rushed out in neat formation from either side and attacked systematically in groups. Each group consisted of five hundred men, all at once dashed against the enemies that they were scattered and smashed, broken down into several pieces, the head and the tail could not help each other.
The archers ambushing by the mouth of the gorge also rained down their arrows to the mouth of the gorge, so that a small part of the enemy troops who had not yet exited the gorge were forced to flee back into the gorge.
Knowing the time has come, Kou Zhoung shouted, leading two hundred elite cavalry charging out of the forest, and immediately launched frontal attack against the enemies.
It didn't matter how valiant the Khitan group of horse-mounted bandits were, how brilliant their horsemanship was, having suffered defeat two days in a row, their morale had reached the lowest point. Under attack from all sides like this, they finally lost their ability to fight back, hence they scattered in all directions in utter defeat.
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Xu Ziling pricked up his ear and listened carefully. Yun Yuzhen let out a cold snort and said, "To become a Gang and establish a Sect, one must uphold benevolence, righteousness, and sincerity. Right now Bu Tianzhi is having secret ties with outside enemies, conspiring to betray the Gang, disregarding trust and justice, adamantly holding on to his crime without any regret. In vain did I take extremely good care of him these many years, promoting him to be the deputy only one position below me; I could even say that he gets whatever he wants. But he let me down like this, it could be said that all those things are not enough for him."
A deep and low male voice said, "Yun Bangzhu, there is no need to grieve over this kind of crafty villain. Bu Tianzhi's death is near at hand, we are going to follow Yun Bangzhu's direction, using a large business as a bait, luring him to come to Caizi Lake to make the deal. At that time we are going to use warships and speedboats to put him under heavy siege. I guarantee that he will want to sink to the bottom of the river as conveniently as the fish in the water."
Zheng Shuming spoke in low voice, "Does Bu Tianzhi know that Yun Bangzhu is suspicious toward him?"
Yun Yuzhen replied indifferently, "Of course I won't let him find out. I am going to entrust him a heavy responsibility on purpose, so that he still think that I trust him as before. This time I intentionally did not involve the trusted aides under my command, and hand over the task to deal with him to your honorable Alliance, so that he won't suspect anything. After the critical step is accomplished perfectly, with no mouth left alive, I will take advantage while Bu Tianzhi's cronies is still in the dark, to get rid of them one by one, and thus eliminate endless trouble in the future."
Zheng Shuming said, "Yun Bangzhu, set your heart at ease, this is a trivial matter not even worth mentioning. As long as we can swindle him into getting on board, Bu Tianzhi and his men can forget about even half a chance to escape our net."
Listening to this, Xu Ziling secretly broke into cold sweats, while also cried out 'lucky!' If not for him coming across this matter at the right place at the right time, Bu Tianzhi's little life would be gone without he knowing it.
The fleet suddenly slowed down, and turned to a tributary on the right, and then continued upstream to the north.
Naturally the destination was Caizi Lake, where Yun Yuzhen wanted Bu Tianzhi to meet his death.
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Under escort of Xuan Yong, Jiao Hongjin, Luo Qifei, and other high-ranking military officers, Kou Zhong inspected the after-the-battle situation of those who had just acknowledged allegiance to his military power.
This Khitan group of horse-mounted bandits, who had wreaked havoc for many years, was finally destroyed. Among the spoils of war, other than nearly eight hundred pedigree Khitan warhorses, there were countless bows and arrows, and other weapons, plus close to three thousand taels of gold. Merely these riches were enough to rebuild half of Pengcheng.
Kou Zhong was pleasantly surprised of this unexpected gain.
Although it was not the first time that he witness the scene of dead bodies lying around everywhere on the prairie, this time he single-handedly took charge of the entire battle.
His reaction right now was purely some kind of direct reaction upon seeing a scene that recalled past memories, the emotionally stirring scene of seeing dead bodies all round him.
Kou Zhong reined in his horse to stop, his gaze was captivated by the extremely unnatural postures of the Khitan group of horse-mounted bandits' ice-cold and stiff body, twisted this way and that on the ground, and not too far there was also a horse.
One of those bodies apparently hit by the arrow on his back, and was thrown down from the horseback. His head was immersed in a pool of blood, which had coagulated into a dark-colored bloodstain. Under the morning light, the originally full of live skin appeared to be nauseating indigo color.
Seeing him staring blankly at the bodies on the ground, Xuan Yong and the others had no choice but to wait patiently nearby.
Kou Zhong smiled bitterly and said, "Don't you think it's strange? Just now I had never thought or perhaps never regarded them as people. But now, looking at them lying face down in the wilderness, I suddenly recall that they were people just like me; they had their family, their relatives, that perhaps day and night are looking forward to them coming back to Khitan, people who care about their wives, sons and daughters."
Xuan Yong spoke heavily, "Very soon Shao Shuai will get used to all this. On the battlefield, it is either you die or I perish, you can't be softhearted even for a bit!"
Kou Zhong sighed and said, "I am not softhearted at all. Even if we had to go through this all over again, I would still be ruthlessly kill these extremely vicious, utterly evil disciples that not even half would remain. It's just that people are not grass or trees, we are bound to have feelings. That's all."
This moment, a subordinate came to report that they could not find Ku Ge's body.
Kou Zhong snorted coldly and said, "Just consider him lucky! After tidying up, we will immediately return to Xiapi. The next target ought to be Li Zitong's old nest, the Dong Hai Army!"
The generals chorused their acknowledgement.
Kou Zhong urged his horse to move. Suddenly, he just wanted to leave this bodies-lying-around-everywhere battlefield as far as possible!
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Caizi Lake was far inferior to the Chaohu Lake area not far in the east, and its shape was very irregular, but the scenery was beautiful, which was not what Xu Ziling was expecting.
By this time he had moved from Yun Yuzhen's Jukun flagship to Zheng Shuming's ship, and was hiding underneath one of the skiffs hanging from the hull, enjoying the lake scenery of clear water and white foamy waves, reflecting the bluish green surface of the lake.
Jukun Flagship and Yangtze River Alliance warships separately sailed toward the appointed point where the ships would be hidden before they would hem in to intercept the target. Only Zheng Shuming's command ship, which was full of martial art masters in hiding, was going to meet their appointment with Bu Tianzhi.
The sail's shadow danced lightly on the lake, as if it was gliding on the mirror.
On the shore, the shiny, green jade mountains seemed to blend with the limpid lake water, so that it was unclear whether the lake was dyed green by the mountain, or the mountain appeared to be green due to the water of the lake. On top of that, the undulating surface of the lake was hazy with light mist, so that it was even more difficult to tell which was real and which was fantasy, as if by mistake they had burst into the world of the immortals where normally there would be no way they could enter.
Half a sichen later, the speed of the ship was gradually reduced.
Xu Ziling took a deep breath. His internal energy traveled via the body of the skiff, and into the sling.
The sling disintegrated into cun-size fragments.
By the time the skiff was falling onto the lake, Xu Ziling already flipped over into the skiff.
The skiff landed onto the lake; it sank a chi or so, and then with Xu Ziling's skillful kick, he restored its balance.
The enemies aboard the ship shouted and yelled, but it was too late.
The oar was raised and hit the water, like an arrow the skiff darted pass the mother ship and continued forward.
About a li ahead, Bu Tianzhi's warship was coming slowly.
Xu Ziling stood upright facing the wind. While steering the boat, he looked around as far as his eyes could see.
The tranquil lake was undisturbed, the mountain and the lake reflected each other, the bluish green water covered in mist, the cool breeze gently blew, making him feel his heart and breast open wide, his ears and eyes fresh and clean, his mind and spirit free and invigorated.
Zheng Shuming's alarmed cry came from the deck of the warship, which he had left about twenty zhang behind; she shouted tenderly, "Xu Ziling!"
Without looking back, Xu Ziling responded, "Zheng Dangjia, just leave! Is the killing in Jianghu not enough? Tying an unresolvable hatred, being drawn into other people's Gang's internal struggle, what benefit would it bring to Yangtze River Alliance?"
No longer paying attention to her, he sped up to meet Bu Tianzhi's sailboat.
He was fully confident that in the end Zheng Shuming would beat the return drum. Even if the Yangtze River Alliance had the ability to kill him, Xu Ziling, they would have to pay a very heavy price. Plus, to tie an enmity against Kou Zhong, the enemy that almost no one dared to provoke, was not something that the insignificant Yangtze River Alliance could afford.
Besides, Xu Ziling's sudden appearance might giver her a reason to justify her decision; it was not that she abruptly go back on the deal.
After losing Yangtze River Alliance's support, other than fleeing away to the wilderness, Yun Yuzhen had no way to deal with him.
And thus a crisis was averted, albeit a bit reluctantly.
But the struggle against Xiao Xian and Xiang Yushan has just begun.