Exhausted after days of fighting, less than half were left from the over thousand men who had escaped from the Hunting Palace. Those survivors were all injured. Forcing himself to smile, Li Zhi shook his head. He did not expect that he would be reduced to such a state after gaining control of a magnificent army of thousands of men and horses. The two thousand imperial guardsmen commanded by Wen Ziyan and the thousand men commanded by Pei Yun were Great Yong’s most elite troops. Every single individual was brave and skillful in combat. Wen Ziyan not only had superior numbers, her troops’ speed was also much faster. In addition, aside from the two thousand imperial guardsmen, she had fifty swordswomen from the Fengyi Sect. All of these women were suicidal maniacs who did not fear death, all with capable martial arts. Although they were women, all of them had excellent swordsmanship, accomplished at archery and horsemanship. Although they were not experts at frontal assaults, they rained down arrows when the turncoat imperial guardsmen engaged Pei Yun’s imperial guardsmen. In close combat, they used their superb swordsmanship and equestrianism to murder the generals and experts under the Prince of Yong’s command. All of these women wielded treasured swords, easily able to pierce through the armor of the Prince of Yong’s subordinates. As a result, they inflicted heavy losses upon the Prince of Yong’s subordinates. As for the Prince of Yong’s subordinates, all of them were either adept at fighting hand-to-hand on the battlefield or skilled in wulin dueling. Compared to the unpredictability and rapidness of the women swordswomen, the Prince of Yong’s subordinates were quite inferior. Were it not for Li Zhi’s remarkable command capability, Wen Ziyan would have likely succeeded already.
Li Zhi turned his head to gaze at the smoke and dust kicked up in the distance. He sighed once again. The Fengyi Sect Master was truly not ordinary. This unit of women that she had trained was truly incomparably without equal. Even the horse archers of the northern barbarians weren’t as formidable as these women. Li Zhi believed that he was a master at training his troops, but had never thought to train such a unit of light cavalry. Of course, although the cost of training such a unit was quite high, it was worth it to acquire such a crack unit of light cavalry. As for Wen Ziyan, this female rakshasa that caused him the biggest headache, Li Zhi could only sigh with praise. Although Wen Ziyan’s performance was barely acceptable1 when trying to obstruct Li Zhi’s escape—probably because even if she was responsible for their training, she was not responsible for their military training—he could not help but admire this woman’s ability. At the beginning, she was flustered in command. But by now, she had learned quickly. If Wen Ziyan had been given the opportunity to command troops before, she would have become a famous general.
Li Zhi could not help but think that the Fengyi Sect Master had chosen the wrong path. If she had not devoted herself to controlling the court politics and harem, then based upon Wen Ziyan’s abilities and these swordswomen, Great Yong would have had an astonishingly capable army of women. Although that road would be bumpy and complicated, it was an aboveboard method.
After sharing the remaining rations with his subordinates, Li Zhi once again mounted his horse. He shouted, “Let’s hurry. If we can cross the Bitter Cloud Ridge, and obstruct the rebel army’s pursuit and attack, then we can rendezvous with our reinforcements.” Although this was what he said, Li Zhi was still deeply worried. Wen Ziyan had detoured and was barring the way, preventing him from fleeing towards his reinforcements. If this were to continue, Li Zhi knew that his head would be presented as a gift to the crown prince. A look of resentment flashed across Pei Yun’s eyes as he stood by Li Zhi’s side. The troops that he had so painstakingly drilled had been crushed2 by these swordswomen. Although much of these losses were a result of their numerical inferiority, he had still lost much face.
After everyone had galloped for some time, they caught sight of a small but steep mountain ridge before them. Everyone’s vigilance increased. They had reached this location yesterday, but had unfortunately been blocked by Wen Ziyan, and they had ultimately been forced to break out of the encirclement. This time, they had used all of the available methods to conceal their whereabouts, dividing their troops to entice the enemy, once again returning here. As long as they were to climb over this ridge, the following seventy li of road were composed of ancient roads winding through the hills. As long as they left behind troops in ambush to serve as the rearguard, then they would be able to guarantee that the Prince of Yong would be able to reach his household guards. No matter how formidable the pursuing turncoats, there was no way for them to harm the Prince of Yong within an army of tens of thousands.
Gazing at the mountain ridge before them, Li Zhi signaled with his hand. Two experts with excellent qinggong dismounted from their horses. Like apes and monkeys, they climbed the mountain ridge. Their figures disappeared from everyone’s eyes. Afterwards, a scream could be heard. Li Zhi and company immediately tightened their grips on their weapons. An azure-clothed woman mounted on a fine horse appeared on the mountain ridge. Although her appearance was ordinary, the disdainful spirit she had for the entirety of the world caused this woman to become quite vivid and memorable in everyone’s eyes. Sure enough, the Fengyi Sect Master’s head disciple was truly not ordinary.
Wen Ziyan urged her horse forward, joined by forty swordswomen to her left and right. Wen Ziyan shouted, “Li Zhi, this seat had long foreseen that you would return here. Therefore, regardless of how you divided your troops and tried to entice me, this seat was determined to reach this location before you. Right now, you are in a certain death situation. Why have you not dismounted and surrendered? Perhaps the Crown Prince will be merciful and spare your life.”
Heaving a deep sigh, Li Zhi replied, “It is truly a pity that Miss Wen has never before led troops into battle. You have this Prince’s admiration. However, it will require your own skills to take this Prince’s life. Li An has rebelled against the Emperor, having neither father nor sovereign in his eyes. Your Fengyi Sect inciting the Crown Prince to rebellion is an unpardonable crime. If you wish to seek this Prince’s head, come take it yourself.”
Wen Ziyan loudly laughed for a long time. Waving her hand, innumerable horsemen appeared on both sides. Occupying the high ground, they charged down. Recognizing that the terrain was unfavorable to him, Li Zhi knew that if he were too impatient and fled right away, he would be attacked in the rear by Wen Ziyan. At the same time, if he were to fight to the death, the losses that he would suffer would be disastrous. However, there was still a slim chance of survival. If they were able to defend against the charge, then they would be able to find the opportunity to get away.
Consequently, Li Zhi drew his sword and pointed at the enemy. He commanded, “Fight to the death! No retreat! Kill!” Finished shouting, Li Zhi took the lead and charged forward. Seeing him, Li Zhi’s personal guard were all inflamed, all of them seeking to cover the Prince of Yong. The two elite units slammed together, enemies meeting face to face,3 carnage ensuing.4 Based upon his unparalleled command talent, Li Zhi was able to blunt the first attack.
At this moment, Pei Yun discovered that Wen Ziyan had charged down with the Fengyi Sect swordswomen right down the steep mountain ridge. It was clear that they intended to hit the Prince of Yong’s flank. Hardening his heart, Pei Yun shouted, “Brothers! Follow me and serve as the rearguard! Your Imperial Highness, quickly flee!”
Once Pei Yun’s order transmitted through the ranks, formidable fighting strength erupted from the three hundred of the remaining loyalist imperial guardsmen, tenaciously intercepting the rebel army. Li Zhi was briefly startled, watching as Pei Yun took the lead and charged straight at her. Lamenting, Li Zhi shouted, “Let’s go!” Although this had not been planned, the Prince of Yong was a veteran commander. Naturally, he understood that this was his only opportunity to escape. Li Zhi had to cut his losses and flee. Everyone knew that if the Prince of Yong did not live to rendezvous with his personal troops, then the only path before everyone was death. As a result, the remaining imperial guardsmen and some of the Prince of Yong’s personal guards did not hesitate, protecting the Prince of Yong in retreat.
Wen Ziyan exchanged several blows with Pei Yun. Pei Yun was an expert from the Shaolin Temple and was also a valiant general who had fought numerous battles. At this very moment, he had no fear of death. As a result, in spite of everything, he was able to hold off Wen Ziyan. Beside him were his own personal guards and many experts from the major sects of jianghu. Although these martial artists were inexperienced in war, based upon their valor, they were surprisingly able to hold off the onslaught of the Fengyi Sect’s swordswomen.
Wen Ziyan’s sword arced through the air like a rainbow, the snow-white sword finally having the opportunity to stab towards Pei Yun. Seeing that the experts by his side had already been defeated, Pei Yun ceased to dodge, instead counterattacking, chopping his saber back at Wen Ziyan. How was the all-out counterattack from a youthful expert from the Shaolin Temple easy to block? It was too late for Wen Ziyan to evade. Although she wore light armor underneath, she was still wounded on the right arm. As for Pei Yun, he was stabbed several times by the circling swordswomen. He fell off his horse. Although she saw that Pei Yun was not yet dead, Wen Ziyan ignored him, continuing to pursue the Prince of Yong. Trilling a long whistle, she led her forces to pursue the Prince of Yong’s routed troops.
This chase was different from before. Wen Ziyan had recklessly galloped forward. Regardless of how he tried, the Prince of Yong could not shake off his pursuers. After he had sped along for some twenty-odd li, the speed of Li Zhi’s horse gradually reduced. Li Zhi steeled his heart, lifted his personal sword, and prepared to stab the buttocks of his horse. At this moment, he saw smoke and dust roil before him, signaling that a large force was approaching. Li Zhi could not help but become disheartened. For a moment, he was at his wit’s end. However, he was a once-in-a-generation hero. Seeing that attackers both in front and behind w0uld arrive simultaneously, Li Zhi decided he might as well rein in his warhorse. Thinking back on these last two days of fighting and rushing, he was already battered and exhausted. How could the Great Yong’s military deity die in such a sorry state? Using his personal sword as a mirror, Li Zhi rearranged his appearance and straightened his armor. The imperial guardsmen and household guard by his side all lost heart, tightening their grips on their weapons, preparing to welcome their last moments.
Behind them, Wen Ziyan’s pursuing troops gradually closed in. Right then, Li Zhi was able to clearly see the incomparably handsome face of the man at the head of the army advancing from ahead. It was Xiahou Yuanfeng. The armored soldiers behind him seemed to be Qin Yi’s subordinates. Li Zhi’s heart sank. Did Jiang Zhe’s plan fail? Had the Crown Prince gained control of Qin Yi’s troops? At this moment, facing death, Li Zhi was actually at peace with himself. Looking left and right, Sima Xiong and Jing Chi were covered with cuts and bruises. All of those following him had dark and gloomy appearances, their armor smashed to pieces. Li Zhi could not help but smile and state, “A manly man born in these troubled times carries a three chi long sword to perform meritorious service. If we are unsuccessful in our ambitions, there is only death! It is a pity that I have implicated all of you.”
Sobbing, everyone replied, “To accompany Your Imperial Highness to the underworld, we will die a glorious death!”4
At this time, the troops that Xiahou Yuanfeng led suddenly spread out to the side, forming a crescent formation. Li Zhi and company were left dumbfounded. Taking this formation meant that the enemies before them weren’t seeking to scatter them, but seeking instead to surround them. Could it be that they were seeking to capture the Prince of Yong alive? Before Li Zhi was able to think it through, Xiahou Yuanfeng’s troops had already split in half, passing by the flanks of Li Zhi’s remaining troops, meeting Wen Ziyan’s pursuing soldiers. One side was rested and prepared, while the other was a spent force. Upon contact, superiority was determined. Wen Ziyan’s troops were surrounded by the five thousand soldiers that Xiahou Yuanfeng commanded.
“Xiahou Yuanfeng!” shouted Wen Ziyan in a sharp, piercing voice filled with indignity from within the encirclement.
Li Zhi’s face twitched. Although he did not know what was going on, he immediately understood that at this moment, victory was already within his grasp.
At this moment, a group of the commanders of the reinforcements came to the Prince of Yong’s side. Remaining mounted, a heroic and brave looking general gave a military salute, shouting, “Under His Imperial Majesty’s secret edict, General Qin has dispatched the army to search and provide assistance to Your Imperial Highness. This general is Zhang Xiong and has accompanied Commander Xiahou the entire way. Fortunately, we were able to encounter Your Imperial Highness. Please forgive us, Your Imperial Highness, for arriving so late.”
Overjoyed, Li Zhi replied, “General, there is no need to be overly courteous. What is going on? Please explain slowly.”
The general respectfully and cautiously explained, “Last night, Commander Xiahou arrived at the Qin family’s army’s camps, conveying His Imperial Majesty’s secret edict and the Grand General’s command, stating that the Crown Prince had rebelled and that His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, was being pursued and attacked by a rebel army. General Qin Yong issued orders, splitting the army into eight to search for Your Imperial Highness’s whereabouts. Your Imperial Highness, please allow this general to issue the signal to notify the separate forces of Your Imperial Highness’s position.”
After thinking it over, Li Zhi answered, “Use the military communication methods to inform the separate forces to rendezvous at the town of Pingyuan.”
The town of Pingyuan was fifteen li from the Hunting Palace, perfectly suitable to establish encampments for the armies seeking to rescue the emperor. A look of admiration flashed across this general’s eyes, and he personally went to send the message, employing fireworks to transmit the Prince of Yong’s orders.
Li Zhi raised his gaze and looked around, seeing that although Wen Ziyan had been encircled, she had become even more dauntless. The attacking soldiers had suffered countless casualties. Li Zhi could not help but lament mentally. To Zhang Xiong, he asked, “Are there any friendly forces nearby?”
Hesitating somewhat, Zhang Xiong first gazed at the battle. He then responded, “Your Imperial Highness, the central army personally commanded by General Qin Yong should be twenty li away.”
Overjoyed, Li Zhi replied, “Quickly summon General Qin over. After we have annihilated this rebel army, we’ll join together and march towards the town of Pingyuan.”
Zhang Xiong promptly went to pass the order. Another group of fireworks shot into the air.
In just under an hour, after Wen Ziyan’s troops had attempted to break the assault several times, but were blocked by the loyalists risking life and limb. Under the assistance of the Prince of Yong’s subordinate experts and the brave warriors of his army, Xiahou Yuanfeng was able to counter the Fengyi Sect’s spearhead though with difficulty. During this period, they were truly able to experience the formidability of the Fengyi Sect. Before, although they were previously extremely afraid of the Fengyi Sect’s tyranny, they now viewed these women with contempt. But the gorgeous, and yet heartless and ruthless swordsmanship of Wen Ziyan and company caused all of them to hover on the boundary between life and death.
Although Li Zhi was worried sick, there was something that filled him with joy. The men that he had dispatched to rescue his rearguard had discovered that Pei Yun was still alive. Although the conditions of his injuries were grave, the secret cultivation methods of the Shaolin Temple were extremely wondrous, surprisingly able to preserve Pei Yun’s life.
After a spell, although the Fengyi Sect had suffered heavy casualties, Wen Ziyan was still on the verge of escaping. In the distance, smoke and dust could be seen. At the head of reinforcements, Qin Yong arrived. At this moment, Wen Ziyan was finally able to take the lead and charge out of the blockade.
Helpless, Xiahou Yuanfeng shook his head. After fighting bitterly for half a day, he was powerless to do anything. He could not back down if he wished to not die at Wen Ziyan’s hands. All this was completely outside of his expectations. Although Xiahou Yuanfeng was fond of currying favor on both sides, he was most skilled at distinguishing between situations. When the Prince of Yong had escaped, Xiahou Yuanfeng knew that the situation was already out of the Fengyi Sect’s control. As a result, under Jiang Zhe’s coercion and his disappointment with the Fengyi Sect, he had quickly decided to support the Prince of Yong. He mocked himself—although the Prince of Yong was difficult to serve, requiring the use of actual meritorious service to obtain rank and his confidence, it was better than being dependent on another's whim to live.5 Since he had switched his support to the Prince of Yong, then the most important thing he needed to do now was to contribute as soon as possible. Fortunately, the Heavens had blessed him, allowing him to be the first to find the Prince of Yong. The greatest achievement one could contribute was to rescue someone in danger. Xiahou Yuanfeng was naturally overjoyed at the turn of events. As for the annihilation of Wen Ziyan and her allies, it was originally another opportune contribution that the Heavens had given him. But right now, he had discovered that Wen Ziyan and the Fengyi Sect’s swordswomen were extremely formidable.
At this point, Xiahou Yuanfeng finally paid attention to the distant reinforcements. He had no intention of bickering over the contributions in annihilating Wen Ziyan’s troops. After all, he knew that the Prince of Yong had already seen his contributions in rescuing the prince and grinding down the Fengyi Sect’s strength. As a result, he only gave the order to ensure that the traitorous imperial guardsmen did not escape. After all, wiping them out was no small contribution in and of itself.
From the ranks of the arriving reinforcements, a pitch-black horse broke forward from the formation, heading directly for Wen Ziyan. A heaven-soaring killing intent was being exuded from the young man in martial attire mounted upon this horse. Seeing the arriving reinforcements, Wen Ziyan reined in her horse. She closed her eyes. After a few moments, she reopened them. Her hopeful eyes had seemed to fall into the abyss of despair and were now dull and calm. The Fengyi Sect swordswomen, whose snow-white clothes had been dyed crimson by the blood, all silently checked the weapons in their hands. The previous two days, only a few of these swordswomen had perished. In this last engagement, most of them had fallen. Their supply of arrows was exhausted. Their clothes were ragged, revealing the black, light armor underneath. The edges of their treasured swords, capable of dicing any metal and cutting jade, were blunt and stained dark. However, there wasn’t a hint of terror or weakness on their faces.
Wen Ziyan waved her hand, signaling for the swordswomen to stay still, while she personally rode forward, welcoming the lone person that was charging straight for her. Prior to this, the traitorous imperial guardsmen had all lost the will to fight. Xiahou Yuanfeng guided his horse to the Prince of Yong’s side. Just as he was about to report in, he saw that Li Zhi’s gaze was fixated ahead. There, were no soldiers within a hundred paces, only Wen Ziyan and Li Shun battling. Xiahou Yuanfeng smiled faintly and did not speak, ignoring the warning glances from the Prince of Yong’s personal guards. Currently, other than the moans of the dying and the neighing of the masterless horses, there were no other sounds. It seemed that everyone had stopped moving, attentively watching the two top experts with similar reputations fight—the Demonic Shadow, Li Shun, and the Bloody Handed Rakshasa, Wen Ziyan.
Everyone had the same thoughts in their minds: allow this kind of enemy deserving of respect to die in a duel against an evenly matched6 opponent. Everyone knew that if Wen Ziyan were to be defeated, then these Fengyi Sect swordswomen would lose their ability to resist. But if Li Shun were to lose, then there was no one on the Prince of Yong’s side capable of rescuing the situation. It was likely that even if they were able to kill Wen Ziyan, she and her Fengyi Sect swordswomen would be able to heavily damage the morale of the Prince of Yong’s troops.
Slightly earlier, Wen Ziyan smiled slightly, dismounting from her horse. With affection, she patted her horse’s neck before driving it away. She gazed at Li Shun. Li Shun’s original clothes had already been torn into shreds during the escape. As a result, he wore a military uniform, although he did not don armor. His gaze fell upon Wen Ziyan, revealing a look of respect and deep-seated hatred. Seeing Wen Ziyan’s actions, he also lightly stepped off of his horse and drove it away. Under the autumn breeze, they stood opposing each other, the surging killing intent rocketing to the heavens.
While everyone was shaken by the killing intent, the two moved, their figures tangling. A dazzling glint of steel twinkled through the air. Li Shun twirled a jade hairpin in his hands. In the wake of his multitudinous, ever-changing style, Li Shun’s attacks created ear-piercing, popping sounds. The more the two fought, the more committed they became. All the spectators could no longer clearly see the movements of the two dueling. This astonishing duel did not last long. Wen Ziyan was already exhausted.7 As a result, she did not conserve any of her internal or physical energy, seeking to win in the shortest amount of time possible. As Li Shun had always had a proud temperament and wanted to gauge the fighting abilities of the other disciples of the Fengyi Sect, he did not try to use guerrilla tactics against Wen Ziyan. The two used all of their strength to fight. After several dozen exchanges, victory and defeat were decided. Like a puppet with its string cut,8 Wen Ziyan’s body collapsed. Although he had few small wounds on his body, Li Shun was glowing with health and vigor. After going all out during his duel with Wen Ziyan, he was confident that he could deal with all of the other experts in the Fengyi Sect aside from the Fengyi Sect Master.
At this moment, Wen Ziyuan slowly sat up. Although blood flowed freely from her body, she did not seem to notice. Unsteadily, she got to her feet. Her eyes haltingly and unhurriedly glanced over her surroundings before falling upon Li Shun. After whispering something, she raised her sword up high and shouted, “To the victor go the spoils! Li Shun! I’ll be waiting for you in the underworld!” Finished speaking, she slit her throat. A generational female heroine, who was not in the least bit inferior to men,9 thus died, buried in the loess of northwestern China.
At this moment, Qin Yong signaled with his hand. Several thousand archers notched arrows to their bows. Qin Yong gazed at the Prince of Yong and saluted, waiting for his order.
The swordswomen exchanged looks of dismay. Although through the bitter training and the flawed cultivation methods they had lost their normal emotions, but in the face of these circumstances, they recognized that they definitely would not have any hope of survival. The distinct shadow of death had enveloped them all. As a result, Wen Ziyan, who they all respected and obeyed, became their object of imitation. All of them simultaneously looked forward, raised their swords, and committed suicide. Afterwards, their bodies dropped from their horses.
The fall of the Fengyi Sect had begun …