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Tang Fan, alarmed by his own guess, felt a little out-of-sorts after he was done speaking with Du Gui’r. Outsiders might not be able to tell so, but who was Sui Zhou? Tang Fan and he had known each other for years, almost as inseparable as shadows in their free time; how could he not be able to tell?
Vaguely, he could speculate as to what Tang Fan was tangled up with, but he didn’t resolve it. When it came time to rest, the two were laying in the tent, and the one beside him was tossing and turning and disturbing his shut-eye so much, he finally said, “Runqing.”
Tang Fan immediately quit moving and feigned sleep.
Sui Zhou felt powerless yet amused, reaching out to pat him on the waist a couple of times. A certain ticklish somebody immediately shrank away on reflex, promptly revealing the fact that he had been faking it.
“…Mm?” He pretended to wake up, rubbing his eyes.
“Don’t act. I know you weren’t asleep,” Sui Zhou sighed.
“You woke me up,” Mister Tang lied without a change in expression.
“What did Du Gui’r talk to you about?”
“Nothing, it was just typical gossip.” Tang Fan laughed a little, keeping his back to him.
“It’s late in the day, let’s sleep. We’ll talk more about stuff tomorrow,” Tang Fan answered, unaffected.
In spite of Sui Zhou’s calm, he really couldn’t tolerate being faced with Sir Tang’s evasive behavior. He had been thinking that as long as he gave the other man some more time, with how bright Tang Fan was, he would be able to come to an understanding eventually… but now, it looked like he had really been too naive.
At times, when faced with certain people, some techniques had to be carried out before effects could be had.
Sui Zhou spoke no drivel, simply pulling the other over by the shoulder, then pressing down upon him.
Taking advantage of Tang Fan’s momentary shock, Sui Zhou kissed him without another word.
The night beyond the passes was cold, the chill seeping in through the gaps in the tent, penetrating to the bone. During the day, the weather was breezy and beautifully sunny, while the wind picked up harshly at nighttime.
And yet, the one pushing him down was so heated, his body’s warmth coming through skin that was tightly pressed against him, it nearly caused a daze where the full sum of the outside frigidness was separated, blocked out.
“So, do you understand?”
After a long while, Sui Zhou pulled a small distance away, propping himself up on one arm so as not to put any weight on the other man.
The bewilderment on Mister Tang’s face was not yet gone, his barely-swollen, glistening lips making Sui Zhou want to go in again. But, when considering present circumstances, he felt that it would be better to be clear before anything else, lest the man take back his bet after the fact.
Gazing deeply at the one beneath him, he slowly repeated what he had said earlier, “I have long had someone in mind. He’s shy, and a foodie.”
“…” Tang Fan felt that his thoughts, which he had forever taken pride in for being clear and wise, were now trending towards swirling into a tangled-up mess.
Within that chaos, there was some shock, some confusion, and what seemed to be some lack of surprise.
But… why would it not be surprising?
He couldn’t make sense of it right now.
Seeing that his expression was in flux, Sui Zhou thought to say something, but suddenly heard a pained groan float in from outside.
Both of their hearts went cold, any sort of trifling and pretty thoughts promptly thrown beyond the clouds.
Sui Zhou, reacting quick, grabbed his spring-gilt sabre and dashed out.
When Tang Fan hurried outside, he saw Shen Gui collapsed outside of his own tent, rolling all over the ground while his hands clutched his throat. Inside that state of crazed pain, even Wei Mao almost couldn’t control him.
Then, before anyone could react, fresh blood spurted in huge bursts out of Shen Gui’s mouth. Beneath the fire’s illumination, the blood gave off a purplish-red that was nearly haunting.
“…It has nothing to do with me! It was they who forced me to look for you! Don’t come for me, don’t!” Heaving noises came out of his mouth, his eyes widening desperately until they nearly fell out of their sockets. Blue veins bulged out of the backs of his hands and forehead.
“Who’s coming for you? Who’s talking to you?” Tang Fan was about to step forward, but Sui Zhou blocked him, giving him no choice but to question him where he stood.
He had believed that within Shen Gui’s pain, he would certainly not be able to hear the outside world, yet the man showed a fake smile whilst answering his question. “Priest Li, Priest Li, he came for me, he said I spilled the secret, this is retribution, it’s retribution, retri…”
Shen Gui physically and wildly thrashed on the ground, where no one could restrain him. In such a brief timeframe, even gods wouldn’t have been able to think up a solution — they all could only watch on as his face gradually turned purple, ending with his raw scream as his body spasmed, then stopped moving.
Everyone had been drawn by the noise outside of their tents, and after witnessing this scene, they were completely dumbstruck. None of them had expected that, on such a calm day, something like this would occur near the middle of the night.
The ‘Priest Li’ he had spoken of was, without a single doubt, Li Zilong. As for that ‘retribution’, though, what had happened there? Did Li Zilong really have such immense magical powers, that he had been able to detect Shen Gui revealing the array from thousands of li away, then take his life?
Du Gui’r’s face was particularly white. This was not strange; even though she personally treated patients, when had she ever seen such misery unfold before her eyes?
Shen Gui’s tragic manner of death made even large men’s hearts skip beats, to say nothing of her, a frail woman. She swiftly covered her mouth, turning her head away, slightly unwell. It wasn’t until Chuyun-zi stepped forward to check Shen Gui’s condition did she remember what her own role was, so she held in her nausea to go help.
“Was he poisoned?” Wang Zhi did not come forward, his expression quite overcast. Shen Gui’s death, from another perspective, undoubtedly portrayed his own incompetence.
“What do you think, Miss Du?” Chuyun-zi looked at Du Gui’r.
“…He must have been.” She took in a deep breath, complexion still wan. “Though, I don’t quite understand how he could have been. Clearly, we all drank the same water, and ate the same food…”
Everyone turned to look at Wei Mao, as the latter had been asleep with Shen Gui in the tent.
“He seemed fine before,” he said. “He wanted to talk to me, I ixgnored him, so he went to sleep. About halfway through that sleep, I heard movement next to me, immediately woke up, then saw him clutching his neck with a pained face before he ran out of the tent.”
His account held zero useful content.
Even if they knew that Shen Gui had been poisoned, no one knew what he had been poisoned with, nor how. His death caused everyone’s hearts to suspend high, emotions once slightly calmed by Tang Fan’s comfort shortly tensing.
The emotion on Wang Zhi’s face could not be clearly discerned, but how could anyone else be feeling any better?
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou had no belief that Li Zilong had such abilities, but just because they didn’t believe so didn’t mean that others didn’t. Anything that went beyond common logic would cause one to feel powerless to fight it, thereby drawing back in cowardice and fear.
The soldier at Meng Cun’s side couldn’t help but speak up in a weak, trembling voice. “Sir, how about we go back—“
He didn’t get to finish before Wang Zhi’s malevolent stare made him shrink back.
“Those brave enough to say that they’ll draw back will be dealt with according to military law,” Wang Zhi said, darkly.
The soldier hunched over, too afraid to say more.
Being a seventh-rank Corporal, Meng Cun was overall superior to his subordinate. “Sir, should we bury him?” he asked, pointing at Shen Gui.
Tang Fan shook his head. “Move him to the lakeside, first. We can handle it tomorrow.”
Even though, following this, likely no one would be able to get to sleep, they couldn’t just stand blankly outside their tents for a whole night.
The wind was blowing all the harder, their clothes flapping noisily. Even some sand and rocks not concealed by the lake’s water and grass were swept up off of the ground. For the sake of not getting wind and sand in their eyes, everyone was squinting slightly.
Right when they were getting ready to go back into their tents, Miss Du timidly grabbed Sui Zhou’s sleeve, looking miserable. “Brother Sui, can I stay with you two? I-I’m too afraid to sleep alone!”
At a time like this, saying anything about men and women not having contact would seem much too unreasonable. Du Gui’r had come out with them, and everything was simpler in the outside world, with not so many matters that needed to be looked out for.
Sui Zhou didn’t answer, instead looking at Tang Fan. The latter nodded, holding a smile. “Of course you can. Come on in.”
The former was slightly frustrated, thinking that Du Gui’r had popped up at a really inopportune time, and a certain someone was clearly taking advantage of this to avoid what had just happened in the tent. Were there not such a high probability that something would happen from making Du Gui’r stay in her own tent alone, he would think to keep her out.
With a young lady present, it was impossible for Tang Fan and Sui Zhou to fall asleep.
Seeing that Du Gui’r was a little chilly, Tang Fan gave her a thin blanket, letting her bundle up in it. The bundled-up Miss Du gradually felt a little better, but her mind was still racing entirely with the violent manner of Shen Gui’s death. “It’s so strange… how did he get poisoned?… It can’t be that Priest Li can actually… can actually…”
Her lips trembled. She feared saying more, but her eyes peered at Tang Fan and Sui Zhou, as if she hoped that they would give her an answer to make her less afraid.
Tang Fan was also pondering this event. “In your opinion, is there a possibility that he could have already been poisoned before leaving the city, and it only took effect just now?” he asked her.
She thought it over, then shook her head. “Some poisons do have delayed onset times, but that also means that there is no way that death could be immediate. In cases like Shen Gui’s, only if he had been hit with a fierce poison would it break out so abruptly, so quickly…”
Suddenly, she thought of one possibility, and couldn’t resist shivering. “I heard that the Southwest has a bizarre gu poison that is odorless and tasteless, and can break out with just its creator’s thoughts. There’s no way to defend against it. He… he couldn’t have been hit by that, right?”
Tang Fan, in his vast knowledge, had a bit of an understanding towards gu. “Even if it is gu poison, there is no chance that anyone could poison their victim from a thousand li away. They would need to come close before they would have a chance. In that case, regardless of what poison was used, the most urgent matter is to find out Shen Gui’s cause of death…”
His words abruptly cut off, as if he had thought of something.
She curiously awaited his next dictation, but he said no more. She had to turn to Sui Zhou in an attempt to find the answer off of his face.
She had been destined for disappointment, of course.
The wind outside was blowing harder and harder, beating incessantly against the tent and slicing across every surface, even slightly raising the three of them up.
“Why is the wind so strong?” Tang Fan wondered, lifting his head.
Du Gui’r’s face twisted up. “Could it be that a sand cyclone is starting up?”
The wind’s momentum came so violently, the entire tent seemed to be getting lifted up. The ropes at each of the tent’s four corners were firmly fastened into the ground by rivets, yet even those now seemed to be getting pulled out by the devastating force of the wind. The candles inside of the tent had long been extinguished beyond their control, leaving the inside pitch black. Even though the three of them were close to each other, they practically couldn’t see each other’s appearances.
With wind like this, the fires outside had also long gone out.
“I’ll go take a look. You two stay here,” Sui Zhou said, then got up and walked out.
Tang Fan could vaguely see a human figure lift up the flap of the tent and walk out. The instant the flap opened, wind and sand swept in, immediately causing the other two pain as it buffeted them to the point that their sitting forms leaned a bit back.
Du Gui’r automatically let out a low exclamation of surprise.
Because she was a woman, Du Gui’r hadn’t gotten too close to Tang Fan and Sui Zhou after entering the tent, staying some distance away from them. In this complete darkness, he couldn’t see where she was at all.
“I’m here…” she answered, wrapping the blanket tighter around herself, teeth uncontrollably chattering. She hadn’t expected that at the end of spring and beginning of summer — where it would already be time to change into light garments in the border city, a little more only neeeded at night — the nights outside of the pass would be so cold, it could practically be considered winter. “W-will something happen to Brother Sui?”
“No,” Tang Fan answered, but his heart had no bottom.
This was an area they had never set foot in before, completely unfamiliar.
This group that included Du Gui’r, despite having several people that had gone beyond the pass before, truthfully had little knowledge of the place. No matter whether it was Shen Gui, Meng Cun, or Du Gui’r, what they had seen beyond the passes was only one aspect of the region.
Tang Fan suddenly had a feeling; since Li Zilong had laid out an array here to bide time for an ambush of the Ming army, had he long expected them to come here?
He had long regarded Li Zilong as a demonic practitioner, but even if he was, that he had been able to slip out right from under the Emperor’s nose and flee to the border meant that he couldn’t be treated the same as ordinary hoodlums. At the bare minimum, this mystical, unseen priest was much more difficult to contend with than Li Man, Lady Ninth, or anyone else.
However, before he had more time to think more on that, the faint sound of muffled thunder came from far away outside. Immediately following that, a few claps were heard outside the tent, off-and-on, as if something was striking it.
The sound grew denser, and Du Gui’r’s expression changed. “Rain?”
Yes, rain. But Sui Zhou wasn’t back.
Thunder boomed, lightning streaked across the horizon — but what truly caused Tang Fan and Du Gui’r’s moods to sink was the rain that was getting all the worse.
Prior to coming here, they hadn’t anticipated these circumstances at all.
The tent wasn’t sturdy, either, the heavy rain making water gradually leak in from the outside, dampening the ground while it began to accumulate. In not too long of a time, it would be impossible to remain inside.
But if they left, where could they go? How things were like outside was currently unknown; Sui Zhou aside, they hadn’t heard anything from anyone else, either.
Naturally, even if there was anything to be heard, it had probably been concealed by the rain’s sound.
Had only Tang Fan been here, he would definitely go out and survey the situation, but Du Gui’r was around. The second he left, she would certainly get scared, and in the wilderness, a lone young woman could easily land in danger.
While he was hesitating, he heard her say, “Brother Tang, I know that there’s a cave at the foot of Barbarian Ridge. I once passed it when I was gathering medicine, and it looked quite deep from the outside. Avoiding the rain there certainly wouldn’t be an issue. This place will flood eventually, we can’t remain here.”
Tang Fan pondered for a short moment, then made a decision. “That’s fine! Follow me, don’t go far!”
The two dashed out of the tent, one after the other. The rain was even worse than they had imagined, pouring like it was doing all it could to irrigate everything; in no more than a short moment, they were entirely drenched.
Du Gui’r was a little better off, as she was at least wrapped in a blanket that slowed the rate she was getting soaked, but Tang Fan was not so fortunate. He had turned into a drowned chicken.
“Brother Tang, where are we doing?!” Du Gui’r shouted. The sound of the rain forced her to raise her voice.
“We’re looking for them, first! Keep with me!” Tang Fan turned and shouted, then ran forward, shouting for people as he searched. “Guangchuan! Wang Zhi! Wei Mao!”
No voices answered him, only the downpour.
He staggered and felt his way to nearby tents, opening them up, sticking his head in, and shouting into each of them, yet he never got an answer.
Aside from the two of them, everyone appeared to have disappeared without a trace, in no time flat.
Yet where would they go, if not here? They couldn’t have all jumped into the lake, right?
Of course, it could not be ruled out that everyone had simply separated, and because the rain was too heavy and sky was pitch-black, they couldn’t see the road clearly.
However, Tang Fan and Du Gui’r were quickly let down. With both this wind and this rain, it was hard for one to go a few steps forward, to say nothing of finding anything in any direction. The instant Tang Fan opened his mouth to shout for someone, rainwater accompanied by wind poured into it, yet they still couldn’t find anyone.
In the whole wide world, it seemed like only they were left.
Soon, Tang Fan noticed that despite the rain’s quick arrival, it was leaving quickly, too, already slowly reducing and weakening.
The bad news was that the wind was getting ever stronger, nearly getting them swept away, picking up the sand from the ground and throwing it harshly at them. Having just been drenched by rain and now getting blown on by violent winds, the two felt bone-penetrating cold.
The blanket covering Du Gui’r had since become totally saturated. She was forced to abandon it on the ground, only to immediately start shivering all over from the wind. At this time, she couldn’t care about the boundaries between men and women, tightly clutching Tang Fan’s arm as she spoke with a trembling voice. “B-Brother Tang, what do we do now?”
Tang Fan had wanted to tow her back to the tent, use it to block the wind, and catch their breath, but when they searched and searched, they surprisingly discovered that the tent that had just been beside them had also suddenly disappeared.
“Brother Tang, do you hear that? There seems to be a sound…?” Du Gui’r whispered into his ear, pulling him down into a crouch.
They couldn’t see their fingers in front of them, with even the tent and not-far-away Weining Sealet unseen, not to mention anything else. However, with a careful listen, it seemed like there actually was something to be heard, some distant commotion flowing on the wind.
The two listened hard for a minute. Despite not being able to see each other’s faces in the darkness, they couldn’t keep their own expressions from changing.
“The sound of horse hooves! How are there horses here?” Du Gui’r tensed up, but her voice became even quieter, nearly just breath.
Tang Fan couldn’t answer her inquiry, as he was also determining where the sound was coming from. However, their current environs were totally dark, nearly making them blind; they practically couldn’t tell which direction was which, let alone figure out the position of hoofbeats.
Upon listening carefully again, within the wind, apart from the horses, there appeared to be the clanking sounds of weapons mixed therein. It was like troops were charging forth into battle at night, rushing on over.
Tang Fan was slightly dazed; this scenario seemed familiar to him. It wasn’t until Du Gui’r’s nails tightly dug into his skin, giving his arm a slight pain, that he snapped out of it.
“What do we do, Brother Tang?!” She was also hearing that the others were not just a few riders, but more like an army of thousands of horses.
The issue was that they weren’t able to tell where the road was anymore, and had nowhere to hide. With the momentum of those iron hooves, they feared that wherever they did hide, they would inevitably meet their fates of getting stomped into fleshy paste.
“Don’t move!” Tang Fan firmly held onto her, the two of them crouching where they were, clothes hiked up high. If these were ordinary days, they might have had quite a bit of immortal charm standing in the wind, but right now, their clothes were completely wet, and they could only shiver non-stop from getting blown on so harshly.
The sound of hooves grew closer, accompanied by the sound of horns and unknown words.
Du Gui’r clenched her jaw and covered her mouth, but still ended up sneezing. Afterwards, she realized what she had done.
Soon following, her shoulder was slapped, and she went white.
Tang Fan was crouched in front of her. She was still gripping his arm. Who could have possibly slapped her shoulder from behind?
She was too afraid to turn her head, but spoke in a tone that was not much better than a sobbing one. “Brother T-Tang, someone touched me from behind…”
He was startled, subconsciously turning his head, but he couldn’t see anything. “Who’s there?” he asked, vigilant, as he pulled Du Gui’r forward.
She immediately let out a cry, collapsing near him. He quickly caught her.
“My shoulder… my shoulder, it’s like it was slashed by something, it hurts…” she groaned.
Tang Fan reached out to feel her shoulder; there was a damp patch, and it smelled like blood when it wafted beneath his nose.
“Come on!” He helped her up, wrapped her one arm around his shoulders, and wrapped his other arm across her waist, half-dragging, half-carrying her forward.
The sound of swords crossing quickly came from behind.
Du Gui’r bit her lower lip. “I get it; is this not the ‘Underworld Soldiers Passing By’ that you all mentioned before?… Was I not just injured by one?”
“Don’t think so much! How could ghosts injure people?” he countered, not even needing to think. He didn’t turn to see what had happened, instead making the decision to run in the opposite direction while supporting Du Gui’r.
Thousands of troops rushed up to attack, the sound of horns resonating next to the ears. Inside the darkness, it seemed that two different armies were chancing upon a meeting. The two sides quickly came to stand together, the sound of drums and the shouts to kill pairing with the chaotically dancing gale, sweeping into a mass that shocked the skies.
As for Tang Fan and Du Gui’r, they were both wrapped up in such ferocity, treading with difficulty. They had no idea where they were, no idea where the road ahead was, and no idea where this army had come from, nor whether it was a human or ghost one.
If there were human, which humans?
Those words and shouts for war battered the eardrums; Tang Fan could only tell that what they were saying was not Central Plains language, yet also differed from Tartar language. What ethnicity the language came from was difficult to tell.
But, if they were ghosts, how could they harm Du Gui’r? How could there be ghosts in this world that could harm people?
What had happened on this night was much too mystifying, already far beyond the boundaries of what they could normally imagine.
Even though in the daytime, they had heard Chuyun-zi speak of underworld soldiers, no one had witnessed it themselves. Now that they were placed inside it, it was inevitable that they would get the subtle feeling of being insignificant.
Still, in his rush, Tang Fan had no time to think that much at all, ferrying Du Gui’r all the way forth. As he couldn’t differentiate directions, he worries that if he didn’t pay attention, he would trip into the lake or fall, so he watched the road while he ran, dooming them to not go at a very fast speed.
It was unknown how long they had been running. Du Gui’r’s steps were getting slower and slower, her body getting more and more powerless, her entire being nearly hanging on him.
“I-I can’t… no more running… Brother Tang, don’t worry about me! Run!” she panted.
“Don’t be stupid!” He didn’t let her go, of course.
She didn’t speak again, as she was unable to say more. The wound on her shoulder had been flowing blood this whole time, the loss of too much of it causing her to lose all of her strength. Her other arm hung limp, swaying with every step.
Noticing her off condition, Tang Fan had to slow his pace. “Rest a bit, first. I’ll help you bandage your wound.”
She issued a grunt of endurance. The lady was plenty strong, never shouting out in pain. After saying “Forgive me,” he felt the wound on her shoulder, after which he found that it was deeper than expected.
She appeared to have been slashed by some sort of weapon, the skin turned inside-out and the bleeding continuous. If this were not treated in time, it would certainly turn fatal.
Du Gui’r was a physician herself, and she had brought a lot of medicine for both internal and external application when they had left, but the problem with that was the present environment. With even their clothes being wet, the effect of medicine would not be too great; it would be best for them to find a dry, safe location to rest in, first.
Tang Fan was a tad vexed, but his hand’s ministrations didn’t stop because of that. He first brought out the medicine, sprinkled it on her wound, then tore off a hem of his own clothes to haphazardly bandage it for her.
“How are you doing? Don’t fall asleep, talk to me!” He lightly slapped her on the cheek.
“I-I will…” She grit her teeth, voice clearly getting a lot feebler.
“Keep with it. When another two shichen pass, it should be daybreak. We’ll be able to find a way out, then!”
This night was endless, his companion had vanished, and the terror was unceasing, in a truly harrowing event, but, if he could resolve it with wisdom, it wouldn’t be so hard.
What most made one lose hope was not harsh circumstances, but rather not knowing the depths of what lied ahead.
Du Gui’r lightly shifted. It was unclear whether she had heard him.
Wind still whistled, paired up with the noise of the troops that were close at hand. Regardless of how far they walked, it seemed like they could not get rid of the phantom soldiers that hounded them like undying spirits, encircling them from the front and the back.
Murder and slaughter played out before them. These were ancient battlegrounds from who-knew-how-many years before. A sandstorm and rain had brought them back to the field, to personally experience the scene of what had occurred.
Horses whinnied, soldiers screamed as they were killed and injured, and the sound of brief weapon clashes did not seem illusory; it made one feel like weapons were about to land upon their heads any minute.
Meanwhile, Tang Fan and Du Gui’r had nowhere to run, and no strength to resist.
Respect was granted to this scene of melee. Even if she had been wounded, Du Gui’r’s state of mind was as alert as ever, not completely bewildered. She knew well that she couldn’t see, but she still tried her best to keep her eyes open, wanting to catch sight of what was going on around her.
All of a sudden, her arm was grabbed by an ice-cold hand.
“Ahhh!” The frightened woman was no longer able to hold out, immediately beginning to scream.
The translator says: IT STARTED OUT WITH A KISS HOW DID IT END UP LIKE THIS
The author’s mini-theatre:
The next day, following the kiss, Mister Tang woke up to find Sui Zhou staring at him.
Tang Fan: What are you looking at me for?
Sui Zhou: Don’t you remember what happened last night?
Tang Fan thought it over: Nope.
Sui Zhou reminded him: That thing from before you slept.
Tang Fan saw the light: Oh, that thing about you saying that you were taking away the sugar-soaked plums and not letting me eat them? It’s fine.
Sui Zhou: …
(This tale informs us that with certain people that are adept in evasion and shifting topics, roundabout tactics do not work.)