Lei Jingzhe did not dare to be too complacent. Unable to dodge in time in his haste, he could only brandish his broadsword to ward off the blow. The arrow struck the blade with a loud clang, and the impact numbed Lei Jingzhe’s entire arm. He promptly and decisively spurred his horse past Zhou Gui in an attempt to lead his men into charging into the city.
“Shut the gates quick—!” Zhou Gui was swept off his feet and thrown to the ground. Paying no mind to the sorry sight he presented, he lifted the hem of his robe and shouted at the city soldiers.
Pressing their shoulders against the city gates, the city soldiers bellowed in unison and shoved the gates towards the center to shut it. But Lei Jingzhe’s horse was faster. His blade arrived at the same time as his horse, cutting down the men who were pushing away at the gates. He was just about to drive straight in to take over Cizhou, but in that critical moment, Lei Jingzhe felt a chill at the back of his head and swiftly bent the upper half of his body over. Following right after, the back of the horse sank as a youth of about sixteen or seventeen of age climbed onto it.
Ding Tao’s slashed his palm towards Lei Jingzhe’s neck. Lei Jingzhe turned aside to dodge it and backhandedly made a stab at Ding Tao’s chest and abdomen. Ding Tao clung onto the saddle and slid down to evade the blade. His legs touched the ground, and he raced along with the madly galloping horse for a few moments before he hoisted himself up with his arms and clambered back up again.
“Hey!” Ding Tao gripped Lei Jingzhe’s arm and raised a hand to fling a brush worth of ink onto Lei Jingzhe’s face when he turned back.
For all Lei Jingzhe’s plotting, he never expected such a move from the youth who had come to the rescue. He could no longer see his surroundings with the ink splashed in his eyes, but he had a keen sense of hearing. The instant Ding Tao launched a sneak attack on him, he sensed Ding Tao’s movement, and in their confrontation, he hauled Ding Tao by the collar and flung him off the horse.
Ding Tao fell heavily on the ground and felt the stab of pain in his back. He yelled out in pain, but before he was done yelling, a horse’s hoof came aiming right for him. Ding Tao hurriedly rolled over to dodge the hoof. But as he rolled over, his back was inadvertently exposed right under Lei Jingzhe’s eyes.
It’s now or never!
Lei Jingzhe promptly hurled his steel blade out.
Ding Tao wanted to evade it, but a bandit who had caught up with them from behind grabbed hold of his ankle. He was forced to sprawl flat in the muddy water. He propped himself against the ground with both arms, wanting to lift himself up, but he was dragged down again. The steel blade was already right behind him. With his face all smeared with filthy mud, Ding Tao gritted his teeth and straightened up his upper body to shout at those in the city, “Open up the south gates! The reinforcements are here!”
Lei Jingzhe cussed in fury. But then he saw the steel blade he had hurled out intercepted mid-air by an extremely narrow sheath. The impact of the collision sent his blade hurtling off-course until it stabbed into the ground at a slanting angle and remained there.
Ding Tao was still badly shaken as he turned back for a look. The bandit who had been yanking his ankle earlier was already dead, his head separated from his body. Ding Tao immediately crawled up from the ground, hopped several times in succession, then poked his head out from behind Shen Zechuan and said to Lei Jingzhe, “You’re dead meat!”
One side of the city gates had already been shut. Lei Jingzhe led his men to crowd at the entrance of the bridle path to squeeze their way through but was obstructed. He recognized the man blocking his path. The entire outfit of white peeking out from under the cloak was a color the other man had not changed out of after leaving Qudu. Lei Jingzhe’s horse took a few steps back, but then, in the next instant, he brandished his whip and barged his way over. Shen Zechuan pulled off his cloak and tossed it into Ding Tao’s arms, Lang Tao Xue Jin raised its hooves and charged forth. In the split second the wind rose, Yang Shan Xue had already left its sheath.
Lei Jingzhe’s broadsword slipped out of his hand. Right before he was about to collide with Shen Zechuan, he drew out his subordinate’s broadsword in passing. The neighing of the horse was just like the sounding of a war horn. The forces of both powers collided as the edges of their blades met and let out a shrill shriek in unison, the sound so piercing that it made one quake with fear.
Lei Jingzhe had encountered an opponent who was completely different from the ones he had faced in the past. That terrifying strength of his seemed to have plunged into water. No matter how forceful and fierce he was in wielding his blade, it would all be neutralized by a force as gentle as water until it eventually dissolved into nothingness. The more he went all out, the more it felt like he was being led around by the nose by Shen Zechuan. Gradually, he found himself trapped into a vicious cycle in which he could never escape from.
Lei Jingzhe was very shrewd. He held up his broadsword and pushed back, pretending as though he was going to launch a sudden strike, but in the next instant, he turned around and fled.
The earlier opportunity had already slipped him by. He was already harboring thoughts of retreating at Ding Tao’s “reinforcements are here” earlier, and it was also evident that his men had already been surrounded by Xiao Chiye. If he did not withdraw posthaste and insisted on staying on to attack the city, then he would be trapped in a situation where he was besieged on all sides; he would not be able to hold out for long!
“Retreat!” Lei Jingzhe took the lead and turned his horse in the southeast direction.
Shen Zechuan did not give chase. Xiao Chiye, who was still in the east, leaped onto his horse and led his men to follow after Lei Jingzhe in hot pursuit. Lei Jingzhe whipped his horse and tore off at great speed. Amid all the jolts and bumps, he looked back and pointed at Xiao Chiye from afar, then at Shen Zechuan, and bellowed savagely, “We will meet again!”
The bandits wore no armors, so their speed was faster. Plus, they were already good at fleeing to begin with. All of them dashed back to the mountain forest without any regard for battle formation. In the blink of an eye, all of them had fled helter-skelter, shouting loudly as they hid among the undergrowth.
Once again, Xiao Chiye lifted the Conqueror Bow. The sound of the string being drawn on that powerful bow that weighed a hundred catty was bone-chilling. Xiao Chiye’s eyes stared fixedly at Lei Jingzhe’s back. Lei Jingzhe was about to dart into the mountain forest, yet Xiao Chiye still seemed to have no intention of releasing the arrow.
With a cry, Meng whirled around and nosedived down to pounce right at Lei Jingzhe with its sharp talons held in a hook, aiming right for Lei Jingzhe’s eyes. Lei Jingzhe knew that this did not bode well, and he was forced to slow down. He waved his hands to cover his face and turned around to dodge the incoming blow. At this precise instant, Xiao Chiye, who was behind him, released his fingers. The arrow burst forth like a golden ray shooting out from the blazing sun, its afterimage and the wind trailing closely behind its tail. In just the moment it took to gasp for breath, it had already arrived right before Lei Jingzhe’s eyes.
In this perilous juncture of life and death, Lei Jingzhe dragged over his subordinate beside him and leaned the entire half of his body back at the same time he exerted all his strength to shove the man before his own body. The arrow pierced through the chest of the subordinate, and the force of it sent Lei Jingzhe falling off his horse. He rolled on the ground, climbed to his feet, and tossed away the body, then got on his horse and continued to flee.
◈ ◈ ◈
Zhou Gui met Shen Zechuan at the foot of the city gates. Not knowing if he should cry or laugh, he wiped his face and said, “What perfect timing! You came just in time!”
Shen Zechuan dismounted to help Kong Ling up personally. He said remorsefully, “I’m sorry to have made Mister Chengfeng suffer.”
Seeing his impeccable etiquette, Kong Ling waved his hand. Supporting himself up, he looked at the Imperial Army and said, “There’s no need for the Vice Commander to take it to heart. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to take down the bandits.”
“But when all is said and done, I did not inform you in advance.” Shen Zechuan turned his head back to call out to Ding Tao, “Go get a clean robe for Mister, and call the physician over too.”
For Cizhou’s sake, Kong Ling would not hold a grudge against Shen Zechuan. Although he still had some ill-feeling, he understood that there was a reason for Shen Zechuan’s actions, and so he let Ding Tao support him as he bowed to Shen Zechuan. Xiao Chiye, who had also gotten off his horse, walked swiftly towards them.
“I never thought there would be another person behind Lei Changming.” Kong Ling looked at the mountain forest. He had just survived a great catastrophe, yet he was still plagued by worries and anxiety. He said, “This man is heartless and skilled at disguises. He’s also cautious to boot. Now that we have let him escape today, there will surely be trouble again in the future.”
“If His Lordship and the Vice Commander had not arrived in time, Cizhou would not have escaped this calamity.” Zhou Gui put down his sleeves and gave both of them a long, deep bow.
“It was because Your Excellency showed no fear in the face of danger that bought us time.” Xiao Chiye turned his head aside to wipe away the dust off his face. He said, “The Imperial Army still has troops lying in ambush at the public road south of Cizhou. There are also troops stationed at the old camp Lei Changming left behind in the east to stand guard. He is already surrounded by the Imperial Army. It won’t be easy for him to escape.”
“It’s all thanks to Your Lordship’s reinforcements from the south that he eventually retreated.” Kong Ling sighed with emotion. “Your Lordship is wise. We’ll send someone to open the south gate right away.”
Xiao Chiye laughed and looked at Shen Zechuan. But he did not say a word.
Shen Zechuan said, “There’s no need for Your Excellency and Mister to rush. The Imperial Army’s reinforcements are still on the public road more than ten li away.”
Stunned, Zhou Gui looked at Ding Tao and said, “Then, that means…”
Ding Tao’s back was still hurting. When he saw everyone looking at him, he hurriedly nodded his head solemnly and replied, “They are still on the public road and are not heading towards Cizhou. On our way here, Young Master told me to yell that phrase when I’m in a desperate situation, saying that it’s a magical weapon that would lead us to victory. Sure enough, that man fled after I shouted it!”
Kong Ling faced Shen Zechuan and made to bow again. He said, “Vice Commander, please accept this bow of mine.”
Lei Jingzhe wanted to lure the Imperial Army away and charge right into Cizhou all because he feared a confrontation with Xiao Chiye head-on. This man was very smart. He did not know if Xiao Chiye had real capabilities to speak of, but he was unwilling to stake his troops on this gamble with Xiao Chiye at this point in time. That was why Shen Zechuan knew for certain that he would flee instantly as soon as he thought there were still reinforcements at the south. However, if an adult among them were to speak of “reinforcements”, they would not be able to convince Lei Jingzhe right away. Only Ding Tao, who yelled it out at the most critical juncture when his life was hanging in the balance, would be able to make Lei Jingzhe believe him without a doubt.
“My good lad.” Zhou Gui liked Ding Tao so much at this moment that he wanted so much to acknowledge the latter as his son. He patted Ding Tao several times and praised, “You make it sound so convincing that even I believed it!”
Ding Tao’s back was in pain, but he did not dare to voice it out, and so he could only endure it and nodded his head vigorously.
“I initially thought he was merely a bandit who had forcibly occupied the mountain forest.” Kong Ling walked into the city with them and said, “But his way of speaking throughout the journey here was really out of the ordinary. Although he claimed to be from a poor and humble background, I don’t think that’s the case. He had control over Lei Changming, yet he’s a generation younger than Lei Changming. I made several attempts to guess who he is, but I couldn’t figure it out.”
“He let Lei Changming be the chief, yet he could freely deploy these bandit-soldiers. This is a clear indication that this man is someone who moves around Lei Changming year in and year out. Seen from an outsider’s perspective, this man is likely a trusted subordinate or equivalent.” Xiao Chiye lifted his hand to lead Lang Tao Xue Jin.
“Not only that.” Shen Zechuan, who had given it some deep thinking last night, added, “Given Lei Changming’s headstrong character, he would not be willing to lower himself to be someone else’s chess piece. The fact that this man has such power and influence among the bandit-soldiers shows that Lei Changming had never suspected him before and believed in him completely. It’s much easier for blood kin to achieve such a level of trust with Lei Changming. Mister Chengfeng, does Lei Changming have any relatives?”
Kong Ling thought for a moment before he replied, “Lei Changming’s family is poor. I only heard that he has a younger sister who married the commander of Duanzhou’s Garrison Troops as a concubine. Later, Biansha invaded, and his younger sister and the commander were both massacred…” He sucked in a breath and said, “That’s it. His younger sister bore the commander a son.”
“The son of a concubine from the Zhu clan in Duanzhou.” Zhou Gui added. “I remember it now. When I was still a tax circuit intendant during the reign of Yongyi, I followed His Excellency to participate in the baby’s one-month celebration banquet. Although the child Lei Changming’s younger sister gave birth to was a son of common birth born of a concubine of the Zhu clan, he was the eldest son—the first son of Zhu Jie, the commander of Duanzhou at that time.”
“If it’s really him, then it’s not surprising for him to have that kind of shrewdness.” Kong Ling turned his head to explain to Shen Zechuan and Xiao Chiye. “The value of the mother depends on her son, and mother and son lived well in the Zhu’s residence. But after Zhu Jie’s principal wife gave birth to a legitimate son of direct descent, they were both disdained and spurn by Zhu Jie.”
Just as Shen Zechuan was about to ask the name of this person, Zhou Gui suddenly exclaimed aloud and stared dazedly at Shen Zechuan.
“The Vice Commander’s mother was also present at the full month celebration banquet!”