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Two enemies. One wanted you dead, one wanted to use you. Which would you choose?
If Lady Ninth died, the one Deng Xiucai would come to kill next was Tang Fan. He couldn’t just let her do that, so he had to find her people to help her out. She and Deng Xiucai were not of one mind; she wasn’t as unfeeling as him, instead giving room for a lot of discussion.
The commotion of the fight had alarmed many people. Everyone watched the two leaders fight each other, and kind of weren’t sure what to do. They successively ran to the cellar’s entrance, immediately clogging it up.
Tang Fan, not far away, caught sight of the bodyguard that had just been at Lady Ninth’s side. “Big brother, go in and see for yourself, now! Ah-Han is fighting with the second-in-command, he’s going to kill her!”
Lady Ninth had been wanting to both seduce Tang Fan and tell him some not-to-be-disclosed secrets, so she had sent this bodyguard away. He called her ‘Ah-Han’ to demonstrate to the other how unusual his relationship was with her.
Sure enough, the bodyguard’s face twisted up. “Where are they?!”
There wasn’t actually a need for Tang Fan to explain as much, as the man had long heard the sounds of weapons clashing coming from nearby. Without another word, he dashed forward, Tang Fan following and babbling after him. “You have to rescue Ah-Han, big brother! Nothing can happen to her!”
The guard couldn’t pay him any mind, of course, shoving the crowd to the side and rushing in. Tang Fan, not far away, heard Deng Xiucai suddenly shout, “What are you all staring for?! Help me kill this woman! We can’t let her get back to the Overseer and complain!”
“How dare you!” Lady Ninth shouted. There was no lack of gasping for breath within the way she spoke; it was clear that she was gradually coming to be at a disadvantage.
This was truly an unshakable desire to silence someone by death.
Face slightly morphing, Tang Fan cared about nothing other than directly running out. Under these circumstances, no one was paying any mind to where he was, either.
Whilst the two sides sank into a brawl, Tang Fan had long since fled into a food-piled cellar at the bend ahead. At the time many people had since run off to join the fray, he came out of his hiding spot and ran forth, hoping to be able to find an exit.
This place was in the complete opposite direction of the path to where Ah-Dong’s group was hiding. Tang Fan firmly believed that with Deng Xiucai’s wits, he definitely wouldn’t have set up just one entry point, because these guys would practically be turtles in a jar if someone blocked it up.
This underground mini-maze wasn’t that big, since the cellars were so few. It was mainly due to the passages between said cellars being twisting, winding, and utterly complicated that one was likely to get confused. After turning and turning around infinite bends for a long while, evading paths that might have people guarding them all the while, Tang Fan finally found an area that looked like an exit, because it was on an upward slope, and had a duo keeping watch on it.
Deng Xiucai had currently summoned all of his subordinates in order to kill Lady Ninth, yet these two were still here. This illustrated that the spot they were watching had to be very important, and thus, an entryway.
Alone inside a den of thieves, he accordingly had no way to bring the children outside by himself; he would definitely get straight-up killed before he could leave, and then suffering would spread to the little ones. No matter how much he wanted to run to Ah-Dong and rescue them all straightaway, his logic told him that he wouldn’t be able to.
The kids were Deng Xiucai’s money-makers; he wouldn’t rashly attack them, else he wouldn’t have been willing to oppose the Court and risk worldwide anger for them. Tang Fan was different — he had no sort of use whatsoever to the man, and would become a nuisance for him in his fugitive journey. The best method was therefore to save himself first, wait for a chance to escape in the fray, then get the recusing forces back here. Catching Deng Xiucai’s group all at once would also save the children.
Still, he was vaguely, pessimistically aware that said fray might come to its conclusion soon. Deng Xiucai had the forces of many, and Lady Ninth was no match for him, owed to her being too arrogant and self-assured. She believed that her status as the Overseer’s envoy plus the Southside Gang’s honored guest would make Deng Xiucai too afraid to act against her, and she had hence contradicted him in all regards.
Yet, due to being suppressed for such a time, the man had long been of the mind to silence her. They just so happened to be in the wilderness, so as long as Lady Ninth’s forces were eliminated, he could plant blame for that upon the authorities. No one would ever know that he was the one that had done it.
Tang Fan wasn’t concerned about her, naturally. She had spoken nicely and planned to return the children to him, but that had only been because she had wanted to oppose Deng Xiucai, not because she was any sort of benevolent.
However, if she died before Sui Zhou’s team could get here, he would be caught up in a very dangerous situation.
The exit was visibly close at hand, yet he could not advance, only able to hide in a dark place with his hands tied. This situation of being on someone else’s chopping block really made one anxious and helpless; regardless of how clever he was, he momentarily couldn’t think of a way out of this.
Right at that second, the flurried sound of footsteps approached. Without time to think deeply, he quickly hid inside the shadows of a nearby recess.
He saw a few people running towards the end of the tunnel where the two were guarding. “What’s going on?!” one of the latter asked.
“Lady Ninth is dead,” someone else answered. “The second-in-command ordered us to prepare a retreat!”
The man was highly shocked. “She’s dead? How?!”
“Were you enchanted by that womanly beauty for you to care so much, you clown?” the other chided cheerfully, then hushed his voice. “The boss killed her, along with her two subordinates. That lady was giving him a hard time about everything. He tolerated it for so long, it’d actually be weird if he didn’t kill her.”
The questioning man knew the connection between her and the White Lotus Society, however. “But isn’t she the envoy of the Overseer? Is killing her just like that okay?”
“Don’t even talk about them. We pay them in coin every year, but all they do is benefit without doing anything for us. The second-in-command has long wanted to oppose them. In any case, the authorities have come to meddle, so when we push her death onto them, no one will suspect us at all.”
The one man actually had some brains, hesitating when he heard that. “Then… won’t we be wanted by both the authorities, and the Overseer?”
“Cut the crap,” the other said impatiently. “The second-in-command said that people from the mountain fortress are here, so we have to hurry and pack, then get ready to escape before the authorities arrive. You guys will be responsible for bringing up the rear by guarding one of the exits, so that the enemy doesn’t strike at us from behind. By the way, that bloke that Cripple Luo tied up ran off. Have you seen him?”
“No. We haven’t dared to leave our spots for half a second, and haven’t seen even a ghost.”
“There was a short opening at another exit due to all the craziness. The second- and third-in-commands suspect that the guy ran out during that. Anyways, if you ever see him, just kill him and be done with it.”
Tang Fan wondered how a ‘third-in-command’ was present here, too, but had a realization as soon as he thought back on it. When he had met Deng Xiucai, there had been an elder sitting next to him; he was likely it.
Following his murder of Lady Ninth and intent to evacuate, Tang Fan’s treatment had gone from ‘need to kill’ to ‘kill only if seen’, but he wasn’t the slightest bit happy about that — because once Deng Xiucai got deep into the mountains, that would be tantamount to a dragon returning to the sea, and finding his tracks would be difficult.
The two men affirmed, immediately after which there came another burst of footsteps walking away. They began to speak in quiet voices.
“If the boss is having us bring up the rear, when will it be time for us to join up? It can’t be that we’ll have to wait until everyone else is gone to leave, can it?”
“We’ll just wait. If we leave too early and the second-in-command sees, we’ll get reprimanded.”
“Are we going to search for that guy he said to?”
“You idiot. What ‘search’? Escaping with our lives is what’s important! Once we’re up the mountain, the authorities won’t be able to find us. Why are you still worried about secrets leaking out?”
Tang Fan had no desire to continue listening to them, inwardly anxious. Fearing that the children would get brought away by Deng Xiucai, he cautiously retraced his original path.
Upon Lady Ninth’s death, Deng Xiucai had brought everyone into a retreat at another exit. But, no matter how quickly they moved, they were still bogged down by a group of kids; getting them out of the cellar wasted no small amount of time by itself.
Ah-Dong had recalled Tang Fan’s instructions. Knowing that the villains wouldn’t kill them lightly, she very slowly dilly-dallied, then purposefully collapsed onto the ground, howling that she couldn’t walk. One crook had no choice but to lift her up by the back of her collar and carry her.
They left in bursts, Tang Fan following far behind them. Faintly, he heard them say that there was already a carriage to welcome them outside, which inevitably made him even more anxious. Watching as they exited the cave, he then took that opportunity to run out and hide behind a nearby boulder.
If he could have left here a half-shichen earlier instead, he would have rushed to fetch reinforcements. Now, all that was on his mind was that he couldn’t let these guys simply escape, or else it would be even harder to find the children later on.
Thinking like so, he no longer cared about saving himself first. He shouted out a “Stop!”, then came out from behind the rock.
That loud holler was basically a clap of thunder in the open countryside. All the gang members gave a huge jump in fright, and even Deng Xiucai promptly turned around. Upon seeing Tang Fan, he was startled, after which he smiled sinisterly. “I thought you had run off. I was going to let you keep your little life, but you jumped out yet again. Lighting a lantern in a latrine really is asking for death, huh?”
Tang Fan tidied out his sleeves, unbothered. “I did indeed escape ahead of time, and notified the Brocade Guard and Western Depot. They’re five li away, but they’ll be here soon.”
His statement cause a bit of uproar. Upon hearing that the authorities were coming, the gang members showed expressions of slight unease.
Tang Fan didn’t wait for Deng Xiucai to console his people, promptly cutting him off at the head. “Truthfully speaking, second-in-command, I didn’t want to force you into a dead-end, but since you’ve killed Lady Ninth and broken it off with the White Lotus Society, you have no way of retreat. If you continue being hostile towards the authorities, you’ll have no one on either side, and your situation will be bleak. Even if you flee into the mountains, the Court will dispatch troops to flatten you all in an instant. Since that’s so, why can’t we just shake hands and talk of peace? So long as you hand those children over, I can speak on your behalf towards Chief Eunuch Wang and the Northern Bastion Office. Your brothers would all survive, too. Isn’t that just perfect?”
Deng Xiucai sneered. “You speak so elegantly. Too bad you’re not the Emperor, else I’d believe you. If I have a change of heart now, I would have no exploitable worth to that Wan guy. He’s itching to make me be the scapegoat, so why would he spare us just because of your pleading?! Rather than struggle beneath the hands of others, it’s better to stand by yourself on the mountaintop! I would rather die upon a pile of gold and silver than be a slave to someone else!”
The other cupped his hands. “Second-in-command, I respect you as a frank man. Would this be possible to discuss? If you leave the children behind, you can go without hindrance. Once the Guard and Depot arrive, I’ll help out by stopping them so that they can’t catch up to you. This way, both sides are conceding a step. How about that?”
His expression was way too calm, for one man facing a dozen or so Southside Gang members. With no fear on his face and an assuredness to his speech, they were subtly made to believe in his words automatically. The elder, who appeared to be the third-in-command, even said to Deng Xiucai, “He’s right. We’ve now had a falling out with the Society, so it’s best not to quarrel with the authorities too much, or else we’ll suffer from enemies on both ends…”
Deng Xiucai raised his hand to stop the other’s speech from continuing. His eyes stared straight at Tang Fan. “Even I nearly believed you. You have no reinforcements coming at all, yet you’re so bold as to bluff us here!”
With no change in expression, Tang Fan raised a brow. “How do you figure that?”
The man grinned maliciously. “When you were caught, I personally searched and got everything off of you. What could you have used to notify the authorities with? Your fakery just now was pretty life-like; you nearly duped me! Someone, kill him for me!”
Tang Fan had said all that bluffing drivel to stall for time, not expecting that his counterpart would call it so quickly. Watching two robust men of the Gang advancing towards him with steel sabres and large strides, he had to sternly say, “Halt! The reinforcements are right behind you!”
Deng Xiucai was unmoved. “Just do it already!”
He already regarded Tang Fan as a dead man, mounting his horse as he spoke. Another carriage with the children on it also began to gallop forwards.
Before Tang Fan could react, those two sharp steel blades were already before him. He couldn’t dodge.
He had done all he could to stall, but Sui Zhou’s group had yet to appear. Even with a million kinds of tricks, he was no match for heavier power. With nothing that he could do and no way to run, he thought to himself that his life was over, and simply closed his eyes, baring his neck to receive the blow.
A few breaths later, the blades that ought to have been hacking down on his head were slow to arrive, and the anticipated pain did not come. Instead, the sound of sliced wind entered his ears.
He involuntarily opened his eyes, then discovered that the situation in front of him had undergone a world-turning transformation — the men that were about to hack him to death had collapsed, one with a spring-gilt sabre pierced through the center of his back, and the other with a feathered arrow stuck in his skull.
There were several other arrows, as well, shot into either horses or people. The horses, suffering injury and fright, were knocking people down to the ground with whinnies.
Both shocked and furious, Deng Xiucai yelled out a prompt decision to everyone: “Retreat!”
However, it was clearly a half-step too late for that. Four figures rushed down from the forest ahead and threw themselves at them — upon closer inspection, it was Sui Zhou’s quartet!
Said man’s hands were empty; it wasn’t difficult to see that it was he who had thrown the spring-gilt sabre, thus taking care of one of Tang Fan’s would-be killers. The latter shouted “Your sabre’s here!”, then drew it out of the man’s back. Ignoring the blood that splashed onto him, he tossed the blade to Sui Zhou.
The latter made a beautiful jump, caught it steadily in midair, then cut down another trafficker on the downwind.
Deng Xiucai’s subordinates weren’t weak, especially not these trusted aides of his. Skills aside, there were only a few people that had returned with Sui Zhou. They would only make him lose a few underlings at best, not put them in such a panic.
The ones that really caused the situation to turn around were the troops Wang Zhi had brought, since all those arrows had come from his Depot wardens.
Seeing his brigade arrive, first shooting arrows and then joining the fight, Sui Zhou’s group instantly felt like they had received the assistance of a god. Deng Xiucai’s men were completely crushed in number. The two sides fought into a mess, the victor and loser being only a matter of time.
Still, Tang Fan was anxious. Utilizing the time when everyone was too busy to pay attention to him, he ran to the carriage with the children in it. He feared that if he was a bit too late, they would get taken as hostages by the desperate Southside Gang.
The curtain of said carriage lifted, as Ah-Dong, who was supposed to be bound, was currently crouched and observing the outside, several heads hidden behind her. The kids were tightly clutching at her clothes, looking utterly terrified.
The reason they could move freely was because the porcelain piece Tang Fan had left for her had done its part. After little Ah-Dong had taken advantage of the chaos to untie herself, she set her other little friends free as well.
This had undoubtedly saved a lot of time. Ecstatic, he ran to the carriage, got the kids out one by one, then had Ah-Dong bring them into hiding behind a nearby boulder, telling them that they weren’t to come out unless all the bad guys had been executed.
In the middle of his piece-by-piece instructions, Sui Zhou suddenly shouted: “Runqing, move!”
Tang Fan swiftly turned his head to see Deng Xiucai bolting towards him, a bloodstained sabre in hand, crazed and twisted look in his eyes, and dense murderousness on his face. Evidently, the battle had revolved into a crushing defeat for him, and he was unreconciled to being helpless, wanting to take the kids as hostages.
The incident happened in no more than a short moment. He looked insane, but his mind was still very clear. He knew that holding Tang Fan as a hostage would be useless, as the other was a mere minor official; insignificant, able to be discarded at any time, and of no use to him. If he wanted a hostage, it would be best to catch those two children of high-ranking officials, since they were the actual targets of the authorities’ relentless pursuit. Only by clutching them in his hands would he be truly safe.
How could Tang Fan not know what he was thinking? Once Zhu Yong’s daughter was caught, no one would be able to stop Deng Xiucai. Thus, without thinking, he didn’t dodge to the side, but instead pounced at the man!
This act looked quite a bit stupid to the irrelevant onlooker, because Tang Fan didn’t have the slightest bit of martial arts capability, an ordinary person through and through. He held no weapons, nor did he have the strength to contend with Deng Xiucai at all, making his pounce the equivalent of hitting a rock with an egg.
Yet, that was what he did. Within split-second decisions, there were no affected pretenses, just subconscious actions.
In Tang Fan’s point of view, he didn’t think himself to be a Court official that was a rank above these kids. Instead, it was precisely because he was a patron official that he needed to take charge in protecting citizens.
Wang Zhi was also witnessing this scene. He was so far away, it was simply impossible for him to block the blade hacking at Tang Fan. All he could do was watch on helplessly as he swore loudly.
Even Sui Zhou, a little closer, would have been too late, but he still wanted to do all he could. Rather than wear his mouth out swearing like Eunuch Wang was, he sped up, swift as lightning, and turned into a black blur — sabre in hand, he thrust it at Deng Xiucai.
No one had expected that right when Deng Xiucai was on the verge of slashing Tang Fan, the latter would suddenly take some unknown items out of his lapels, then pelt them down upon him. They were several dark objects that looked like stealth weapons at a glance; very sharp, with something apparently daubed onto it.
…Could they be… applied with poison?
Greatly shocked, Deng Xiucai quickly waved his sabre to stringently protect his entire body. All that was heard was a series of clinks as the objects were all struck away, some breaking into several pieces to scatter successively onto the ground.
With one look, Deng Xiucai was pissed.
What stealth weapons?! Those were clearly broken fragments of porcelain! The areas that looked poisoned were just the blue-white patterning of a bowl!
The only thing he had on his mind in that instant was to chop Tang Fan into bits.
As was said, the battlefield would forever undergo infinite changes in the span of a second. The brief amount of time Tang Fan had bought was enough — Sui Zhou had arrived, his spring-gilt sabre pressing down with the weight of a thunderclap, the billowing light of its murderous aura rushing for Deng Xiucai!
He had no choice but to turn around, grit his teeth, and contend with Sui Zhou. Opportunities were fleeting, and Tang Fan had distracted him so much, he had missed his for taking hostages.
Not even a moment later, the Brocade Guard, and even the Depot wardens, immediately followed up. Everyone knew that Deng Xiucai was the leader of these operations; given that he was caught, that would be a great contribution.
The others having already been consecutively restrained, vacant hands thronged up to surround Deng Xiucai. The man’s defeat was an inevitability, a matter of when.
Having escaped with his life from beneath a blade and gathered back his own fate, Tang Fan finally let out a sigh of relief. Following his post-event fear, his body went limp, and he sat right onto the ground.
“Big brother, are you okay?!” Ah-Dong ran over to help him, with noisy steps.
“I am,” he answered, exhausted.
“You’re bleeding!” She pointed at his neck.
He felt at it, and there were indeed some thin, bleeding cuts. He had likely gotten inadvertently dashed when Deng Xiucai had sent the porcelain flying.
Ah-Dong took out a kerchief from her arms and handed it to him. It was a prize he had won from guessing lantern riddles. Ah-Dong had had a pile of things crammed into her arms, of which there were three kerchiefs; not using one right now would be in vain.
He accepted it, then casually covered his neck, patting her on the head. “Go look after those little brothers and sisters. Don’t let them run all around.”
She agreed, then turned and left. Right then, a mocking laugh came from behind him. “You’re really in a sorry state.”
He didn’t need to turn around to know who his counterpart was. “Why are you not going to lend a hand, Eunuch Wang, and instead getting nice and cool here?”
“The overall situation is settled. Just reporting this case as closed would grant me merits. Why should I take to the field myself?”
“You were searching down those official roads. How were you able to arrive in time?”
“After you all went on the off-road, I went to get horses, then divided us up into two groups. The others followed along the roads while I came to look for you all, but the time wasted between going back and forth and getting the horses was a lot, which is why we could only get here now. These Brocade Guards are really useless. If the Western Depot had taken this route, you would have never gotten trapped in that den of thieves, because we would have long beaten these roof-jumping clowns into the gutter!”
Tang Fan sighed, but with an expression of immense relief. “And who’s to blame for that? I told you to take this road, but you didn’t believe me, wasting a lot of time for no good reason! We caught a gang member, but didn’t expect that even with a stab wound and two broken fingers, he would still dare to lie to us. Sui Zhou only has four with him, and they were afraid of not having enough manpower, so they had to mass together to give pursuit up the mountain. You all being able to arrive in time is the exhaustion of these crooks’ fate, else my own life probably would have gotten lost here.
“Also, the reason Deng Xiucai and them left the cellars was because the Southside Gang has a stronghold up on the mountain ahead, which they could leave for in order to hide out until this all blew over. After these people are brought back, its exact position needs to be gotten out of them, as the stronghold would be best uprooted. The Gang’s power is certainly not limited to just Deng Xiucai’s few, either; there’s presumably other forces all over the capital. Please do eradicate their evil, Eunuch Wang, and wipe them out one by one.”
Wang Zhi frowned, clearly unwilling to go through so much trouble. In his view, once the kids were found, their assignment was done.
Right as Tang Fan turned his head, he noticed the change in his expression. He knew what he was thinking. “The Southside Gang has some connection to the White Lotus’s demonic followers,” he supplied.
The other’s expression grew stern. “Is that true?”
“I heard it myself in there. Southside is only one such gang affiliated with the Society, and is also a source of income for it. However, Deng Xiucai refused to be bossed around, so he had gotten into an internal fight with the Overseer’s envoy, then killed her. After you bring him back, you may as well search him. You’re certain to find that Society command token.”
The sorcerer, Li Zilong, had once caused widespread panic inside the imperial palace, and subsequent investigation had proved that he had been associated with the Society. Ever since then, its name had been formally placed out in the open, causing everyone to have no choice but to confront it head on.
Unfortunately, these past two years, the Brocade Guard and two Depots had investigated it on the sly, yet made no progress. The organization was concealed so deeply, even they couldn’t suss out any clues, only able to catch its small fry.
Now that the connection between the Gang and Society had surfaced, there was no need for Tang Fan to say more. Alongside Boss Lai, Liu Zhili, and those other underworld forces, Wang Zhi’s group would certainly go make an inquiry.
While the two spoke, Deng Xiucai was heavily outnumbered in spite of his extraordinary martial arts, and captured at last.
Leaving out those that had been shot dead by arrows or killed in the fight, there were a total of seven gang members left alive, including their second- and third-in-commands. Of greater importance was that the group of children had suffered no major issues, other than a scare.
The lot of them had gone hard all night. Despite a sum of merits being arranged before them, there was no celebration. Each of them had a face full of exhaustion and a longing for death.
This was true even for those of martial arts, to say nothing of an ordinary man like Tang Fan. He had gone through several life-and-death scenarios, really working himself to the bone.
The carriage Deng Xiucai had intended to transport the children with was once again packed with them, but its trajectory had changed.
Mister Tang, injured all over and shockingly tired, didn’t feel like riding by himself. In order to avoid dozing and falling off partway through the journey, he shared a horse with Sui Zhou.
Everyone was weary. The horses weren’t going very fast, jolting with the addition of the uneven path. Sitting behind Sui Zhou, Tang Fan unwittingly fell asleep amidst this rhythm, his drool flowing onto his back.
Millarch Sui said nothing, gazing up at the sky.