Volume 5, Chapter 8: Secret Base in an Old Tomb
Just as the atmosphere in the main hall was on the verge of degenerating into chaos, the man in black suddenly erupted into laughter. He said, "What a good Prince of Qing. Your Imperial Highness presumably has long been suspicious, only holding it back to prevent me from become hostile and making it difficult to converse. Fine. I will do as you ask."
Li Kang smiled slightly. There was a reason why he had waited until this moment to make this request. If an agreement was reached, as long as he didn't go overboard, then Huo Jicheng would not bear a grudge. However, this matter was extremely important. Huo Jicheng had not appeared in public for many years. Everyone only heard stories of his exploits but never saw him. Of this, Li Kang had inevitably become a bit uneasy.
The man in black removed his bamboo hat, allowing the muslin to flutter in the air. He revealed a slim and severe appearance. Even though he had an aquiline nose, making him seem vicious and ruthless, his appearance ultimately could be considered unusual. That pair of deeply intense, frigid eyes was enough to make someone tremble with fear. Li Kang compared this man's appearance with the portrait drawn and kept by the Yong military. After confirming that this man was indeed Huo Jicheng, he cheerfully said, "As expected, Union Head Huo's demeanor is unordinary. This Prince will be able to fulfill my ambitions by cooperating with Union Head."
Huo Jicheng smiled slightly. "Your Imperial Highness's words are incorrect. How can my Embroidered Union deserve to say that we are allying with Your Imperial Highness? It is Your Imperial Highness who does not despise us, offering shelter for me and my subordinates. From this point on, the Embroidered Union's position as Your Imperial Highness's subjects has been settled. Your Imperial Highness, there is no need to be polite. However, my Union assuredly has some obstinate and biased individuals. As such, I would like to ask Your Imperial Highness to not divulge this matter. Once I have made all of the arrangements within the Union, presumably Your Imperial Highness will have risen in rebellion. At that point, I will definitely come forth to serve under Your Imperial Highness's banner."
Li Kang smiled and replied, "There is no harm, no harm at all. Having Vice Union Head Chen present is the same as having Union Head Huo."
The two sides exchanged some pleasantries for a short time longer, causing the atmosphere within the hall to gradually relax. As for the murderous intent outside, it disappeared without a trace. Only then did Huo Jicheng and Chen Zhen find the opportunity to bid their farewell.
Only after they had gone some twenty li from the ancient temple did Chen Zhen whisper, "Supervisor Dong, luckily you thought of everything and prepared this mask beforehand. Otherwise, our plan would likely have failed then and there."
"Huo Jicheng" smiled and replied, "In fact, it isn't that brother Chen did not think of this. It is that this disguising technique has long been thought lost. It is not surprising that brother Chen did not have any methods. Fortunately, the young master and I have studied this technique attentively these last several years. Although there is no way to ensure its permanence, it imitates real life almost to perfection. After this meeting, it can be said that Huo Jicheng will never need to appear again. Brother Chen, do not worry."
So speaking, the man in black removed his bamboo hat. Afterwards, he applied some medicinal cream to his face and rubbed it. It wasn't long before the skin on his face began to crack like drought-ridden lands. After a short while, an ashen thin layer of skin was peeled off, revealing a handsome and fair appearance. In the night sky, the gloomy light of the moon and stars shone down, revealing that this was Dong Que, who had been dispatched by Jiang Zhe to Hanzhong. Putting on the bamboo hat again, he smiled and said, "This mask was a bit airtight. In the future, I'm going to carefully study the techniques some more and see if we can create a more durable and efficacious mask."
Chen Zhen marveled, "The young master is truly brilliant. The disguising techniques that are currently in circulation in jianghu can only change the outward appearance. The young master's methods, enabling one to completely adopt another's appearance, were long thought extinct."
"Young master still feels regretful," spoke Dong Que. "He said that if we had cut off Huo Jicheng's face to serve as a mask when he was killed, it would have been much easier. Unfortunately, this method is only the result of research from recent years and is not that well developed. The young master has only used death convicts to make masks twice. Although the results are better, the manufacturing techniques require careful study. Unfortunately, the young master does not have the heart to continue research along this line."
Chen Zhen kidded, "Even if the young master does not have the heart, that doesn't mean that Supervisor Dong shouldn't carefully research it. After all, Supervisor Dong has already spent some time and thought on this matter." Although he had said this jokingly, a thoughtful look appeared on Dong Que's face.
As the two conversed, they slowed their progress. Both of them were delighted with the agreement the two of them had reached with Li Kang. Both of them was confident that no one would be able to get within a hundred zhang.1 However, in order to safeguard against being followed from a distance, they still took a circuitous route. Only when midnight came did they finally reach an old tomb. The two walked around the tomb, confirming that no one was following.
Chen Zhen walked to the stele before the tomb. He lightly struck the stele several times. The stele then noiselessly shifted to the side, exposing a concealed path. After the two entered, the stele once again returned to its position. This old tomb was one that Chen Zhen learned of from a grave robber. The old tomb had several dozen chambers linked by corridors and was crammed with hidden traps. Its defenses were extremely tight. Of the eight operatives, Shanzi, who had accompanied Chen Zhen in controlling the Embroidered Union, was skilled at creating hidden traps. After everyone had put in a significant amount of time, they had finally been able to tidy up the old tomb after several months had passed, allowing it to become the headquarters for the Embroidered Union. Those with the qualifications to enter here, aside from Chen Zhen and the members of the Secret Camp, were only a few of the ranking figures of the Embroidered Union and the few lieutenants Chen Zhen trusted.
When the two walked into a secret room, the one responsible for welcoming them was Baiyi. He did not have a tall stature and his skin tone was a bit dark. His appearance and the expression on his face seemed to be simple and honest. However, he was actually the foremost expert in the Secret Camp. His lethal martial arts were more advanced than his peers. As such, he assisted Chen Zhen in controlling the Embroidered Union, making significant contributions. Of course, his identity here was as Huo Jicheng's adopted son, Huo Yi. Removing his bamboo hat, Dong Que accepted the ghost mask that Baiyi handed him and placed it on his face. Here, he was Huo Jicheng. Although the members of the Embroidered Union were Chen Zhen's trusted lieutenants, none of them knew that Huo Jicheng had died long ago. As a result, Dong Que needed to appear as Huo Jicheng.
The two of them walked into the largest chamber of the tomb. This was the conference chamber of the Embroidered Union. On both sides of the chambers stood more than a dozen individuals with different appearances. Unafraid and straightforward, Dong Que took a seat at the chair in the center. Chen Zhen took a seat at his side, while Baiyi stood behind Dong Que to serve as a bodyguard. In a frigid voice, Dong Que stated, "Everyone, please be seated."
Everyone saluted Dong Que before cautiously sitting down. The majority of them were from Shu. "Huo Jicheng" very rarely appeared before them, usually issuing directives and orders through Chen Zhen. They were all extremely wary of Union Head Huo. Because of Huo Jicheng's previous vicious savagery or the present covert malevolence, all of it caused them to not dare to have any thoughts about betrayal.
Dong Que coldly stated, "This seat has already come to terms with the Prince of Qing. We will take over the Prince of Qing's intelligence network. As for us, we need the Prince of Qing to restore the Kingdom of Shu. What does everyone think?"
A bold and heroic looking middle-aged man stood and answered, "Union Head, we cannot do this! Li Kang is a prince of Great Yong. How does he have the qualifications to restore Shu?"
Dong Que snorted derisively and explained, "Protector Luo, think this through clearly. Based upon our Embroidered Union's strength, don't tell me that we can restore the Kingdom of Shu? If we do not have the Prince of Qing's army, then everything is no more than an unrealistically rosy illusion. As long as we are able to help the Prince of Qing set up an independent regime here in Hanzhong and look for an opportunity to invade Guanzhong, once we control the majority of the forces under the Prince of Qing's command, what do we have to fear? That he does not mean what he says?"
Blushing, the middle-aged man sat back down. He was not concerned that he was reprimanded by the Union Head. These last several years, Huo Jicheng's personality had changed greatly. Whenever he solicited others' opinions, they could speak freely without fear of consequences. However, once he had made a decision, he would absolutely not tolerate anyone violating his orders.
After everyone had discussed for some time how to control the Prince of Qing, the atmosphere became extremely enthusiastic. After all, after so many years, this was the best opportunity to restore the kingdom. A look flashed across the face of Dong Que, sniggering inside. The young master's stratagem was truly brilliant, controlling all of these individuals eager to restore their kingdom. After purging the most fanatic elements and restricting the remaining individuals, they could now use their enthusiasm to restore Shu and remove the Prince of Qing's suspicions. However, once Dong Que's gaze fell upon a middle-aged man who was silent, he frowned.
This middle-aged man's name was Gu Ning. In the Embroidered Union, this man's prestige was quite high. He was one of the elders who had helped found the union. Originally, Huo Jicheng was on extremely bad terms with him to the point of nearly being set up and killed. Once Chen Zhen took over the Embroidered Union, Gu Ning had been released. Because this man's determination to restore the kingdom was colossal, he had quite a bit of talent, and was not particularly fanatical, his position in the union was still quite high. As such, he was used to attract all of those who truly desired to restore Shu. Of course, Gu Ning was tightly monitored. Fortunately, he was not on close terms with Huo Jicheng and it wasn't difficult to hide things from him, otherwise they would have no choice but to kill him. If that happened, then the losses suffered would be disastrous. Seeing that something was amiss on this man's face, Dong Que frostily said, "Protector Gu, do you have any opinions?"
Gu Ning shivered inwardly. That year, he had almost died to Huo Jicheng's hands. Fortunately, after Chen Zhen joined, Huo Jicheng was convinced to pardon him. These last several years, Huo Jicheng had matured greatly. As a result, all of the stratagems he had composed were extremely meticulous and thorough. The Embroidered Union's power increased steadily. Aside from temporarily having no prospects to restore Shu, nothing happened that was inappropriate. However, Gu Ning held an unspeakable bitterness. Everyone by his side were individuals sent by Chen Zhen to monitor him. His wife and children were all under these individuals' control. Aside from following orders, he had no other choice. Without Chen Zhen's permission, it would be impossible for his orders to even be transmitted. Although his ideas were frequently employed, he found it difficult to breathe, living constantly under the shadow of death.
Gu Ning did not agree with this cooperation with the Prince of Qing. The people of Shu should not borrow help from outsiders to restore their kingdom. In Gu Ning's mind, if they could not successfully restore Shu, then it would be best to maintain the status quo. As long as the spark of restoration remained, then they would see their dreams come to fruition one day. He did not agree with this kind of shortsighted plan that sought quick success and instant benefits.2 However, he was well aware of Huo Jicheng's attitude. This kind of decision could not be resisted. However, he was truly unwilling to watch the innocent people of Shu fall into the conflagration of war. Gu Ning turned his head to avoid Huo Jicheng's frigid gaze and gravely responded, "The Prince of Qing's rebellion is merely the domestic affairs of Great Yong. Regardless of the victor and the defeated, it will be impossible for us to truly restore the Kingdom of Shu. Why should we get involved in this mess? We will likely cause the deaths of many of our members in vain."
Contempt and scorn flashed in Chen Zhen's eyes. If Gu Ning had such thoughts, then it would be difficult to avoid dissension and discord within the union. After all, Gu Ning was quite well-known and influential. Since the entirety of the Embroidered Union needed to share the same goals, Chen Zhen did not want to allow the possibility of the union being divided in the future, ensuring that those devoted to the restoration of Shu remained. This was an ironclad law made by Jiang Zhe. Rising to his feet, Chen Zhen dryly asserted, "Union Head, there is a matter that this subordinate has long wished to report but never found the suitable time. Two disciples of the Union have been disloyal. They have tired of the grand task of restoring our country and wish to withdraw. Union Head, please decide how they should be punished."
Understanding Chen Zhen's intentions, he feigned anger and sternly declared, "Preposterous! Is the Embroidered Union someplace you can come and go as you please? Who are these two individuals? Relay this seat's orders and have those two executed. As for their families, they are also guilty."
Chen Zhen's gaze scrutinized each of the individuals one by one. All those Chen Zhen's gaze fell upon could not help lowering their heads. These last several years, Sichuan had experienced favorable weather. The Prince of Qing's administration followed orders from the Great Yong court and was quite successful. As a result, the common people lived in peace. Even some of the members of the Embroidered Union had thoughts about not restoring the kingdom. After all, their longing for their former country was comparatively mild. Everyone knew that Chen Zhen was using this opportunity to serve as a warning. All of them also knew that Chen Zhen's target wasn't them. However, everyone was still apprehensive.
Disdain flickered across Chen Zhen's eyes, and he respectfully and solemnly stated, "It's Protector Gu's subordinates, Xiong Bao and Shangguan Yan." Once these words were spoken, the majority of people breathed a sigh of relief. However, some individuals revealed looks of anxiety. Xiong Bao was Gu Ning's nephew-in-law, while Shangguan Yan was Gu Ning's adopted son. Gu Ning had a rather high position in the union. However, everyone feared Huo Jicheng's and Chen Zhen's methods and schemes. As a result, no one dared to speak up for Gu Ning.
Gu Ning was greatly startled, his complexion blanching. Both of the two individuals named were his close relatives and were also youthful, heroic individuals. Gu Ning's first thought was that Chen Zhen was seizing this opportunity to weaken his strength. However, after thinking it over, Gu Ning felt no strength throughout his entire body. These days, Xiong Bao and Shangguan Yan truly did have some complaints. The two of them had argued that Great Yong's reunification of the world could not be reversed. Rather than seeking to restore the Kingdom of Shu, wouldn't it be better to allow the common people to live in peace? Gu Ning had similar feelings. As a result, he had warned the two of them to keep silent. However, he had not expected that Chen Zhen would find out.
Whatever the case, Gu Ning could not watch these two young men be executed and their families also be implicated. If that was the case, then he would also be implicated. Rising to his feet, he kneeled and replied, "Union Head, the two youngsters of this subordinate were only speaking a few complaints. All of them are faithful and loyal to the Union and will definitely not have any thoughts of betrayal. Union Head, please forgive them for their momentary confusion. Please spare their lives because of their meritorious service to the Embroidered Union. I am willing to bear the guilt of their crimes."
As Gu Ning was softly begging forgiveness, he snuck a glance, glimpsing the fingers of the Union Head's right hand trembling lightly on the chair. This was the customary motion taken by Huo Jicheng when he intended to commit murder. Gu Ning became increasingly nervous and his tone gradually became urgent. At this moment, Dong Que raised his right hand, making Gu Ning cease his babbling. Dong Que replied, "Since Protector Gu is pleading, then this seat will be lenient. This seat has already decided to dispatch Huo Yi to serve before the Prince of Qing. Allow them to go with Huo Yi. Does Protector Gu have any objections?"
After hesitating momentarily, Gu Ning finally dejectedly answered, "Subordinate does not have any objections." Thinking of his family, he finally compromised. In order to restore the kingdom, he would sacrifice everything. However, there was no point in sacrificing his families for this matter. These last several years, Huo Jicheng had never failed with his schemes and plans. It should at least be possible for them to escape in one piece if needed.
Chen Zhen and Dong Que exchanged meaningful glances. Dong Que's intentional mimicry of Huo Jicheng's customary habits was enough to make Gu Ning believe that the Union Head had killing intent, noiselessly threatening Gu Ning into rapidly yielding. A steel-backboned individual forced to such a state was enough to cause anyone to be sympathetic. However, Chen Zhen and Dong Que were both unfeeling and did not display any emotion. Dong Que clearly said, "This matter is thus decided. However, our Union cannot send out all of our strength.3 We must maintain our vigilance and wariness. Vice Union Head Chen will lead a group to work with the Prince of Qing. This seat will remain in hiding to control the entire situation."
Everyone voiced their agreement. Chen Zhen and Dong Que looked at each other. The two of them had decided long ago to have all of those who sought to restore the kingdom sent to help the Prince of Qing and allowed to be sacrificed for nothing. This was the best way of handling them. The two truly admired Gu Ning's cool-headedness. Moreover, Jiang Zhe's ultimate goal was to have the members of the Embroidered Union set aside all thoughts about restoring Shu. As a result, there was no need to send Gu Ning. As for Xiong Bao and Shangguan Yan, they were sent to follow Baiyi in order to find the opportunity to exercise control over them and not allow Gu Ning to act without permission.
After dismissing everyone, Dong Que asked in a low voice, "How is that person?"
Chen Zhen knew that Dong Que was asking about the captured agent from the Bright Inspection Department. As such, he softly answered, "He is still imprisoned. Of late, the man has been restless and repeatedly sought to escape. Were it not for the fact that he is a member of the Bright Inspection Department, he would have died at least ten times."
Dong Que suggested, "We should release that man. The young master said that the Bright Inspection Department should fight with the Embroidered Union. With this, we can also get rid of some of the stubborn individuals who cannot be 'enlightened.' Inflicting losses upon the Bright Inspection Department will allow us to show our sincerity to the Prince of Qing. However, the young master has also said that we can't be too excessive. After all, the Bright Inspection Department is affiliated with Great Yong, even if some of its members are murderers and arsonists. In addition, the young master does not want to offend Xiahou Yuanfeng. That man is not to be trifled with."
Chen Zhen sneered. "Xiahou Yuanfeng won't feel any distress. However, what you say is reasonable. We still need to have a tacit understanding with them. Though, with this, you will likely have to take a trip."
Nodding his head, Dong Que replied, "I have the same thought. However, there is no need to be too rushed. Young master intends to preserve the Embroidered Union for the future. Let's first release that agent from the Bright Inspection Department, allowing him to return to relay the information. Xiahou Yuanfeng should understand."
"Do not worry," said Chen Zhen. "Even when we were interrogating him, I always appeared before him with my face covered. He will definitely not know where we are. Furthermore, he hasn't even heard the name 'Embroidered Union.'"
Smiling, Dong Que spoke, "We should let him know some of it right now. Heis a brave man. So dubiously imprisoned these last several days, yet has refused to yield. Since we want to release him, it is best that he learns some things. As such, Xiahou Yuanfeng will be understanding."
Dong Que nodded his head and followed Chen Zhen into the depths of the old tomb. The depths of the old tomb had several chambers densely packed with hidden traps and mechanisms. These chambers served as prison cells. The only prisoner here was Qiu Shan, a member of the Bright Inspection Department who had been imprisoned for more than a month.
Qiu Shan sat on the stone bed, his face expressionless. This chamber was very tidy. The stone bed was covered with straw and bedding. Although his mysterious jailers had used torture to extort a confession, they had stopped after a few days and no longer sought to seek an oral confession, actually doing their utmost to treat his injuries. However, this was not enough to make Qiu Shan become grateful. Unable to see the moon and the stars, he could only rely upon the delivered meals to tell the passage of time. In this way, more than a month had passed. Thinking of how he could not deliver the intelligence that he had gathered out of the Hanzhong region, Qiu Shan was full of resentment and anger. The several times he had sought to run away all failed. If it not for his staunch temperament, he would likely have been driven insane by this imprisonment. He could not help rubbing the lash marks on his body. The last time that he had knocked a guard unconscious and sought to escape, he had been captured and lashed thirty times. However, his mysterious wardens did not beat him heavily, otherwise it would have been impossible for Qiu Shan to rise out of bed.
When the stone door was pushed open, Qiu Shan did not lift his gaze. Based upon his hunger level, although it wasn't time to eat, this dubious imprisonment and intense powerlessness was enough to cause him to lose interest. A clear and bright voice echoed, "What? Brother Qiu does not want to leave this cell?"
Qiu Shan hurriedly leaped to his feet. His face went scarlet, feeling that his display was too eager. Raising his gaze, he looked over, seeing two men in black standing in front of him. Both of them wore ghost masks. One stood with his hands behind his back, while the other stood in the doorway. Mulling over the voice, Qiu Shan found it a bit unfamiliar. Blushing, he inquired, "Excuse me, may I ask how to address your distinguished self?"
The man in black standing in the doorway answered, "This is our superior, Lord Huo."
Qiu Shan shivered inwardly. He was quite astute and was very familiar with the situation in the Hanzhong region. There were very few organizations capable of imprisoning him for more than a month without revealing what organization they belonged to. Hearing the words, "Lord Huo," he couldn't help blurting out, "Embroidered Union!"
Vigilance and suspicion immediately appeared on Qiu Shan's face. He knew well the enmity between the Embroidered Union and Great Yong. As such, there were some suspicions that could be explained. But why were they unwilling to release him or hand him over to the Prince of Qing? Another question appeared: Why did these individuals treat him so politely?
Dong Que smiled and said, "Brother Qiu's thoughts are quite quick. No wonder you work for the Bright Inspection Department. This one is Huo Jicheng and is the Embroidered Union Head."
An icy look appeared on Qiu Shan's face, as he replied, "So that is the case. Since the Union Head has appeared today, penetrating through the dense fog, you can already understand my conclusion. These last several days, your honored union's courtesy leaves me grateful. However, there is nothing that this one can say, only ask that the Union Head please end it quickly."
Ruminating, Dong Que observed, "It seems that you believe that I will kill you."
Sneering, Qiu Shan stated, "I am well aware what kind of existence the Embroidered Union is. This one has also heard of the Union Head's impressive reputation. However, seeing the consideration paid me by your honored union, there is no harm for me to advise Union Head. Great Yong's unification of the world cannot be stopped. It is best that you relinquish your thoughts of restoring your country."
Smiling, Chen Zhen replied, "You actually have good intentions. However, with the Prince of Qing's conspiracy, Great Yong's future likely hangs in the balance. Why do you think that we won't have the opportunity?"
Hearing the voice of the person who frequently came to visit him, Qiu Shan frigidly answered, "His Imperial Majesty is an enlightened sage and a martial deity. My Great Yong has an army of a million men. The Prince of Qing will definitely fail." He spoke resolutely and without hesitation. Dong Que and Chen Zhen exchanged smiles, both sharing the same thoughts about this man's staunch will. Since that was the case, he was the most suitable individual to send back."That snowy night, our warships were at Guazhou Ferry,4In autumn winds and Dasan Pass,5 our cavalry."6
Dasan Pass was one of the four most important passes in Guanzhong. Since ancient times, it was a key passageway between the lands of Qin and Shu. It was east of Gansu and west of Zhongnan Mountain, possessing high and steep terrain that was rugged. Before the Kingdom of Shu was destroyed, this was an important fortress blocking Great Yong's advance. Although the role of the pass had fallen with the capture of Yangping and Jiameng Passes, Great Yong continued to garrison the pass with significant military strength. Moreover, with both Li Yuan and Li Zhi on their guard, there was no way for the Prince of Qing to meddle in the affairs of Dasan Pass. The general commanding the defenses at the pass was named Li Zongxun and was a member of the ancillary branch of the Yong imperial family. He was a skilled defender and there were no doubts about his loyalty. As a result, he had been especially selected to defend Dasan Pass.
In addition, Xiahou Yuanfeng had arrived a few days earlier, taking personal charge of the intelligence gathering operation of Hanzhong. He had brought people from both the Southwest Regional Department of the Intelligence Management Section and the Bright Inspection Department, making arrangements to infiltrate agents into Hanzhong. However, his preliminary efforts met with nothing. Xiahou Yuanfeng did not know that this was the result of the Embroidered Union secretly helping the Prince of Qing. As a result, his evaluation of the Prince of Qing rose. While he was becoming increasingly vexed, when Xiahou Yuanfeng suddenly learned that Qiu Shan was requesting a meeting, he was stupefied. This subordinate, who he had long thought was dead, resurfacing was enough to cause him to be shocked.
Hualiu, who had been brought along to help Xiahou Yuanfeng, knew what was going on. Although these last several years, he had not had the opportunity to maintain contact with Jiang Zhe's forces, there were still some things that he was well aware of, including the fact that the Embroidered Union was under Jiang Zhe's control. As a result, with Qiu Shan's sudden reappearance alive, Hualiu very quickly realized the reason for his return. Xiahou Yuanfeng was meticulous. Noticing the smile appearing on Hualiu's face, he immediately remembered some of the things that Li Zhi had faintly said. Xiahou Yuanfeng found himself relaxing, and issued the order to summon Qiu Shan.
Footnotes:294 meters (about one-fifth of a mile or 320 yards)急功近利, jigongjinli - idiom, lit. seeking instant benefit; fig. shortsighted vision, seek quick success and instant benefits倾巢而出, qingchao'erchu - idiom, lit. come swarming out like hornets; fig. to turn out in full strengthGuazhou Ferry, 瓜州渡 - was an ancient ferry crossing located in Yangzhou (扬州)Dasan Pass, 大散关 - was an important pass located seventeen kilometers southwest of Baoji (宝鸡), Shaanxi ProvinceThis is a poem entitled Writing the Grief and Indignation (书愤) by the Song Dynasty poet, Lu You (陆游).