Volume 5, Chapter 18: A Life for a Life
Duan Lingxiao was already completely dispirited. However, seeing Xiaoshunzi and company all withdraw, only surrounding him and not attacking, Duan Lingxiao could not help raising his eyes. He saw the Stalwart Tiger Guard retreat to the sides, revealing two people. One of them was a white haired elderly man, while the other was a delicate and handsome looking youth who still had a bit of a childish aura. The elderly man had a depressed look on his face. One of his arms was carelessly bandaged with blood seeping out, cutting an extremely sorry figure. The young man clutched the elderly man with one hand and had a dagger at the elderly man’s throat. The two stood directly opposite Jiang Zhe, although there was a significant distance separating them.
At this moment, one of the Stalwart Tiger Guard suddenly scolded furiously, “Ling Duan, ungracious wretch, how dare you use a hostage to blackmail us?”
Jiang Zhe frostily stared at the Stalwart Tiger Guard. The icy gaze caused the guard to withdraw.
So the young man was actually Ling Duan. After he had returned to Northern Han with Qiu Yufei, he had no interest in returning to the military. After all, to him, he only had one general, Tan Ji. Besides, Qiu Yufei had been interested in recommending him to the Devil Sect. Although Qiu Yufei did not have time to return to Jinyang before he departed for the Eastern Sea, he had still given Ling Duan a letter of introduction to Duan Lingxiao. As for Duan Lingxiao, he had a favorable impression of Ling Duan. Although Ling Duan had not yet been accepted as a disciple, it was going to happen sooner rather than later. Although he had not been by Duan Lingxiao’s side for long, his martial arts fundamentals had been established by Tan Ji. After instruction from Qiu Yufei and Duan Lingxiao, Ling Duan’s martial arts had improved greatly. Although he was still inferior to the several Devil Sect disciples brought by Duan Lingxiao, Ling Duan could almost be considered second-rate.
Having spent years in the military, Ling Duan was extremely familiar with the geography of Qinzhou and Zezhou. As a result, he had followed Duan Lingxiao in this post-battle assassination operation. However, as they were trailing Su Qing, Duan Lingxiao had gone ahead alone. The Devil Sect disciples had subsequently followed the markers that Duan Lingxiao had left behind and entered the hamlet. Because his martial arts weren’t great, Ling Duan had been left behind some ten li1 away to look after the horses. This was how he had managed to escape the Stalwart Tiger Guard’s search and destroy mission. However, Ling Duan was dissatisfied at being left behind. To him, Jiang Zhe was the largest shadow in his life. The general he respected greatly and the comrade he shared trials and tribulations with had both died indirectly at that man’s hands. As a result, Ling Duan had violated orders and stealthily infiltrated the hamlet. Because he had arrived late, the Stalwart Tiger Guard had already withdrawn their ambush and surrounded Duan Lingxiao by the lakeside. While all of the Devil Sect disciples had been beheaded, Ling Duan’s late arrival saved his life.
Ling Duan was well aware that he did not have the ability to rescue Duan Lingxiao. He could only anxiously hope that Duan Lingxiao could escape on his own. Unfortunately, Duan Lingxiao had failed to break out. Ling Duan knew that they would be completely wiped out unless he managed to do something, as the Yong troops had not discovered his presence. Although he had not yet been accepted as a disciple by Duan Lingxiao, Ling Duan had already considered Duan Lingxiao his respected master. As such, he would even sacrifice his life. As a result, Ling Duan had made his decision to stake everything.
When he had infiltrated the hamlet, Ling Duan had noticed Ji Xuan and Zhao Liang. The two of them were under the protection of two Stalwart Tiger Guard. It was probably better to say that the two were under guard, not permitted to leave. There was nothing about Zhao Liang. As for Ji Xuan, he couldn’t stop complaining about Jiang Zhe, causing the two Stalwart Tiger Guard continuously smile wryly.
Having spent some time by Jiang Zhe’s side, Ling Duan knew that although Jiang Zhe had an easygoing persona, he was strict with his subordinates. Ling Duan had personally experienced Jiang Zhe’s methods. Although Ji Xuan complained constantly, Ling Duan could hear the familiarity in the elderly man’s tone. The tone the elderly man adopted was of an intimate friend or one’s elder. In addition, Ling Duan could see that the two Stalwart Tiger Guard were not enraged. This meant that Jiang Zhe was either respectful or tolerant of the elderly man. Regardless of the situation, this meant that the elderly man was extremely important. Thinking of this, Ling Duan resolved to take Ji Xuan hostage to blackmail Jiang Zhe.
Of course, it was possible that Jiang Zhe did not care about the elderly man’s life. However, Ling Duan could not watch while Duan Lingxiao died here. He was well aware of Duan Lingxiao’s arrogance. If Duan Lingxiao was defeated and captured, he would definitely not allow himself to continue living.
However, not only did the young man packing the belongings have decent martial arts, the two Stalwart Tiger Guard weren’t easy for Ling Duan to deal with. Moreover, he could not alarm the Yong troops by the lake. Fortunately, Ling Duan had brought a tube of spring-loaded sleeve darts. This was given him by Xiao Tong and were effective weapons used by Northern Han scouts to capture enemies. On the arrowheads, there was a strong anesthetic, making it easy to capture an enemy for interrogation.
Relying on the secret techniques Qiu Yufei and Duan Lingxiao had passed him, Ling Duan had been able to knock out all four individuals. However, Ling Duan did not take their lives. This wasn’t because he was being softhearted, but rather because he was worried that if they were killed, it would infuriate Jiang Zhe and overreach.
From the beginning, I was in a spectacular mess. How could something like this have happened? With two Stalwart Tiger Guard and Zhao Liang protecting Ji Xuan, no matter how capable Ling Duan was, his young age would not have been their match. Even with mounting a sneak attack, he should not have been able to succeed so soundlessly.
By my side, Su Qing stated, “Daren, that man probably used concealed weapons and a numbing agent. Scouts from both armies are so equipped to capture the enemy.”
I understand in a flash. It was no wonder Ji Xuan seemed so weak and without strength. I was well aware of these methods. In fact, I had personally concocted the numbing agents and designed the concealed weapons used by the Secret Camp. However, I had always thought that Ling Duan had an aboveboard character and had been unable to expect that he would use such a method. Thinking of this now, I could not help snickering. After all, Ling Duan was one of Tan Ji’s personal troops. It seemed that he had quite a close relationship with the Devil Sect. With such a background, why would he worry about such methods?
I glanced at Ji Xuan. Seeing the fatigue on his face, I could not help becoming somewhat enraged, as I declared, “Ling Duan! I’m disinclined to mention what’s happened in the past! I do not blame you for treating my graciousness like dung. However, since you dare to use someone as a hostage to blackmail this Marquis, could it be that you believe that this Marquis is truly that lenient and compassionate?”
Ling Duan felt his heart grow cold when he heard the words and saw the indifferent expression on Jiang Zhe’s face. Although Jiang Zhe was only a feeble looking scholar who possessed a refined bearing, standing there with his hands behind his back at this moment, his frail body seemed like a bamboo shoot standing unyielding in the snow. On his countenance, he had a faint killing intent.
Recalling what had happened in the past, Ling Duan felt a flood of emotions. Agonized, he replied, “Ling Duan cannot forget daren’s methods. In the past, Ling Duan was originally a prisoner on death row. Fortunately, because of daren’s pity, I was able to escape death. Although daren later executed Li Hu, and Ling Duan bore a grudge for some time, looking back today, our lives had been saved by daren. Even if daren decided to take them, there was nothing that we could say. At the time, daren should have also executed me for insurance. However, daren still let this one off. That day in the wilderness inn, when Ling Duan’s inner demons were aroused by the sound of a zither and attempted to assassinate daren, daren was once again benevolent and spared me. Ling Duan does not dare forget that my life was spared thrice.
“However, at the same time, Ling Duan cannot forget the deaths of General Tan and Li Hu. In addition, at present, elder young master Duan is Ling Duan’s respected master. With my master’s life in peril, how can I, as a disciple, stand by and do nothing? Ling Duan has guessed that daren cherishes this elderly sir deeply. As such, I have boldly presumed to use him as a hostage. As long as daren is willing to release the elder young master, Ling Duan is willing to die to pay for my sins.”
I frowned. Although I did not want to kill Duan Lingxiao, I knew that it was also impossible to capture him alive. This Duan Lingxiao had an extremely important status. Knowing his temperament and abilities, he was not someone willing to endure the humiliation of capture. However, I also did not want to let him off in such a manner. I instinctively glanced at Xiaoshunzi, shooting him a look of inquiry from the corners of my eyes.
Xiaoshunzi frowned as well. In his view, it was best Duan Lingxiao was killed. How could Ji Xuan compare to Duan Lingxiao? Moreover, the continued existence of such an expert was a threat to the young master. However, he also knew that he could not make the decision on his own. After all, the young master had profound foresight. Many of the young master’s decisions seemed foolish and rash at the time, but often ultimately were the key points that determined victory or defeat. As a result, Xiaoshunzi eventually decided to explain the current situation. After collecting his thoughts, he transmitted straight to my ear, “Young master, Duan Lingxiao received the power of two of my fingers. At present, he has already suffered grievous internal injuries. My internal energy is yin focused to the point of frost. Sir Sang once passed on a cultivation method to me that can be used to restrain the cultivation of the Devil Sect. His injuries are like maggots picking a bone clean. If he wants to restore his former cultivation, it will be impossible to do so without several months even with the help of the Devil Sect Sovereign. At present, he is only bracing himself with everything he has.”
Hearing Xiaoshunzi’s words, I found myself relax mentally. Even if I went through with the exchange, I would not suffer any losses by swapping a powerless-to-act Duan Lingxiao for Ji Xuan. However, I had every intention of garnering as many benefits as I could and not allowing Ling Duan to prevail so easily. Otherwise, what was I to do if others copied him in the future?
Deliberately causing my complexion to become increasingly frigid, I gravely said, “Ling Duan, out of consideration for your one-time service at my side, I will spare your life, as long as you release Sir Ji. Otherwise, I will first kill elder young master Duan before dealing with you.”
A resolute look flashed across Ling Duan’s eyes, as he replied, “Daren, since Ling Duan dares to blackmail you then I do not care about my survival. If daren orders men to continue to act against elder young master, Ling Duan can only first execute this elderly sir before joining elder young master in death here. This elderly man’s death will be decided with a single remark from daren.”
I felt my heart skip a beat. Who would have thought that Ling Duan would be so determined? However, how did he know that I would exchange hostages? At this moment, probably because the numbing agent had gradually lost its effectiveness, Ji Xuan used everything to shout, “This elderly one does not need you, Jiang Suiyun, to rescue! If you want to kill me, do so! How can this elderly one be so humiliated?”
I gritted my teeth. This Ji Xuan was truly troublesome. However, it would be bothersome if Ling Duan mistook that I had no intention of rescuing Ji Xuan. I promptly carefully examined Ling Duan’s expression. I clearly saw the increased confidence on his face from Ji Xuan’s shout. Ling Duan maintained the dagger at Ji Xuan’s throat, ensuring that Ji Xuan was unharmed. He stayed on guard against any escape attempts.
Seeing that I was silent and did not speak, Ling Duan spoke in a loud voice, “Daren, if you still do not make a decision, I can only kill him.”
As I eyed Ling Duan with hatred, I asked, “Elder young master, what do you think about this matter?”
Duan Lingxiao had been continuously nursing his injuries in the hopes of taking someone down with him in the near future. He was not certain that Jiang Zhe would let him go in exchange for this elderly man. Hearing Jiang Zhe’s inquiry, Duan Lingxiao calmly answered, “Duan’er is only acting willfully. Daren is an honored existence. How can you be so lightly blackmailed? I am confident that my value is not cheap. Duan’er, it is best that you leave quickly. At the very least, it should be sufficient to exchange your life for his.”
Ling Duan’s eyes flared, seemingly almost on the verge of spewing flames. He naturally had doubts about whether Jiang Zhe would allow himself to be so blackmailed. Although Jiang Zhe seemed to value the hostage in his hands, Duan Lingxiao was the chief disciple of the Devil Sect. With Duan Lingxiao’s honored status, if he were the one being blackmailed, Ling Duan knew that he would absolutely refuse. However, he was also unwilling to abandon this last shred of hope. Gazing at Jiang Zhe, he fumed, “Daren, I hope that you will come to a decision. If you are unwilling to come to terms, this one can only kill this elderly man and garner some interest.”
I shivered inwardly. Ling Duan’s disagreeable nature of arrogance and aloofness was showing. If I coerced him further, he would very likely kill Ji Xuan. If that happened, it would be terrible. Since Duan Lingxiao had already been severely injured, it would have no effect if he were let go. In any case, it was enough having ensured that he would be unable to act over the next several months. Once he had recovered, everything would have already been lost for Northern Han. No matter how great his martial arts, it would be of no use.
A slight, wry smile appeared, as I thought, It is enough that I’m letting Duan Lingxiao off. However, you cannot be let off lightly. Having reached this conclusion, I frostily stated, “Although Venerable Sir Ji is a friend in spite of our age difference, elder young master Duan is the chief disciple of Northern Han’s State Mentor and possesses a high status. Meeting him today, I feel as if the elder young master is a hero of the age. There is no harm in letting him go. However, as you have taken a hostage to blackmail this Marquis, if this Marquis let the elder young master off so lightly, wouldn’t it show the entire world that this Marquis could be blackmailed? How about this? If you are willing to release Venerable Sir Ji, I am willing to allow you to exchange your life for elder young master Duan. Even though it’s a life for a life, I am losing out.”
Ling Duan was left dumbfounded. Although he was ready to lose his life, he did not expect that it would be in such a manner. However, after thinking it over carefully, Ling Duan actually became cheerful. He thought, It is already shameful to take a hostage. I am no more than a nobody, while the elder young master is the chief disciple of the Devil Sect. If I am able to exchange a life for a life, I am truly the one gaining the advantage. Thinking this, he calmly replied, “Daren’s word is ironclad. Ling Duan has never seen daren lie. Ling Duan is perfectly willing to swap a life for a life. However, daren, please forgive me. Before elder young master departs, Ling Duan cannot release my hostage.”
Duan Lingxiao shook his head slightly. At this moment, he was well aware that Jiang Zhe probably had no interest in taking his life. Based upon the manner in which Jiang Zhe had used Su Qing to block his escape, Duan Lingxiao was well aware that Jiang Zhe was not only meticulous and deliberate, but also vicious and ruthless. Jiang Zhe was definitely not someone to allow the enemy to survive. Thinking, Duan Lingxiao realized that it was not impossible to rescue the hostage as Ling Duan’s martial arts weren’t great. Furthermore, Duan Lingxiao did not believe that Jiang Zhe would abide by his promises. As long as all outsiders who were aware of the situation were killed, who would know that Jiang Zhe had failed to keep a promise?
As a result, it was possible that Ling Duan could facilitate his survival. However, if Jiang Zhe did not have such thoughts already, then Duan Lingxiao knew that there would be no hope for survival. As for using Ling Duan’s life for his own, Duan Lingxiao assumed that Jiang Zhe was only retaliating for the damage that Ling Duan had done to his prestige. However, at this moment, Duan Lingxiao had no way of preventing all this from happening, unless he truly wished to die here. However, even if he were willing to die, it would be impossible to save Ling Duan.
Raising his head, Duan Lingxiao gazed at Jiang Zhe. Coincidentally, Jiang Zhe was also gazing at him. That pair of clear and profound eyes seemingly had a hint of ridicule. As their eyes locked, Duan Lingxiao distinctly saw that a look of surprise seemed to flash across Jiang Zhe’s face, almost as if his thoughts had been seen through. A pained smile appeared on Duan Lingxiao’s face. Regardless of what happened, his life was to be exchanged with that of a younger generation of the Devil Sect. This kind of humiliation would probably follow him for the rest of his life.
Sighing softly, Duan Lingxiao calmly stated, “Duan’er, release Venerable Sir Ji. What kind of individual is Marquis Jiang? How can he be blackmailed by you? Since he has already agreed, he will not renege without cause. There is no need for you to be so obstinate.”
Ling Duan was mystified. However, because he already deeply respected Duan Lingxiao, he finally released Ji Xuan after some hesitation. Ling Duan trusted that the elder young master would not seek destruction. Sure enough, as soon as Ling Duan released Ji Xuan, aside from two Stalwart Tiger Guard who rapidly helped Ji Xuan away, Jiang Zhe did not issue any orders to attack such that no one had come to restrain Ling Duan.
I glanced at the vacant Ling Duan who was deathly still. Knowing that this young man had given up all desire for life, I could not help feeling pity. At this moment, a Stalwart Tiger Guard hurriedly rushed over to relay, “Reporting to daren, young master Zhao and company are unharmed and only fell unconscious.”
With that, I relaxed. Looking at Ling Duan, I emotionlessly asked, “Ling Duan, do you know why I always tolerated you?”
Ling Duan raised his head. Not having a hint of color on his pale face, he gritted his teeth and did not say a word.
I coldly continued, “You are no more than a common soldier. What need is there for me to curry favor with you? If you hadn’t been one of General Tan’s Ghost Cavalry, what need would I have had to take any note of your fate? On that day, when this Marquis kept you by my side to serve as an attendant, did I humiliate you? As for you, you repaid my kindness with ungratefulness, escaping in secret. I couldn’t care less about this per se. Considering General Tan, it is not surprising that you remained loyal to Northern Han. Although this Marquis ordered your arrest, nothing was ever truly directed at you. By luck, you were able to escape and return to Northern Han alive. As such, you should cherish your life. However, for you to come today, you are probably here in order to assassinate me. Observing the situation was on the verge of failure, you took a hostage to blackmail this Marquis. Enough is enough! Come! Drag him away and give him fifty lashes!”
As expected, the Stalwart Tiger Guard abided by my order and dragged Ling Duan away. Completely lacking the mind to resist, he allowed himself to be led away. It wasn’t long before the sound of flogging could be heard in the distance.
After dealing with Ling Duan, I turned my attention to Duan Lingxiao. With a smile, I inquired, “Does elder young master have any objections with my handling of the situation?”
A speck of joy flashed across Duan Lingxiao’s eyes, as he responded, “Your Lordship is merciful, willing to spare Ling Duan’s life. I am indebted.2 Even if Your Lordship reneged upon your promise and took my life, I would die without regrets.”
I smiled slightly. Duan Lingxiao’s judgement was quite keen. From my punishment of Ling Duan, Duan Lingxiao knew that I had no intention of executing Ling Duan. First, I had once exploited Ling Duan and was a bit remorseful. Second, I was quite fond of Ling Duan’s temperament. Since he had not killed Zhao Liang and the two Stalwart Tiger Guard he had ambushed, I could treat him leniently. Most importantly, after today’s events, Ling Duan would hold a special position in Duan Lingxiao’s heart. In the future, Ling Duan would definitely become an important figure in the Devil Sect. It was an excellent matter to have someone so wary and grateful towards me within the Devil Sect. After all, it wasn’t possible to destroy Northern Han’s Devil Sect. Not only did the Devil Sect have its own unique succession inheritance, I myself did not have any thoughts about eliminating the Devil Sect. After all, both the emperor and I did not want to see the Shaolin Temple and the orthodox sects to exist without being counterbalanced. Jianghu was the same as the court; everything needed to be checked and balanced.
Since I no longer had any thoughts about killing Duan Lingxiao, I waved my hand, ordering everyone to withdraw, only leaving Xiaoshunzi, Huyan Shou, and Su Qing by my side. I even had the four experts who had come withdraw. Duan Lingxiao did not seize the opportunity to raise difficult questions. The internal injuries he had suffered weren’t light. In comparison, Xiaoshunzi was completely unharmed. With the inclusion of Su Qing and Huyan Shou, no matter how conceited Duan Lingxiao was, he would not have a shred of confidence that he would be able to assassinate me. How would such an intelligent and resolute individual do something so unbeneficial? As a result, I adopted a friendly demeanor. However, Xiaoshunzi would definitely not leave my side. How could someone as important as me be allowed to be endangered? I was very careful. Who knew if Duan Lingxiao would lose his mind?
I gently stated, “Elder young master Duan, it is inappropriate for Ling Duan to remain in Qinzhou. I will send him to join Yufei in the Eastern Sea. What does the elder young master think about this?”
Something flashed in Duan Lingxiao’s eyes, as he responded, “Many thanks for Your Lordship’s empathy. Although the child’s martial arts aren’t great, his character and aptitude are top notch. I cannot bear to see him come to any harm on the battlefield. Yufei also treats the boy quite well. It is good that he be sent to the Eastern Sea. Your Lordship is truly quite fond of Ling Duan.”
I sighed softly, “The deepest regret in Zhe’s life is that I was not able to personally meet General Tan. General Tan only has this single bodyguard left. How can this Marquis steel myself to take his life?”
Duan Lingxiao was moved. Hearing the sincerity in Jiang Zhe’s tone, he could not help sighing and saying, “Tan Ji was uniquely proud and aloof, filled with enmity and misery. On that day, Master intended to take him as a disciple. Unfortunately, his personal demons were too heavy. As a result, Master had me pass him martial arts. When General Tan died, I also grieved incessantly.”
In a clear voice, I recited:
“From the perfidy of the Heavens arouses chaos, from the perfidy of the Earth arises fire beacons.
Kin and parents turned to dust, forlorn with a broken heart and a broken will.
Retribution wrought, yet hate does not end.
A lord’s great grace unpayable even upon death.
I regret not the slaughtering and leaving of bodies everywhere, shedding blood enough to float a shield and plunging the people into misery and suffering.
Men wield crossbows and I a dagger-axe, mounted and galloping together.
My body buried by the cold Qin River, traveling to the underworld in peace.
Meeting fate not with fear or indignation but magnanimity, feeling sorrow parting with old friends!”