Book 24 Chapter 1 - The Nightmare Began
The distance between the two groups was very close. Xu Ziling had two options: one, running behind the dozen or so martial art masters of Yangtze River Alliance under Zheng Shuming's leadership, or two, relying on his outstanding sense of hearing and perception, he could follow An Long quietly from the side. The former approach would guarantee that he would not lose them, but he would only follow the Yangtze River Alliance people. As one of the Eight Major Martial Art Masters of the Demonic Way, even if An Long was carrying two Cao Yinglong, he would definitely have a way to escape, otherwise his name would not be on the list.
Among the Eight Major Martial Art Masters of the Demonic Way, Xu Ziling had fought Pi Chen, who was disguised as Rong Fengxiang, Zuo Youxian, and You Niaojuan, three persons, one after another. Except for You Niaojuan, the former two were only limited to one contact and before stopping, yet he already felt their deep and immeasurable demonic power. An Long was the Tian Lian Zongzhu [headmaster of Heavenly Lotus (School)], and he had mastered the Tian Xin Lian Huan [Lotus Ring in the Center of the Sky, see Book 22 Chapter 5] that Fu Gongyou was deeply afraid of. Despite his huge build, plus he was carrying a load, these people should not be able to follow him this close; he must have been playing trick.
Xu Ziling quickly raised a mouthful of true qi, and then as fast as a shooting star he ran along the narrow alley; listening to the noises to distinguish direction, he follow An Long's trail from the ground. Fortunately An Long was running toward the area where there was no crowd, otherwise he might bump into people. But now, even if they came across people wandering around to have fun that night, as soon as they saw a blur in front of their eyes, he would already be far away.
By this time, Xu Ziling had gained deeper understanding of the Two Sects Six Ways of the demonic schools. Moreover, among the Eight Major Martial Art Masters of the Demonic Way, he already knew 'Empress Yin' Zhu Yuyan, 'Demonic King' Shi Zhixuan, 'Fat Merchant of Sichuan' An Long, 'Demonic Taoist' Pi Chen, 'Ziwu Sword' Zuo Youxian [see Book 21 Chapter 1], and 'Dao Xing Ni Shi' [going against the tide, see Book 20 Chapter 5] You Niaojuan. There were still two persons that he did not know.
Just by looking how strong You Niaojuan, who ranked at the bottom of the list, was, it was not difficult to deduce that An Long was not to be provoked.
In Hefei the other day, even with Fu Gongyou, Zuo Youxian and Pi Chen joined hands, they still did not dare to force him into a trapped-beast kind of fight. This was another proof of his strength.
Therefore, in dealing with him, Xu Ziling could only try to outsmart him, and not trying to engage him in a desperate fight. Otherwise, not only he would not be able to rescue Cao Yinglong, perhaps he would even pay it with his own life.
Right this moment, there was a slight change in the wind generated by An Long's flight, signaling that he had jumped from the roof and landed on the ground.
The wind was getting stronger again; it looked like he leaped at an angle toward another roof, and then rapidly ran far away. He heard the rustling sound of Yangtze River Alliance people's sleeves as they chased after him in hot pursuit.
Xu Ziling suddenly stopped. 'Lucky!' he cried inwardly. Were it not for him completely relying on hearing ability to follow the trail, he would have fallen into An Long's 'grafting flowers onto a tree' tactic.
Turned out from the subtle change in the sound of the wind, he was able to accurately verify that An Long and Cao Yinglong were being substituted by another pair of men, and that the person posing as Cao Yinglong did not have his acupoint sealed. Although his body was limp, he was still awake; naturally he was regulating his qi to make his body light to yield to his companion's leading. But the weight difference immediately exposed the flaw that Xu Ziling was able to detect.
It could be imagined that as these two subordinates of An Long suddenly appeared and ran someplace else, the pursuing troops were at a loss to know what to do, hence they quickly lost their targets. After all, Chengdu was An Long's territory; shaking off outsiders following their trail should not be hard.
After his two helpers and their pursuing troops had gone far, An Long, still carrying Cao Yinglong in his arm, walked out leisurely. He passed through the left and turned to the right into the side streets and narrow alleys, and soon afterwards he arrived at a residential area and entered a house.
Very carefully Xu Ziling followed behind him. If it were Kou Zhong or Ba Fenghan, even if their martial art skill was higher than his, perhaps they could not do what he did: following a trail mostly by his senses, so that even a superior martial art master like An Long did not realize that he was exposing his trails.
He was about to flash out of the side alley when the alarm went off in Xu Ziling's heart; hence he promptly halted his steps. He saw a shadow, so blurry that it appeared real, yet appeared imaginary at the same time, appeared on top of the wall of the target house, rapidly scurrying along the wall, until finally it leaped onto the roof and swiftly went around the house several times, before disappearing altogether.
Even with his bravery, Xu Ziling still needed to suck in a mouthful of cold air, because he recognized the shadow, which was that of a man wearing black clothes and black cape - as the 'Shadow Assassin' Yang Xuyan.
If he had hastily leaped onto the wall, it would definitely be difficult to escape Yang Xuyan's eyes and ears. And if he and An Long joint hands in pincer attack, it would be difficult for Xu Ziling to escape with his life intact.
After crying inwardly, 'What a close call!' Xu Ziling checked the surrounding area and waited for the fortunate timing. And then without the slightest hesitation, staying close to the wall, he flitted toward the rear courtyard of the house. Creeping closer to the house, he focused his power into his ears, and happened to catch An Long's voice.
This high-ranking-martial-art-master-among-the-palace-hall-of-the-demonic-way spoke in heavy voice, "Obviously this traitor has dispersed most of his power voluntarily, hence after meeting with him face-to-face only twice, I was able to stretch a hand and grab it. Otherwise, I would have to waste my strength, and then if we fell into the Yangtze River Alliance's hands, it would be far from good."
Yang Xuyan seemed to be examining Cao Yinglong's condition; he spoke softly, "Long Shu [uncle, Cao Yinglong] waited upon Shizun [revered master] since he was young, and has always been loyal and devoted, but now suddenly he is like becoming another person. We must understand what happened clearly. If you, Old Long [An Long - different 'Long'], have no objection, Xuyan will wake him up."
Just by listening to this exchange, it was clear that An Long and Yang Xuyan had a close relationship, and that Cao Yinglong was Shi Zhixuan's attendant, and that in the past he was also loyal to Yang Xuyan.
"Hold on!" An Long said, "If Yinglong refuses to cooperate, should we treat him ruthlessly to force his confession?"
Yang Xuyan replied indifferently, "Since he has no heart, I won't hold on to loyalty; he has no one to blame but himself."
Hearing that, Xu Ziling's heart turned cold. Using torture to force confession was extremely common; it was a daily occurrence, especially in time of war like this. But Yang Xuyan spoke about it without any emotion at all, especially when the target was a fellow disciple with whom he had had a long time relationship. From this, it can clearly be seen that this man had a heart of stone and no humanity at all. No wonder he could become the most outstanding assassin of the present age.
An Long laughed aloud and said, "You are worthy to be Shi Dage's proud disciple. Come!"
And then there was a sound of slapping palm, followed by the sound of Cao Yinglong's groan.
Xu Ziling also groaned inwardly; if these two big devil heads, one old the other young, were starting to torture Cao Yinglong, would he be able to stay eavesdropping on the side without doing anything?
Yang Xuyan's voice rang out, "What had happened? How did Long Shu fall into such plight?"
Groaning, Cao Yinglong said, "I lost! Troops in defeat like a landslide, everything's finished!"
An Long spoke with a cold laugh, "I hear Xu Ziling let you go. Because of this, he had a fall out with that Shang beauty of the Flying Horse Ranch; Yinglong really have such a big face."
Cao Yinglong replied with a bitter laugh, "Long Ye [master, as in master/slave relationship] please be lenient to me! I snatched this little life of mine back using the treasure I plundered for many years and by crippling my own martial art skill; it has nothing to do whatsoever with whether I have a big or a small face."
Yang Xuyan spoke heavily, "So much wealth, you simply offered it with both hands to someone else?"
Cao Yinglong replied, "Shaozhu [young master ('master' as in owner/superior)] had me drew the location of the six treasure storages in a roll of map. At that time I was carrying the map with me. If I was killed in battle, they could always get the map from my dead body anyway. This is as simple as a case of 'greedy for life, afraid of death', which is a human nature. Shaozhu should empathize with my wretched state and situation."
An Long spoke indifferently, "Since you believe that you are 'greedy for life, afraid of death' disciple, we have nothing to blame you with. I just don't understand why Xu Ziling would immediately rush to Sichuan? And just now when you see Ol' An, you immediately resisted me; isn't it because you have committed some shameful deed?"
Cao Yinglong replied, "I do have something that I need to apologize to Shaozhu, which is: I left a batch of money and valuables in Chengdu to be used when I retire. As for Xu Ziling entering Sichuan, Yinglong completely have no idea what he is doing."
Beyond Xu Ziling's expectation, Yang Xuyan laughed and said, "Turns out it is just a misunderstanding. Since that's the case, we cannot bear to argue with Long Shu. You may go!"
Cao Yinglong was stunned for half a day. "My whereabouts is already out in the open," he spoke in distressed, "If I go like this, ay! Shaozhu, please don't fool around with me! Shaozhu must not let me fall into outsiders' hand, you might as well do to Xiaoren as you pleased!"
'Ah!' A muffled groan, but it was quickly cut short. Obviously Cao Yinglong was knocked unconscious again. And then An Long said, "His story does not have any flaw that I can see; do you believe him?"
Yang Xuyan laughed coldly and said, "Based on Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling's style of conduct, how could they have a fallout with the Flying Horse Ranch for the sake of money and valuables? This traitor must have sold our secret in exchange for his life. This is very serious, fortunately as soon as I heard the rumor, I invited Qingxuan to Chengdu to talk. Even if Xu Ziling went to the secluded forest of the small valley, he would only be pouncing on an empty space."
Listening from the outside, Xu Ziling's heart shivered. Now he knew that Shi Qingxuan appearing in Chengdu was to meet her appointment with Yang Xuyan. Fortunately he overheard it quite by accident.