Book 36 Chapter 9 – A Promise Worth One Thousand In Gold
At the beginning, it was only the niwan, one acupoint – that continuously throbbing, but then the tianling acupoint and the left and right yongquan acupoints on the bottom of the two feet followed. At once the two boys felt their entire body itch, their four limbs went numb. This kind of feeling was uncomfortable beyond description; fortunately their bodies were hidden inside the snow, so that the ice-cold snow lessen their suffering somewhat. Otherwise, it would be strange indeed if they did not separate and give up.
This moment, naturally they could not break the snow and come out even more, and were forced to endure the pain and defend their property to the death.
The true qi inside their body was continuously circulating, going back and forth endlessly. Very soon all the acupoints on their whole body were throbbing at the same time. It was the two boys’ good fortune that they were smart; they let the yin and yang primordial qi to go up and down, rising and lowering. The innate true qi pierced through the top of their head and bored into their feet, while they maintained their tranquility as if they were dead, completely lacking any anxiety.
The most amazing thing was that because previously the two boys were buried inside the snow, their true qi had reached the level of dried up oil lamp; this moment, as they went through this process, it was just like after severe winter, the spring was returning to the earth, the dried-up stream was flowing again into the river, the dead grass and trees happily came back to life.
The primordial essence fusion was originally a long process; inside the snowy forest before, they unintentionally released the primordial essence, which was barely enough to stabilize it. But now they really transformed the primordial essence into the primordial qi, and bring it into all acupoints, big and small, to take it for their own.
Even more amazing was that the snow surrounding their bodies was forming a sealed up snow cavity, so that the primordial qi was contained inside and would not leak outside; as a result, the two boys were enjoying an even bigger benefit.
As Kou Zhong’s true qi was growing cold rapidly, Xu Ziling’s true qi was also growing hot rapidly; one yin, one yang, blending with each other, yet to the two boys, it was a natural course, they let it circulate at its own pace, neither urging it nor slowing it down, neither helping it nor neglecting it. Using the training method they learned from the Secret to Long Life, they applied the empty-but-not-actually-empty, solitary-but-not-actually-solitary, the divine qi fusing together to be one entity, vague and indistinct as if they were returning to the Great Emptiness realm before Pan Gu [creator of the universe in Chinese mythology] started the creation. It deeply matched the Taoist School’s realm of ‘the fire in the stove is forced, the White Tiger [the seven mansions of the west sky] remained still in the whole spirit, the water in the three-legged cauldron is melting, the Azure Dragon [the seven mansions of the west sky] is swimming out of the abyss’ [sorry, it’s beyond me]. Together the wind and the fire in the stove, the water and warm weather, formed the red clouds.
The heavy snow was falling continuously, covering the two boys’ head. Outside breathing automatically reversed back into inner breathing. Not only there were no wear and tear to the true energy, the flow of the true qi inside the body was circulating even more vigorously.
All of a sudden strange visions, demonic images appeared in their mind, but the two boys’ heart and mind were firm and persistent, they refused to acknowledge it just the same, guarding their lingtai steady, continuing toward the progress of the martial art way.
Nobody knew how much time has passed, the two suddenly ‘woke up’. All the acupoints on their body stopped together, their meridians swelled to the point of about to snap. The two automatically broke the snow and leaped out above the ground, before falling down heavily.
The two boys’ true qi clashed fiercely against each other, and thus it reversed direction outward, smashing the ground so that snow powder swirling up, filling the whole sky, creating a magnificent spectacle.
It was only this moment that they remembered that perhaps the enemy was watching from the side. Overwhelmed with shock, they sprang up, the pain from the swelling meridians disappeared without any trace, their body felt comfortable, relaxed, and peaceful; they felt unspeakably restful.
The heavy snow finally stopped. Above the snowy plain, the sky was grey and hazy.
The two came over toward each other. Together they looked far and near; the snowy plain was desolate and empty, the mountain forest was void and silent, there was no shadow of the enemy’s falcon.
“Why is it still daytime?” Kou Zhong said in horror.
Xu Ziling understood what he meant. The two had been training for quite a long time. Now, even if it was not very late at night, at least it should be dusk. Although they could not see the sun, they could feel that the sun was still in the middle of the sky, behind the black cloud. It did not make any sense.
Frowning, he pondered over, and then said, “How’s you tummy feeling?”
Kou Zhong subconsciously rubbed his stomach and said, “Originally it was full of qi, but now that you mention it, suddenly my stomach is rumbling with hunger; I just want to eat a big meal.”
And then, shocked, he blurted out, “Are you saying that we spent one day and one night in the snow, and that now it is noon the next day?”
Xu Ziling said, “Even if we have been going three, four days without a single grain of rice entering our belly, we can’t possibly be so hungry like this moment. On the third of the New Year we ate until our belly was full, our intestine was fat. On the fourth, early morning, we escaped out of Chang’an. On the fifth, by sunrise, we came to this place. Today could be the seventh or the eighth. Do you think my deduction makes sense?”
Dumbstruck, Kou Zhong said, “If that’s the case, then there must be something wonderful is happening to us, two brothers. Do you also feel like your power is advancing for several years?”
Xu Ziling unleashed his skill of looking inside himself; sneering, he said, “How can there be such thing in the world? However, whatever it is that we get from the Demonic Emperor Relics indeed brought us up a level; we are making a major breakthrough. The circulation of the true qi inside our body is greatly different from the past, but definitely not suddenly advancing for several years.”
Kou Zhong drew the Moon in the Well, rapid and fast beyond human comprehension he swiftly hacked three times; each saber force was identical, but the speed was faster than the previous one. The execution was what the heart wishes, the hand accomplishes; delightful, flowing smoothly, and beautiful.
Watching this, Xu Ziling was dumbstruck; he spoke in disbelief, “What’s going on here?”
Kou Zhong stood with the saber across his chest; laughing aloud, he said, “If this is not great advancement in power, then what is it?”
Shaking his head, Xu Ziling said, “I am not talking about sharp increase in your power, but the way you moved the heavy saber as if it was light, with easy and understated bearing; compared to your previous fierce, overbearing and ruthless saber technique, it has a completely different flavor.”
Kou Zhong was stunned. “You are right,” he said, “The fact is that I did not feel my power is making any progress, but the circulation of the true qi inside the body is certainly free and unobstructed, following my heart’s desire. Come! Let’s play a couple of moves to see how formidable your ‘being and nothing way’ really is.”
Before he even finished, Xu Ziling’s childish heart greatly aroused, he flashed toward Kou Zhong’s right side like a ghost. Copying Shi Zhixuan’s Huan Mo Shenfa, he struck Kou Zhong with his elbow, but the real killer move was the kick down below.
Kou Zhong suddenly flashed across and swept his saber to chop, while laughing heartily and said, “You think I would fall into your kicking trick?”
Xu Ziling extended his thumb to hit right in the middle of Kou Zhong’s blade. Qi power made contact with each other; neither one expected it, but both of them staggered back.
Greatly astonished, Xu Ziling said, “How did you know I was going to kick?”
Stunned, Kou Zhong stopped. Scratching his head, he said, “You are right. That was purely coming from some kind of inexplicable intuition. My Niang, this time our breakthrough is certainly no small matter. I want to look for Wan Yaonu or Ke Dazhi to test my saber.”
“Watch the fist!” Xu Ziling shouted, and sent out a punch.
Kou Zhong could see that this punch was without the slightest qi power. He laughed and cursed, “Are you thinking of using that pain-in-the-butt Treasure Vase Qi to trick Laozi? Ha! Huh?”
The fist power was no longer like a highly concentrated ball, but like a wall pressing down straight at him.
Kou Zhong felt that he could not block this attack, simply because he did not know where to chop; without any choice, he flashed away to evade.
Xu Ziling pulled his fist back and said with a laugh, “This is the Treasure Vase Qi being transformed into Treasure Wall Qi, I learned it from Shi Zhixuan who personally tutored me on the spot. The Secret to Long Life laid the foundation for us, the Jade Annulus of He Clan transformed our meridians, and the Demonic Emperor Relics substantially improved the effectiveness of our acupoints. As a result, we can reach this kind of playing-with-the-true-qi-with-divine-transformation level.”
Returning the saber into its scabbard, Kou Zhong stretched out his muscles and bones, and said, “The general saying is washing the muscle, cleansing the marrow, shedding one’s mortal body and exchanging one’s bones. This will be greatly beneficial to our escape back to Pengliang.”
Muttering to himself irresolutely, Xu Ziling said, “Supposing that we really spent two, three days in the snow, the enemy surely lost our track; they might think that we have reached Tongguan or going to that direction. In that case, we will follow our original plan to go to the Yellow River and see if there is any convenient boat that we can take!”
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, “Convenient boat is definitely not convenient. I don’t know how difficult it is to get one.”
He pulled the Moon in the Well again and said, “My hand is terribly itching; how about we travel and fight at the same time?”
Xu Ziling floated backward; laughing aloud, he said, “Bring it on! You think I am scared of you?”
Kou Zhong’s person following his saber, it turned into a yellow rainbow, chasing to kill Xu Ziling.
The two boys, you-chase-me-I-follow-you, completely without any misgivings, exchanged blows on the snowy plain. Not only these two were on par in term of power, but due to their different characters and preferences, as well as different luck in life, each one developed martial art skill that was of entirely different style from the other. The similarity was both were geniuses and outstanding wonder-talents in the martial art study. Therefore, as they were having a free hand in practice like this, they did not need to worry about error and negligence, holes and flaws; each one was exquisite, bright, brilliant and varied, both sides enjoyed great benefits. They fused and thread together everything that they had learned these last few days. The most important thing was that they deeply felt, as well as experienced – that currently they had reached the next level of attainment.
This was precisely the biggest advantage that the two boys were able to make breakthroughs time and again.
If it were Ning Daoqi, Shi Zhixuan, Zhu Yuyan, or the like, people who turned up their noses on the crowd, where could they find the opponents? Therefore, they could only think hard and grope about alone, they did not have the convenience like these two boys, blessed-by-the-Heaven, in that they have a partner in their research.
Just like when they were buried inside the snow a moment ago, they completely forgot self in their practice; the more they fought, the faster they moved, totally uninhibited. Kou Zhong repeatedly used the full set of his Eight Methods of the Well: ‘No Attack’, ‘Striking Strange’, ‘Using Scheme’, ‘Cheating Troops’, ‘Chess Abundant’, ‘Battle Decision’, ‘Rapid Battle’, and ‘Perimeter’ [Translator’s note: I realize the last one is different, but it’s what the text says]. Every time he launched a new round, he gained new insight, different changes.
Since his comprehension of the Eight Methods that he gained from the ‘Heavenly Saber’ Song Que, it was only here and now that the maturity was starting to take shape.
Xu Ziling has been successful in merging-without-leaving-any-trail the ‘Nine-Character Incantation Image Method’ into his every movement. The changes were multifarious, it appeared more like a heavenly steed soaring across the skies [idiom: unconstrained in style]; each break [in sequence] did not leave any traces.
Merely from this difference in style one could differentiate the two boys’ characters. Kou Zhong’s saber technique was brimming with entering-the-world flavor. Just like when two armies were facing off against each other, the emphasis was in battle array, military strategy and tactics, and showing off one’s ability.
Xu Ziling was full of Buddhist and Taoist withdrawing-from-worldly-affairs Dhyana flavor, like being yet nothing, clumsiness in the middle of skillfulness, genuine conveyance in the middle of ordinary, the wonderful charm quite like seeing mountain but not actually a mountain, seeing a river but not exactly a river.
Their heroic excitement flaring out greatly, the two no longer remembered that they need to go to the Yellow River, so they fought and fought, paused and paused, and only when the sun was on the Dong Shan [lit. east mountain (yes, it’s east, not sure if it was a typo, or the name of a mountain)] that they stopped because their strength was exhausted, the two boys dropped on their butts on the snowy ground, they both sensed an unprecedented carefree, joyful feeling.
Kou Zhong laughed and said, “Hypothetically speaking, if one day we, two brothers – must fight a life and death decisive battle, can Ling Shao guess what the outcome will be?”
Gasping for breath, Xu Ziling said, “You are talking nonsense again. But guessing game is also interesting; what do you think?”
Smiling, Kou Zhong said, “It is definitely a match where both sides suffer. Do you think there will be any other outcome?”
Xu Ziling shook his head and said, “It should be that I suffer defeat and get killed.”
Greatly astonished, Kou Zhong said, “How could you have this unexpected idea? I really don’t have the slightest amount of either the assurance or the confidence to defeat you.”
Xu Ziling analyzed, “If we really have to fight a life and death decisive battle, then naturally we have become enemies, as incompatible as fire and water. Don’t forget that you have your Shao Shuai Army, the martial art masters under your command are as numerous as the cloud. No matter how I mingle around, I am still one who has chosen to follow a solitary path. If I looked for you for a decisive battle, if that is not tantamount to me throwing away my life, then what is it?”
Kou Zhong solemnly said, “Let’s not talk about that this situation will never happen, even if it did happen, you wanted to kill me, it would be a matter between us, brothers; it has nothing to do with other people. Ha! The more we talk, the farther away we are from the original subject!”
Suddenly there was a burst of wolves’ howling from the distance.
The two boys sprang up and rushed toward the sound. Soon they reached a small hill. The scene before their eyes was one that they could not bear to see.
A wild deer was surrounded by five or six hungry wolves, its throat was bitten by the most thick and solid among the wolves, which refused to let it go. The other wolves were biting wildly at its body and legs, but the deer was still struggling not to collapse; it was still fighting with all its remaining strength to survive.
Kou Zhong’s hand went toward the Moon in the Well on his back, he was about to rush downhill to slaughter the wolves, but Xu Ziling pulled him back and said, “The deer’s done for. You are rescuing it would only prolong its suffering for a bit longer.”
Kou Zhong turned his face away; he sighed in pain, but did not say anything.
The wild deer finally collapsed. The unbearable sound of the wolves’ teeth devouring their victims ensued.
The two boys retreated far away and sat down dejectedly.
The cold wind brushed their eyelids.
Kou Zhong emotionally said, “Beasts in the natural world are just like that, they all struggle for survival. The deer eat grass; the wolves eat them. It’s really hard to say who’s right and who’s wrong. Without any better option I can only blame Laotianye for His arrangement; it’s just that watching it made me extremely uneasy.”
Xu Ziling said, “This is called the weak are prey to the strong; isn’t the same also happening between humans? It’s just that the outer appearance has even more countless changes, the reasons are even more complicated, the scale is much bigger. Take Bai Qi [(-258 BC), famous general of Qin], Xiang Yu [the Conqueror (232-202 BC), warlord defeated by first Han emperor], and the likes from antiquity; they would bury the entire bunch of generals alive at the slightest pretext, isn’t that even more cruel?”
Kou Zhong shook his head and said, “I will never do such thing.”
“I know that you can’t possibly be that cruel,” Xu Ziling replied, “But I want to ask you a question.”
Surprised, Kou Zhong said, “What’s the question?”
Xu Ziling said, “We saw a deer being slaughtered and devoured by a pack of wolves, and we felt grieved and disturbed by it. But why is it that we step on an ant and kill it yet we are completely indifferent? Both lost their lives tragically, essentially there is no difference.”
Scratching his head, Kou Zhong said, “That is … hey! An ant and a deer are not the same. The deer’s death was just too tragic! It was being eaten up alive.”
Xu Ziling sighed and said, “The difference is precisely this kind of substitution feeling. Compared to the tiny ant, the deer is closer and more similar to us. Our familiarity and understanding of the deer in a lot of places are much higher than toward the ant. Seeing the deer being bitten on the throat, we might remember the dreadful state if our throat is being bitten. This kind of as-if-it-had-happened-to-oneself feeling is precisely the source of compassion. If the one being eaten by a pack of wolves is us, the feeling will be even more profound, because we can completely put ourselves in their place, so much so that from the facial expression of the victim, we could see the pain and dread before his death.”
Kou Zhong sucked in a mouthful of cold air; he said, “Stop talking about it! It’s too horrible.”
Xu Ziling said, “I just want to remind you, war is the most horrible thing in the world. Not only there is no compassion, there is no Heaven’s law even more. Father and son, brothers can mutually destroy and harm each other.”
Smiling ruefully, Kou Zhong said, “It wasn’t something that I, Kou Zhong, invented. Since the history began, war has never stopped. Just try telling that to Xieli, see how will he react?”
“I am not blaming you,” Xu Ziling replied, “I just hope that you will remember the secret inclination that has just appeared in your heart, so that in it you will have proper measure for the future.”
Kou Zhong nodded and decisively said, “Thank you very much, Xiongdi, for your reminder. I, Kou Zhong, will engrave it in my memory and will not disappoint you.”
The sky turned dark.
Kou Zhong rose up to his full height and said, “We have lost a lot of time; we must hurry on at double speed to meet up with Zhandao and the others.”
The two gathered up their thoughts and rushed toward the Yellow River at full speed.
Under the new moon, the stream of the Great River was surging forward to the east. Over the surface of the river, which spanned several dozen zhang wide, both banks were dark and quiet without any sign of either boat or people. The snow extended as far as the eye could see.
The two boys crouched in the shadow of a rocky beach, they were both greatly puzzled.
Kou Zhong said, “We have been waiting for more than half a sichen, unexpectedly we don’t see even half of a convenient boat; could it be that boats no longer travel during the night?”
Xu Ziling said, “This kind of situation would only happen if the river is sealed off.”
Stunned, Kou Zhong said, “Isn’t that making a big fuss over a minor issue? Unexpectedly for our, two kids’ sake, they cutoff the Great River transportation? How much loss will one day bring?”
Xu Ziling could not answer his question. “You have another explanation?” he asked.
Kou Zhong stared in the direction the river water was rushing; he shook his head and said, “I don’t. But I wonder if Li Yuanji has this kind of power. The most convenient way to go out the Pass is naturally via the waterway, but we could also climb the mountain and over the mountain range; therefore, even if Li Yuanji dared to seal off the river, there is still no assurance that he would be able to catch up with us. He should not be this foolish.”
Shaken, Xu Ziling said, “You are right. Li Yuanji can’t possibly have the authority to do this. There must be some other reasons that we cannot guess right now.”
Kou Zhong spoke in low voice, “If today is the seventh of the first month, Yang WenGan’s conspiracy to restore the old dynasty ought to be completed early on; could it be that Li Yuan and Li kid really met bad luck and were getting slaughtered?”
Xu Ziling crossly said, “If the victor was Yang WenGan, then right now the river would be crowded to bursting point with boats and people fleeing from danger. The reason that the opposite is true, currently there is no boat on the river – is precisely a clear sign that the Li Clan’s regime is stable.”
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “Yang WenGan is really not Li kid’s match. Shi Zhixuan has no time to mind other people’s business. If he can’t kill Zhou Laotan, he must find a hiding place more than a hundred li away, to avoid people coming to look for trouble. My Niang! What’s going on here?”
Xu Ziling said, “I hope it is only the Li Clan prohibiting night travel, so that tomorrow we can catch a convenient boat.”
Putting his hands behind his head, Kou Zhong said, “I hope you are right. Climbing the mountain and over the mountain range will take us several days and several nights to get out of Guanzhong, which means troubling the commander in a long journey, which is also a big taboo in the military strategy.”
Suddenly shaken, Xu Ziling said, “A boat’s coming!”
Kou Zhong turned his gaze westward. Sucking in a mouthful of cold air, he said, “My Niang! There are so many boats!”
More than a dozen big three-mast ships were sailing speedily downstream from the direction of Chang’an.
Staring blankly, Xu Ziling drew a mouthful of cold air before saying, “Look clearly, they all are the House of Tang’s warships.”
Kou Zhong’s scalp went numb, he said, “Are they sending the main army to encircle and annihilate us?”
There were a total of seventeen giant warships sailing past in front of them, all were black-lantern-dark-fire, giving out a mysterious, sneaky impression. There were no soldiers visible on the deck, there was nobody watching both sides of the river either. The ships were loaded with piles of things and stacks of stuffs covered in oilcloth.
When the giant ships had sailed far away, Kou Zhong’s expression turned extremely grave; he spoke in heavy voice, “Ling Shao, do you know what’s going on?”
Xu Ziling replied, “The Li Clan has put Yang WenGan in order; perhaps Li Shimin has now become the Crown Prince.”
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “This is called heroes usually agree. Those bunch of warships are very deep in the water, they must be heavily loaded with grains and military supplies. Ay! This move of Li Kid is certainly brilliant; he is using our arrival as a cover, while his actual target is to attack Luoyang.”
Xu Ziling nodded his agreement.
It should be noted that all along Li Shimin has been determined to attack Luoyang and to use it as the foundation to advance eastward; however, due to the internal power struggle within the Li Clan, Li Jiancheng, Li Yuanji, and the others were afraid that after going out of the Pass and coming back, his power would increase greatly, he would be uncontrollable, so much so that he might declare his independence to become the emperor; therefore, all along they did everything they could to block his military expedition to the east.
After Yang WenGan’s plot to restore the old regime was foiled, Jiancheng and Yuanji would definitely be implicated, Li Shimin’s power returned to be flourishing. As long as Li Yuan gave him a nod, no one would be able to stop his grand plan of advancing to the east, which he had been planning for years. Before their eyes now was the ironclad fact.
Before the three armies [(in former times) upper, middle and lower army] were deployed, the army provisions must be shipped first. Thereupon Li Shimin used the hunt and search for the two boys as a pretext to banned night travel, while actually he secretly transported army provisions and siege equipment out of Guanzhong, and thus commencing the military operation to attack Luoyang.
If Luoyang fell, even if Kou Zhong brought the entire Duke Yang’s Treasure back to Pengliang, it would only be a superfluous action [orig. doing more than is required]. Besides, Li Shimin was convinced that Kou Zhong did not obtain the Duke Yang’s Treasure.
Li Shimin ordered Li Shiji to return to outside the Pass; he must intercept Kou Zhong’s troops transporting the treasure at all cost. Instead, he saw the situation clearly, and immediately crushed the internal troubles. Right away he seized the opportunity to attack Luoyang.
There was only one person under the heavens, Li Shimin, who had such positive outlook and aspiration. Jiancheng and Yuanji would definitely lose their power. Guannei [inside the Pass] was Li Shimin’s world. If there was anybody coming to deal with them, he must be Li Shimin’s man.
Kou Zhong contemplated silently for half a day. He sighed and said, “After getting out of the Pass, we must split up!”
Xu Ziling nodded and said, “I will meet up with Zhandao and the others, and deliver the treasures back to Pengliang for you. You must be more careful as well, striking a business deal with Wang Shichong is akin to having a discussion with the tiger while scheming to peel its skin.”
Smiling bitterly, Kou Zhong said, “This is called one wrong word, and the whole game is lost [original idiom: one careless move and the whole game is lost]. Li kid is definitely my, Kou Zhong’s most terrifying enemy. After delivering the treasure back to Pengliang, could you, Ling Shao, go to Luoyang to see Xiaodi? It will probably be the last time.”
The most formidable part of Li Shimin’s grand plan was that he would not let Kou Zhong have either the time or the opportunity to establish and develop Shao Shuai Army.
Xu Ziling nodded and gave him his promise. He asked, “Do you have any message you want me to tell Xingzhi, Changlin, and the others?”
Kou Zhong suddenly stood up and spoke with determination, “Tell them, if I, Kou Zhong, am unfortunate and die in battle at Luoyang, they must immediately disband the Shao Shuai Army. If they do not want to surrender to Li kid, just tell them to flee to Lingnan. Song Que will definitely look up at me and take them under his wings.”
The surging water continuously flowed eastward, representing the prestige of the Li Family’s army, which was sweeping away toward the east.