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Xiaohu, Ysabel, Spy, Jaya, you are welcome. Chua, welcome back. Sky, you might get your wish soon. BTW, thanks for standing up for me. Xiaohu, Tail, you too. Much appreciated.

Azalae, thanks. I actually want to brainstorm with you guys, but not sure if we could do it here. For example: if I have a blog, do we stop coming here? If not, how do we do it? And so on … Any ideas? Also, I have no idea how to design a website. I know I can use templates, but I thought wuxia specific would be nice, like the one Odbayarb created for me a while back.

I know I said daily updates during Thanksgiving weekend, but since I already have this chapter ready to post, I thought I might as well post it.

EDIT: a member with username Itsblee contacted me personally about their blobtranslation; just to let you know, I will look at it. Thanks.

Book 23 Chapter 2 - Separate Mission

While Shaoshuai Army was cleaning up the battlefield, the two boys sat on a pile of rocks by the River Zhang, discussing the valuable information that Cao Yinglong provided. Kou Zhong picked up a broken arrow lying down by his feet. While playing with it, he said, "Cao Yinglong should be telling the truth, or else he is a genius in fabricating stories and tooting his horn. At least the part where Yang Xuyan is injured can't be a lie. Furthermore, if you compare it to Shang Xiuxun's story, it was like seamless heavenly clothes. Ay! This Beautiful Changzhu is so hot-tempered. Whoever marries her will have a very big bad luck. Oh, my Niang!"

Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, "This is called different class origins. We paid obeisance to Yan Laoda as our master [Book 1 Chapter 1], at least we are accustomed to accommodate other people. She is set up on high; although she is surrounded by people, she is a lone flower admiring itself, hiding inside that little world of hers that is isolated from the crowd; perhaps her life is cheerless and lonesome. Therefore, although she does not know how to conduct herself, how to put herself in someone else's shoes, or how to give thought to others, we can't blame her. I just hope that when she calms down, she might change her mind! Otherwise, your great undertaking of regaining Jingling will potentially die in the womb."

Kou Zhong sighed and said, "I did not blame her at all. We cannot expect everything in life will happen according to our wishes, or else Niang and Su Jie did not need to die. But if I were you, I might also let Old Cao go to fulfill his wish before he dies. If my guess is correct, Shi Qingxuan is the custodian of Hua Jian Pai's library, and while she is at it, she might even be the caretaker of Bu Tian Jiao's [jiao - cult, as if in Ming Cult of Yi Tian Tu Long Ji] scriptures. And Yang Xuyan is pretending to be the disciple of Hua Jian Pai, he is going to Sichuan to deceive her and harm her. What are you planning to do?"

Grabbing his head, Xu Ziling said, "Do I have any choice?"

Kou Zhong laughed and said, "Don't act like you are in pain. In my opinion, you have the excuse you need to see Miss Shi, your heart must be really happy. Just put your butts in order, I don't care if in the latrine you'd stand or sit."

Xu Ziling looked at him in astonishment. "Unexpectedly you still have the mood to make such a dirty joke," he said in surprise.

Grieved, Kou Zhong said, "Although this time we seized total victory, we lost nearly half of our brothers. They have been through fire and water with me, yet I cannot bring them home to be reunited with their family and share riches and honor together. If I don't make some vulgar jokes, how could I divert myself from the sorrow cramming down my heart?"

Amazed, Xu Ziling said, "Your way of mourning is indeed extraordinarily weird."

Kou Zhong sized him up carefully; he said, "You have always been more compassionate than me [orig. bemoaning the state of the universe and pity the
fate of mankind], why do you seem like a bit unconcerned?"

Xu Ziling contemplated for a moment; sighing lightly, he said, "It's not that I am unconcerned, but I am a bit numbed toward life and death. After Su Jie's death, I often ponder the question of life and death. What happens after death? One is 'existence', the other is 'nothingness'. If all is 'nothing', then 'once the main problem is solved, all troubles are solved' [or 'death ends all one's troubles']. Suffering, broken-heart, despair, depression, are all the facts of life. But if all 'exist', then it is really interesting; whether it's reincarnation or going to the Temple of Heaven or the nether world, in short, going to another world. In this way of thinking, death is no longer frightening. We weep for the death, but it's just because we cannot see through. I even expect death a little bit. In this regard, Laotianye is just; whether you are of noble birth or aristocracy, or perhaps merely ordinary, common people, everybody has to experience it once."

Listening to this, Kou Zhong was so surprised and confused that he was unsure how to respond. It was quite a while later that he slowly exhaled and said, "Despite your expectation, you must not commit suicide; at least not before we find the 'Duke Yang Treasure'."

Xu Ziling was cross, "Go to your grandma!" he cursed, "I must now go to Sichuan; how about you?"

Distressed, Kou Zhong said, "The most ideal situation is of course I am coming with you to visit your little Qingxuan. Unfortunately, I have to rush back to see Chen Changlin and his clansmen, the Jiangnan troops. I have no choice but to agree on a place where we can meet later and go together to Guanzhong to try our luck. Ay! You must be a bit more careful!"

Xu Ziling responded indifferently, "Are you afraid I might die before coming with you to find the treasure?"

Sneering, Kou Zhong replied, "Compared to my good brother, can the 'Duke Yang Treasure' be considered anything?"

Rising to his full height, Xu Ziling said, "I was just joking. Both of us must be a bit more careful. Not only we are being sucked into the maelstrom of the contention over the world, we are also progressively being drawn into the mysterious power struggle between the upright and the demonic. One slip, and we will be caught in a situation without any hope of reprieve."

Kou Zhong suddenly stood up; turning his gaze toward the sinking sun on the western horizon, he spoke slowly, word-by-word, "The fact is, the moment we obtained the 'Secret to Long Life', we are already falling into this unknown struggle, from which we cannot escape, even if we wanted to. This is our destiny."

※ ※ ※

Xu Ziling hastened on his journey for four days and three nights straight. By the time he reached a county town east of the Great Bashan [Mount Ba], he could no longer endure it, and had to throw himself into an inn to rest.

Since ancient times, the road into Bashu [Sichuan] has been widely known as hard to pass, because it was surrounded by a range of hills, range upon range of mountains, high mountains and deep valleys. In between was the Yangtze River snaking through it like a belt. Converging streams and joining flows, both grand and majestic, as well as dangerous and difficult.

To enter Sichuan by land, one must go through the plank walkway going around the mountain between the Great Mount Lou and the Great Mount Ba. As for the waterway, there was the Three Gorges natural stronghold. Therefore, no matter how chaotic the outside world was, as long as one could occupy Sichuan and declare himself 'king', by relying on the dense river channels within its borders, plus the Dujiangyan gravitational irrigation system [more info:], one could develop the agriculture, with which one could hold his ground for a long period of time. Hence it enjoyed the good reputation as 'the land of abundance'.

Although the inhabitants of Shu [short for Sichuan] region were mostly Han, there were more than forty other ethnic groups, such as Qiang, Yi, et cetera, hence it was very rich in local customs.

The county town Xu Ziling was stopping over was Shangyong City, north of River Du, Fang Ling County, Hubei, one of the major stations on the main route toward Shu region. From here, he would only need half a day of travel to enter the mountainous area of the Great Mount Ba.

The city was officially under Zhu Can's control, but in reality it was under control of the combination of a former Sui official and the local gangs and societies; therefore, it was fortunate not to be ravaged by Zhu Can's Garuda Army, except for limited exploitation as the Army was passing through.

According to Bai Wenyuan, all the gangs and societies in Sichuan and its surrounding area accepted order from Chuan Bang [Sichuan Gang] as the leader. This Chuan Bang was already one of the biggest powers outside Duzun Bao [Supreme Fort]. Its Gang Leader, the 'Spear King' Fan Zhuo had outstanding martial art skill, an expert in wielding the spear, and was on an equal footing with the 'Wulin Magistrate', Xie Hui [see Book 22 Chapter 3], a veteran and an esteemed character in Wulin.

After having a good soak in the bathhouse, Xu Ziling returned to his room and slept for half a day. It was only when the dusk fell that he went to a restaurant along the main street to have a big meal.

Suddenly he felt like he was a brand-new person.

The non-stop journey of the past few days has consumed a lot of his physical strength and true power, while also made him too busy to think about anything, hence all troubles were thrown to the back of his mind.

After dinner he asked for a pot of wine. But before he even had the chance to take the first sip, an alarm went off in his heart. Instinctively he turned his head toward the entrance, and saw a beautiful young [married] woman under escort of four big men, boldly lifted the hanging curtain and entered in. Surprisingly, it was the female chief of the Chang Jiang Alliance, Zheng Shuming.

It was obvious that Zheng Shuming was looking for him; she went straight to him, without any trace of politeness sat down on the chair across the table from him. Her phoenix eyes shone with power as she hissed, "It is indeed you!"

The four big men spread out toward the four corners. The other guests immediately felt the peculiar atmosphere, one after another they paid their bill and left. Even the waiters disappeared to who-knows-where.

Xu Ziling raised his cup to toast her and drained it in one gulp. He smiled and said, "Zheng Dangjia, what advice do you have for me?"

※ ※ ※

Bu Tianzhi and Chen Changlin welcomed the covered-in-dust Kou Zhong into one of Jukun Bang's secret hideouts located in the southwest of Jiangdu.

After taking their seat, Chen Changlin cheerfully said, "Fortunately we did not bring disgrace in following the order. Five hundred twenty-eight good-quality horses from Khitan and Korea already fell into our possession."

Greatly delighted, Kou Zhong said, "Two gentlemen are indeed very skillful, just with the hands behind your back you managed to completely take over so many good horses. How did you do it?"

Twirling his mustache, Bu Tianzhi smiled and said, "Of course by outsmarting the enemy. After putting our men together in Donghai, we set sail toward the ocean, and then going at full speed toward the mouth of the Yangtze River, we set an ambush at Hudou Island [orig. zhou, island in a river]. When the three seagoing ships transporting the horses arrived, we raised Li Zitong's flag, posing as naval escort to meet them, and falsely notified them that the river ahead was blocked by the Du Army, so they must disembark at Ninghai, in the vicinity of Jiangdu. As for other details, we can tell you if you wish to know."

Kou Zhong nodded and said, "This is equal to crippling Li Zitong and Ku Ge's dog legs [i.e. lackey/henchmen]. How's the situation of Du and Shen, two armies?"

Chen Changlin said, "Luo Xiong is monitoring their activity day and night. Because Jianghuai Army is still holed up at Qingliu, it's hard for us to attack. We have no choice but to watch helplessly and wait for the fortunate timing when they march into Jiangdu."

With a card up his sleeve, Kou Zhong said, "If I'm guessing correctly, within these two days Du Fuwei might send his army to attack Jiangdu. Because the news of Zhu Can and Xiao Xian withdrawing their troops and Cao Yinglong suffering total defeat of his army must have reached Old Du's ears, he will seize the opportunity before I am back at Liangdu to invade Jiangdu. Currently Xuan Yong is leading the troops returning to the east. I traveled day and night to come here like this, it is precisely to enjoy this excitement."

Bu Tianzhi and Chen Changlin were emotionally moved; they had never expected that Kou Zhong would have such brilliant and incredible achievements.

While Kou Zhong was still talking over some details, Luo Qifei's messenger came to report that Jianghuai Army's vanguard and pathfinder unit has already left Qingliu to set out toward Jiangdu.

Everybody immediately felt the 'opening clouds to see the moon' moment.

Kou Zhong cheerfully said, "It's time for that kid Xiliang to make his move!"

※ ※ ※

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