But since he already occupied the upper hand, of course Ke Dazhi did not want to perish together with him; moving backward a little bit, his saber sliced down toward the tip of Kou Zhong’s foot. His might did not diminish the slightest bit, it still blocked Kou Zhong’s charging-forward path. One attacking, the other defending, outstanding with no slack to be exploited.

In this blink of an eye, Qiao Gongshan, Er Wenhuan, the ‘Jian Langjun’ [sword ‘young lord’] Wei Jiaqing, and so on, a group of relatively prominent martial art masters of Chang Lin Army, a total of seventeen men, were rushing over from the direction of the external wall, forming a half-moon formation, completely sealing all exit paths from the temple.

Kou Zhong laughed aloud. The kick, which appeared to be sent out with abandon, was suddenly pulled back, and changed direction to kick sideways toward Feng Liben, aimed at the vital point on his calf about three cun up and three cun down. If the opponent was hit, although he would not be killed, he could forget about walking with two good legs in the future.

Ke Dazhi, three men were greatly shocked. They began to understand that Kou Zhong’s reputation was certainly not in vain.

It should be noted that the reason Ke Dazhi changed his move was because he knew Kou Zhong’s kick was released at full power, like he wanted to stake everything in charging forward, absolutely difficult to block. Who would have thought that Kou Zhong had the unique ability of rapidly changing qi power? Not only he changed the kick direction from forward to sideways, it was also change target to another opponent like freely running water; how could they not be surprised?

Feng Liben was so sure that a little bit more and then his sword was going to stab and penetrate Kou Zhong’s right flank, yet while the opponent was trapped in this dangerous situation, he suddenly carried out this odd move; naturally he was unwilling to lose his robust useful leg, hence he hastily changed from offense to defense. Copying Ke Dazhi, his sword sliced down.

Ke Dazhi’s eyesight was the most brilliant among the three; immediately he cried ‘Not good!’ inwardly. Letting out a violent roar, he moved his saber to cut sideways, yet he was still one step too late.

Pulling back his hundreds and thousands stick shadows, Xue Wanche turned it back into just one stick, striking Kou Zhong at an angle from the bottom going up. Suddenly he saw that the tip of his stick was about to make contact with Kou Zhong’s palm; he could not help feeling greatly delighted, thinking that if you hastily use your flesh to meet my ten-thousand-jun-thunderbolt strike head-on, even if momentarily you could get through this ordeal, but you would fall completely under my control, so that you would not have enough power left to deal with Ke Dazhi’s saber.

Feng Liben’s sword, the stick, and the palm collided.

Xue Wanche immediately sent out his power, but at the same time he was shocked.

Not only he did not feel the slightest force resisting his power, but he felt as if he was striking empty air. It was as if Kou Zhong pulled his stick, which was moving at an astonishing high speed, into his palm, and his true qi was flowing swiftly out uncontrollably like a flash flood, being absorbed by Kou Zhong’s bizarre technique.

The feeling was like the stick was caving in into a force field.

Not even in his dream would Xue Wanche ever think that Kou Zhong would use this kind of brilliant strange technique to neutralize his must-kill stick strike. Making a prompt decision, he immediately pulled his stick back.

Kou Zhong laughed aloud and threw himself to fly sideways; his shoulder powerfully hit the pit of Feng Liben’s stomach on his right, while closely evading Ke Dazhi’s slicing saber.

On the surface, it would appear that Kou Zhong was unable to block Xue Wanche’s fierce and severe stick strike. Only Ke Dazhi and Xue Wanche knew the turn of events was not too encouraging.

From his angle of view, Feng Liben also mistakenly thought that Kou Zhong was unable to take Xue Wanche’s stick strike, hence the reason he was pouncing on him. Changing his slicing down sword strike to pricking upward, he intended to cut across Kou Zhong’s shoulder crashing over toward him.

Kou Zhong spun around; amidst the hundred-busyness, he feigned a palm chop toward Ke Dazhi first, to stop him from changing his attacking move. And then his other hand also chopped down, as fast as lightning, to hit the blade of Feng Liben’s sword.

The palm and the sword collided.

‘Crack! Rip!’

The long sword disintegrated into cun-size pieces, while Feng Liben spurted out blood and was thrown down.

With everything he had, Kou Zhong had successfully fooled the enemies one after another. Finally he borrowed part of Xue Wanche’s power, and then, selecting the enemy’s weakest link, he broke the enemy in one fell swoop, opening up a gap from which he could escape.

Again Kou Zhong let out a long laughter. Staying close to the wall, he flew along the corridor over the injured Feng Liben, who was lying face up on the ground. He shot like a shooting star toward the main hall of the temple.

With a loud roar Ke Dazhi ran after him like a shooting arrow.

Kou Zhong had just left the long corridor, a voice was heard overhead, calling, “Follow me!”

Kou Zhong fixed his gaze to look, surprisingly it was Yun Shuai; not daring to hesitate, he ran after him. Somersaulting on top of the temple’s roof, he followed Yun Shuai fleeing for his life.

※ ※ ※

Xu Ziling returned to Lei Jiuzhi’s hideout. The latter was talking to Gao Zhandao.

Seeing Xu Ziling, Gao Zhandao said, “Fortunately we did not bring disgrace to ourselves; based on the portrait that Hou Ye provided, we found that every night at dusk the ‘Fat Merchant of Sichuan’ An Long patronizes the Le Quan Guan public bath.”

“Is he usually alone?” Xu Ziling asked.

“That’s right!” Gao Zhandao replied. And then he took out from his bosom a roll of rough sketch of the bathhouse layout and spread it out on the table. He said, “Le Quan Guan has four big pools and twelve small ones. Most of the time An Long visits the big pool, not sure if that is because he loves the crowd. He is always liberal with money, all the attendants and masseuses over there consider him a VIP.”

Frowning, Lei Jiuzhi asked, “Zhandao’s inquiry is so much detailed, aren’t you beating the grass to scare the snake?”

Gao Zhandao smiled and said, “Lei Ye, don’t worry; in here, we are local mafia boss [orig. local snake head], definitely we won’t leak the least bit of tail.”

Turning to Xu Ziling, Lei Jiuzhi asked, “Ziling, how are you going to deal with him?”

Xu Ziling said, “An Long is a formidable figure of the ‘Eight Major Martial Art Masters of the Demonic Way’. If he intentionally wants to escape, killing him will not be easy at all. Fortunately public baths are fixed environment; as long as we plan carefully, as well as we watch for a fortunate timing, once we make our move we must go all-out to kill him with everything we have, then our chance of success is very high.”

“When is Ling Ye going to do it?” Gao Zhandao asked.

“This matter should not be delayed,” Xu Ziling replied, “We will do it tonight. Losing An Long, this capable helper, Shi Zhixuan’s troop disposition will be thrown to confusion. Only then will we be able to seize the opportunity.”

Accordingly, he turned to Gao Zhandao and said, “From now on, Zhandao, you must immediately order all our brothers to break up the whole into pieces, everybody vanishes without trace following our plan, quietly waiting for the next order.”

Gao Zhandao replied, “I am going back to make the arrangement right away. As a matter of fact, we are already going into hiding. If Ling Ye so wishes, I could even pull most of our brothers out of Chang’an, or perhaps we hide on the boat, so that we could either attack or defend.”

And then he asked, “About An Long, will you need our support?”

Shaking his head, Xu Ziling said, “Many men will botch things up instead. Let Shao Shuai and I handle An Long.”

After Gao Zhandao left, Lei Jiuzhi said, “Just now Yang WenGan’s woman sent her man to the shop to pass on a message to you, asking you to come to Ming Tang Wo to see her tonight.”

Frowning, Xu Ziling said, “That Hong Furen is really troublesome; how could I have the time to entertain her?”

Lei Jiuzhi asked in surprise, “She must have Yang WenGan behind her giving her instructions. In this exciting times when things are developing rapidly, this can’t possibly be a simple matter; aren’t you interested in finding out what this is about?”

Inwardly Xu Ziling agreed that it could not possibly be as simple as Madame Hong just want to hire him to win some money, but he was not in the mood to cheat anybody on the gambling table either.

Lei Jiuzhi sighed and said, “Very well, just ignore her then!”

“Now that is the right thing!” Xu Ziling cheerfully said.

Lei Jiuzhi said, “Taking advantage of the holiday season, plus we have solid financial resources, today we should go to the Six-Happiness Casino to make a fortune, to see whether Chi Shengchun can still endure and not lose his temper to come out and interfere.”

Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, “I am most afraid of provoking Xiang Yushan to come out. He knows me very well, perhaps he would be able to see through my disguise.”

Lei Jiuzhi laughed and said, “Ling Ye may set your heart at ease. Precisely because he knows you too well that he knows you don’t know anything about gambling, hence he can’t possibly guess that you are Xu Ziling.”

Inwardly Xu Ziling knew that in this matter, he would be unable to change Lei Jiuzhi’s mind; without any better option he gave in and said, “Lei Laoye’s order, how could Xiaodi dare to disobey?”

Lei Jiuzhi’s pair of eyes lit up instantly; he said, “Today we are going to change strategy; ruthlessly win a large sum of money from him, you could also use this as an excuse not to meet Hong Furen’s invitation. You are a professional gambler. After winning a basin-full, a bowl-full, you pack your money and leave; right?”

Without any choice Xu Ziling replied, “Very right!” Inside a small courtyard west of Qing Ming Canal, Yun Shuai invited Kou Zhong to sit in the hall. He laughed and said, “A wise person reflecting a thousand times can still make a mistake. This is your honorable country’s widely popular saying that is the truth. If you only thought carefully, you ought to know that I can’t possibly let my clansmen know that I am here. But An Long could be considered extremely capable; even when I disguised myself as a Dashi [ancient Chinese term referring to Persian and Arabs (Courtesy of Akolaw)] merchant coming to the east to do business, I still could not hide from him.”

Smiling bitterly, Kou Zhong shook his head and said, “I underestimated Yang Xuyan. The strange thing is, logically speaking, he has no reason not to come.”

Yun Shuai said, “Why do you think he has no reason not to come?”

Kou Zhong said, “Because last night I stole something that is extremely important to him, quite possibly make him never able to get a glimpse of his Shifu Shi Zhixuan’s Immortal Image Method.”

Staring blankly, Yun Shuai said, “Yang Xuyan is unexpectedly Shi Zhixuan’s disciple?”

After giving him a brief explanation, Kou Zhong said, “Yang Xuyan really wishes to eat my flesh and drink my blood; this scheme was planned by him. Tell me, do you think he ought to come?”

Yun Shuai smiled and said, “He did come; he even crouched on a high place behind the temple, ready to ambush Shao Shuai, only too bad the mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the oriole behind it; I ambushed him from behind, only his agility was indeed outstandingly quick. At that time I had a hundred-percent confidence that I would be able to subdue and kill him, but he still managed to escape. This man is indeed Shao Shuai’s formidable opponent.”

Kou Zhong cried, ‘Lucky!’ inwardly. He said, “Was Guoshi unable to bear not going to your temple to worship God? How could you coincidentally come across me?”

Yun Shuai sighed and said, “When one already left his hometown for a long time, it was easy to have one’s thoughts and feeling. Seeing the entire city of Chang’an celebrating the beginning of Spring invoked the homesick feeling in my heart, inadvertently I came to the temple and wandered around the neighborhood. I saw a large number troops with torrential rush momentum were charging over, so I knew you met a mishap.”

Kou Zhong expressed his gratitude again, while casually asked what happened after they parted.

Yun Shuai’s pair of eyes emitted an intense murderous aura, but the tone of his voice was unusually calm; sketching it light shade, he said, “Since Shi Zhixuan’s sneak attack, I knew that I am his target. I also knew that you guys were unable to stop him. Therefore, after my power recovered somewhat, I leaped onto a big tree by the road and hid over there, letting the carriage leaving without me.”

Kou Zhong stared blankly. He wanted to say something but then hesitated.

Yun Shuai spoke indifferently, “Let the things of the past remain in the past, I could retain my life, hence I still have a chance to take revenge on them.”

Kou Zhong had nothing to say; he could only earnestly hope for Xie Xianting, two persons – that Heaven would help the worthy, that Shi Zhixuan could not catch up with them, or perhaps he disdained to kill them [see Book 29 Chapter 1].

Kou Zhong was dying to ask his relationship with Zhu Can, but in the end he decided it was inappropriate for him to open his mouth; he changed the subject instead, “Why did Guoshi come to Chang’an?” he asked.

Yun Shuai pondered silently for a moment before saying, “I came to see the situation in the Central Plains. We, the Western Tujue have been fighting against the Eastern Tujue for many years; although there have been many victory and defeat between the two, the fact is that we are actually inferior to them. If your distinguished country could turn the chaos back and put it under control, the land under heaven is unified, the most important thing is naturally to deal with Xieli by all means, then our objective would be the same, hence there would be the possibility that we could cooperate.”

Smiling bitterly, Kou Zhong said, “Guoshi came to Chang’an, evidently you decided that the House of Tang has the best chance to unify the world, am I right?”

Yun Shuai sighed and said, “Originally I thought so. But once I saw how numerous and complicated the factions in Chang’an are, how the Qin Wang Mansion and the Taizi Mansion, the two cannot exist together, to such an extent as to miss the golden opportunity of going to the east to attack Luoyang and let Wang Shichong sorting out the remnants of Li Mi’s troops – I can’t help but feeling worried for the Li Family. If Xieli’s evil clutches seize this opportunity to invade, the Central Plains will be in great danger.”

Kou Zhong cheerfully said, “Now that I know the reason why Guoshi came to Chang’an secretly, maybe we could become battle companion to deal with the big enemy.”

Knitting his brows, Yun Shuai asked, “Are you referring to Shi Zhixuan?”

Kou Zhong replied, “Not only Shi Zhixuan, there is also Zhu Yuyan and Zhao Deyan. These three are joining hands in a conspiracy to deal with Qin Wang Li Shimin.”

Greatly astonished, Yun Shuai said, “Isn’t Li Shimin your enemy as well? Why don’t Shao Shuai sit on the mountain and watch the tigers fight, while also seize the opportunity to take away the weapons and other things from the Duke Yang’s Treasure?”

Kou Zhong sighed and said, “This matter is hard to explain in a few words. For the time being there is a partnership relation between Li Shimin and me; if Xieli invades, all of us would have to pack our food and leave before we finish eating.”

After staring fixedly at him for a moment, Yun Shuai laughed hoarsely and said, “Although I still don’t understand you too well, furthermore, your action and style don’t match my character, but surprisingly, I admire you very much. About this cooperation, we must take our time in making the decision. I wonder if Shao Shuai could make arrangement for me to see Qin Wang first …”

Kou Zhong gladly said, “If I can’t even accomplish such a trivial matter, how could we talk about working together? I’ll do it right away. I will give Guoshi a definite answer before nightfall today.”

Inwardly he thought it was really not suitable for him to tarry, he still had to go quickly to see Shang Xiufang.

※ ※ ※

Usually the Bei Li [northern neighborhood] was already crowded and bustling with noise and excitement, today not even one drop could trickle through. Every casino had people at the main gate directing traffic; only for every person exiting would they allow another person entering, so that there was a long line outside the door.

Even Lei Jiuzhi, someone who saw casinos as his home, could only gaze wistfully at the gate and sigh, but had to step back. On the contrary, Xu Ziling happily pulled Lei Jiuzhi to turn around and leave; he said with a laugh, “Everybody is scrambling to make a fortune, while in fact, it is the casino’s changzhu, guanzhu [owner] are the only ones getting rich. We’d better stroll around a little bit, and then later on we go to Fu Ju Lou to enjoy the beautiful scenery of snowflakes floating down over the Yue Ma Bridge.”

Lei Jiuzhi said, “These few days, all the restaurants and wine shops are closed, only pleasure houses and casinos are still opening their door to do business. With nowhere else to go, everybody is just flocking into these places; that’s why their doors are like the market.”

Xu Ziling led him walking south along the Yong An Canal; he lightly said, “Don’t you use your lotus-flower-lustrous-tongue to tell me to brave the snow to wait for our turn at the casino door. The temples should be open?”

Stunned, Lei Jiuzhi asked, “Are you thinking of going to Wu Lou Si? Aren’t you afraid of alerting Shi Zhixuan?”

Xu Ziling said, “Shi Zhixuan is a holy monk living in seclusion in clear meditation, how could he have spare time to go all over the place watching and searching for people? Besides, the temple must be very crowded. We take advantage of the confusion to get into the temple; if we are lucky, we might find the entrance to the buried treasure, and then we would be able to make proper arrangement with what is about to happen.”

Greatly astonished, Lei Jiuzhi said, “I thought you are hoping that Xiao Zhong is not going to find the treasure, and then he would give up his ambition of striving for the world; why do you suddenly become this enthusiastic?”

Sighing lightly, Xu Ziling said, “Supposing after doing my best I still cannot find the treasure, I can persuade him to give up. The thing is, I already promised him that I’d do my best to look for the treasure. Something that I promised, I have to strive my hardest to accomplish it.”

Wu Lou Si appeared ahead. As expected, people were coming and going, the rain and snow did not affect their enthusiasm to worship God and pray for His blessings.

Lei Jiuzhi said, “The people coming to worship Buddha are mostly benevolent believers with advance age; I wonder if the closer one is to one’s death, the more one hope that there will be another heaven and earth after death, so that their life could go on.”

Xu Ziling did not expect Lei Jiuzhi might suddenly make such a deep philosophical remark; he responded, “Based on what they have seen and heard, people might, over the years, deepen what they know about life from experience. Take Kou Zhong for example, he said that before, he never believed such thing as decreed by fate. But after going through all kinds of situation, he felt that in everything, there is a pair of hands of the fate behind it; therefore, gradually he is developing different way of looking at things.

Lei Jiuzhi laughed and asked, “Does Ziling believe in fate?”

Looking up to let the snowflakes floating onto his face, Xu Ziling replied, “I don’t know.”

He could not stop the memory of Shi Feixuan wearing Buddhist nun attire this morning from appearing in his mind; a burst of bitter feeling rose up in his heart.

What kind of arrangement would fate bring him?

※ ※ ※

Kou Zhong hurriedly came to Shang Xiufang’s temporary residence, located within a standalone courtyard house with a fully enclosed courtyard [see footnote Book 31 Chapter 11] west of Shang Lin Yuan.

The heavenly woman whose beauty and stage name was known throughout the world, who was waiting eagerly at the west wing, saw his arrival.

She was sitting quietly in front of the qin, tuning its silky string, facing the window, looking at the garden outside, where snowflakes were floating down, in harmony, dense, freely dancing in the air.

In the hall of the wing, the stove was blazing, so that the room was as warm as the spring.

Perhaps her subordinates were out to enjoy the festivities, but other than two maidservants waiting on her, there was no other person in sight.

After closing the door, the maid left. The pavilion courtyard was quiet without any noise, a piece of tranquil harmony. Only occasional noise of the firecrackers from a distant place was heard, as if it kept reminding them that today was the big auspicious day of New Year’s Day, but that it was something that happened in another world.

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