Xu Ziling said, "We'd better think carefully first, this time Li Mi marches his troops in secret, he must have given it a lot of considerations; it will not be that easy for us to see through it."
Yang Gongqing agreed; he said, "The tunnels could have been excavated in advance, other things would have been arranged properly beforehand, Mount Mang stretches out for several hundred li, to find carefully hidden troops in such a short time is easier said than done. While the war is imminent [orig. pressing in on one's eyelashes], we'd better decide if we want to turn our back to the city, or to defend Yanshi to the death."
Kou Zhong shook his head emphatically; he said, "We will proceed according to plan. Only if we cannot locate his main force will we change plan to hold fast to the city. At least we still have one day and one night to exhaust all possibilities."
Yang Gongqing pondered silently for half a day; finally he asked Xuan Yong, "How's the situation on Wagang Army's side?"
Xuan Yong replied, "Remaining in Jinyong are Wang Bodang's force. Li Mi's another great general Bing Yuanzhen is guarding Luokou. The two cities' military force is less than ten thousand men. Commanding the new army recruits pretending to attack Yanshi is Shan Xiongxin. This man has a very deep rift with Wang Bodang over a courtesan, but he himself is a talented field commander."
"How's Bing Yuanzhen?" Kou Zhong asked.
Xuan Yong replied disdainfully, "This man's skill in military strategy and tactics is not bad, he is adept at defending a city, but he lacks guts, definitely not a talent in charging and breaking through enemy's lines."
And then, with a cold humph he said, "Shan Xiongxin, Bing Yuanzhen, and the others are Wagang Army's old generals; they don't have too good of a relationship with Pei Renji, Xu Shiji, Shen Luoyan, Wang Bodang, and their group, new upstarts that Wang Shichong dotes on and trusts. Therefore, if we can break through Li Mi's troops, I guarantee Wagang Army will be split up and in pieces, each commander will defend their own unit, and when the time comes, if we use reconciliatory technique, each unit of Li Mi's army will fall without a fight. Question is how can we break Li Mi's ambushing troop hidden on Mount Mang."
Yang Gongqing sighed helplessly and said, "In that case I will quietly wait in here for your good news."
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Kou Zhong, Xu Ziling, Linglong Jiao, and Xuan Yong, four people stood on one of Mount Mang's peaks, looking around as far as their eyes could see. The mountain stretched out endlessly in all direction, the cliff was as red as cinnabar, strange-looking peaks everywhere. Under the rain and the fog, the dense forest looked like a hazy emptiness. The landscape seemed to be changing indeterminately, creating a strange, yet serene, scenery.
The deep valley at the back of the mountain looked even denser with ancient trees and thick vegetation, standing upright on the sloping hills, like an imperial canopy covering the heaven.
The mountain's topography was strategic and easy to defend; pine and cypress, mountain elm, resplendent and beautiful, grew along the bluish-green stream at the valley floor, and took roots on the steep, dangerous cliffs.
Mount Mang was definitely wonderful and beautiful; no wonder Laojun Temple was built on the Cui Yun Peak of this mountain. But to find a group of forty-thousand soldier on this boundless big mountain, like Yang Gongqing said, they could only rely on their luck.
"Which direction is the Laojun Guan?" Kou Zhong asked.
Linglong Jiao pointed to the direction of Jinyong city and said, "It's on the northeasterly direction from Jinyong city toward Mount Mang, about only half a day or horse ride from Yanshi city, not including the part of the road leading up the mountain."
Kou Zhong nodded and said, "In any case, in order to meet Shan Xiongxin's force, Li Mi can't possibly pick a place too far from Yanshi to set up his ambush. Forty thousand is not a small number. As long as we check everywhere on Mount Mang region north of Yanshi, we are bound to find a bit of sign. There's not much time; while right now it is hard to tell drizzle and fog apart, the low visibility is going to provide cover for us. Let's go!"
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The drizzling rain was getting heavier, entering the deep mountain was like entering a blurry realm out of the mortal world, even recognizing the mountain path was difficult, forget about looking for the enemy's track.
Given the circumstances, even Linglong Jiao was at her wits' end.
After dark, the search process would be even more difficult.
"How about we meet Da Xiaojie first?" Xuan Yong made a suggestion, "With more manpower, the chance of success will increase."
Kou Zhong shook his head, "If the enemy found us out, they might ambush our ambushing troops, then our plan will fizzle out."
Xu Ziling spoke heavily, "How about going to Laojun Guan to try our luck? In order to be able to march quickly across the mountain, Li Mi must have had the horses and army provisions shipped in advance somewhere on the mountain. And there is no better place than the Laojun Guan, since the demon Taoists over there are in collusion with Li Mi."
Frowning, Kou Zhong said, "That is a reasonable speculation, but Laojun Guan is located on Cui Yun Peak, going up the mountain is not too convenient!"
Severely shaken, Xuan Yong said, "Kou Ye, I guess you don't know, under the Cui Yun Peak, there is Cui Yun Valley, and in this valley, they built more than a dozen exquisite buildings dedicated to house visiting worshippers who wants to stay over a short period of time, or perhaps pursue short-term meditation. Furthermore, there is also a wide expanse of forest in that valley. Pitching camp in that forest will definitely be hidden from view."
Kou Zhong was pleasantly surprised, "From Cui Yun Valley to Yanshi across Mount Mang, how long will it take?" he asked.
Xuan Yong said, "There is a mountain path from there, at most one sichen they could be out of the mountain. And then several dozen li of open grassland. If they are all cavalry, and they ride fast, perhaps they could reach Yanshi in less than two sichen."
Kou Zhong slapped his forehead and said with a laugh, "Now we are talking. Li Mi and Shen poniang! You owe me; this time we will wipe the slate clean!"
※ ※ ※
Laojun Guan was located on the summit of the majestically towering Cui Yun Peak, amidst the dense forest, surrounded by bluish-green hills and a precipitous cliff on one side, with deep ravine extending several zhang down from the top of the mountain to the valley below. If one could climb to the summit, one would be able to see the Yellow River to the north, and Luo River to the south. This moment, in the dark, misty emptiness, where it was hard to distinguish the rain from the fog, the place looked like an eminent and unapproachable legendary abode of the immortals; who would have thought that the head of this monastery was a top figure of the heretical sect?
Cui Yun Valley was located at the foot of the Cui Yun Peak; the valley was wide open and flat, with a cluster of more than a dozen buildings with whitewashed wall and dark colored roof situated at the fringe of the forest on the north side of the valley, crisscrossed by small paths, adorned by thickets of wild flower and luxuriant fragrant grass. In the distance, under the rich bluish-green color of the mountain, lined by layer upon layer of mountain range, there were distinct yellow, alternating with green, rice fields. The scenery looked like a painting; certainly it looked like a sacred ground of the garden of peach blossom spring, making it more difficult to think about the demon Taoists and the waiting for dawn, with head resting on a spear soldiers [idiom: fully prepared and biding their time before the battle]."
The mouth of the valley at the southern end was a large area of cypress and elm forest. In this kind of weather, if there were indeed army camp hidden within the forest, even looking down from an elevation, it would still be difficult to see.
Right outside the valley's entrance, the mountain path was sloping down, through the gorge, and continued winding down. But because of the mountain terrain, they could not see the plains south of the valley.
Kou Zhong's heart was moved; he said, "If Li Mi's troops are hiding in the forest, how come we can't even hear one neighing horse?"
This moment, Linglong Jiao, who was out on reconnaissance duty, returned with happy expression, "Just as expected," she spoke excitedly, "Inside the valley, in the middle of the forest, there are tents everywhere, full of Wagang army; but I did not see warhorse, mules or other beasts. Looks like there is another storehouse hidden elsewhere, so that they would not have to climb in hardship."
Everybody was greatly delighted.
Kou Zhong said, "Xiao Ling and I will stay here to continue keeping a close watch on them, you two go back separately to notify Da Xiaojie and Da Jiangjun [great general]; everything may proceed according to plan."
After a short deliberation, they agreed on how to contact each other, where to meet, and other particulars. And then Xuan Yong and Linglong Jiao left happily.
By dusk, the rain stopped, the sky was clear. The situation in the valley was plainly visible. From their vantage point atop a dangerous cliff, they could faintly see the tents hidden within the forest. Also from time to time they saw soldiers going back and forth from the camp to the buildings.
Kou Zhong was crouching among the grass and the trees. It was quite a long time before he spoke, "Xiao Ling! I have a nagging feeling that something is not right."
Xu Ziling, lying on his back by Kou Zhong's side, said, "Is it because you cannot see Shen Luoyan's flat-haired bird, or perhaps because you see a camp without any horse?"
Kou Zhong did not answer, but asked him a question instead, "We have been harmed by Shen poniang many times, and every time we nearly fell into her evil scheme. If our intelligence and wisdom is so useless, where do you think her formidability lies?"
Xu Ziling pondered quietly for a moment, and then he replied in agreement, "You did not exaggerate. Speaking about plotting and tricks, employing stratagem while chatting and laughing, we seem to always fall into disadvantageous position; from Zhai Rang got killed to Wang Shichong badly injured, not a single time we won against her."
Thinking hard, Kou Zhong said, "Do you remember when we first met her, we made a bet that we would surrender if we were captured three times? She laid out the 'Old Man of the Plains' Mo Cheng trap, as if she could predict without being a clairvoyant she let us board the pirate ship on our own, and yet capsized his own boat on the torrent among the rocks on purpose, taking advantage of our kindness in trying to rescue him, the senior, to get us under her control [see Book 3 Chapter 4]. Each time she demonstrated her ability to fathom the opponent's psyche, which varies from person to person. That being the case, how could she not guess that we might come to Laojun Guan to take a look? Don't you think it's stupid for us to hide in here?"
Xu Ziling suddenly crawled up and joined him looking down into the valley below. Severely shaken, he said, "You are right. The army camp down below must be one of Shen Luoyan's schemes. Out of ten tents, I bet you that nine are empty. As long as they have several thousand soldiers in here as the decoy, they could make us mistakenly believe that Wagang's wonder troops are hiding in here, while the real wonder troops are elsewhere. This is bad! How are we going to find them after dark?"
"We can only do our best," Kou Zhong said, "No matter what, the real ambushing troops can't be too far away from Yanshi. Therefore, they must be somewhere on the mountain, in some similar environment, so that they don't have to worry the sound of neighing horses might spread far and wide. Come! Let's get down and investigate clearly whether we accuse Shen poniang wrongly before deciding what to do."