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Du Gui’r’s shriek was like an invisible hand tightly clutching Tang Fan’s heart. In that split second, it leapt violently, a droning in his ears as her voice reverberated fully.
The next instant, her call abruptly stopped, as if her mouth or throat was being firmly strangled by someone.
He became tense. “Miss Du?”
Quickly, he turned his head, even if he couldn’t see a thing.
“It’s me,” a voice showed up beside his ear.
Perhaps due to the freezing wind, that tone was much frostier than it normally was, but this didn’t influence Tang Fan’s familiarity with the voice — Sui Zhou!
Clearly, because he hadn’t been able to see anyone at the start, he had taken Du Gui’r for Tang Fan. After covering her mouth and verbally stating his own identity, he felt the other party instantly relax. Only then did he let go, turn to nab Tang Fan, and briskly bring them both forward.
“Guangchuan, slow down! Miss Du is injured!” Tang Fan quickly said, hushing his voice.
The pace of the one in front indeed slowed a little, but still appeared to be quite hurried. Tang Fan was forced to support Du Gui’r, else she wouldn’t be able to keep up.
The sounds of war encircling them proceeded, giving no hint that they were stopping. It was like they were situated inside an Asuran battleground, with even the sound of splattering blood mixing into the wind.
Still, with more people around him, Tang Fan felt much peace of mind.
All of a sudden, Sui Zhou stopped in his tracks. Tang Fan and Du Gui’r were forced to stop in his wake.
Before they could question him, they heard him draw his sabre out of its sheath, as if welcoming an incoming blade. The two parties collided, issuing a crisp clang.
“Is that you, big brother?! Brother, it’s us! Wei Shan and Lu Yan!” his counterpart called out.
“Got it,” Sui Zhou answered concisely. One hand put his sabre away, while his other hand tightly gripped Tang Fan’s arm, never letting go.
Tang Fan was elated. Inside the darkness, he could vaguely make out two figures bounding up before them.
The others similarly had joy that was difficult to contain. “Brother, Lu Yan was injured badly. How are we going to get out of this damned place now?”
“It wouldn’t be good to remain for long. We’ll find an area to hide in before all else,” Sui Zhou said, no-nonsense.
“Miss Du said just now that there’s a cave at the foot of Barbarian Ridge that we can take a temporary rest in,” Tang Fan quickly stated.
“In which direction?”
Sui Zhou’s question was very brief, but Tang Fan immediately understood him. “According to where we set up camp last night, it should be northwest of the Weining Sealet’s northern shores.”
The other pondered for a short moment. “Follow me.”
He led Tang Fan and Du Gui’r in the change of directions, with Wei Shan and Lu Yan closely following behind.
Tang Fan was helping Du Gui’r. Even through her clothes, he could feel her temperature constantly rising, while her steps contrastingly became all the more sluggish and limp.
“Miss Du! Don’t fall asleep, hang on for a little while! We’ll get there soon!” he said to her, but she didn’t give him an answer. It was unknown whether she was losing consciousness, or had no strength to speak.
He had no choice but to pinch her arm hard.
She moved on reflex, then said in a weak voice, “I’m awake. Don’t pinch me, ow…”
Tang Fan wasn’t sure how to react. “Then say something!”
“What would I say…?”
“I’ll recite medical scriptures, then, or I really will faint… all great doctors that treat patients must be calm and collected… with no desires nor demands. A heart of compassion and benevolence comes first. Vow to be willing to rescue all souls from their suffering… If someone is in distress, do not ask whether they are rich or poor, noble or peasant…”
While she soliloquized, the group stepped onto ground coated in stone fragments and wild grass, stumbling on larger stones in their path several times. By the time Tang Fan was losing strength, feeling like he would soon be unable to support Du Gui’r’s weight, he sensed Sui Zhou’s pace gradually slow.
“We’re here?” His forehead was sweating profusely. It was only now that he noticed that their group seemed to be gradually leaving that battlefield, with even the sounds of the brawl abandoned behind them.
“Wait.” Sui Zhou released his arm. “You all stand here and don’t move. I’ll scout ahead.”
A minute later, Tang Fan saw a tiny spark light up inside the dark, following which Sui Zhou’s indistinct outline was illuminated.
That light was considerably valuable here. It was not just Tang Fan, but everyone else that was staring at the flamestick in Sui Zhou’s hand, holding their breaths.
Tang Fan also had flamesticks, but they had just been scrambling the whole path, and there was wind, rain, and unknown foes. Lighting one up would have made him a public target, which would not have been a wise move.
The fire grew brighter with Sui Zhou’s swaying. Using its weak light, everyone could clearly see their surroundings; they were standing right beneath a tree, which was big enough to help them block some of the wind. The leaves rustling even brought some cover from the distant sound of fighting.
Wei Shan wanted to light a flamestick, too, but Sui Zhou stopped him. “Save it.”
Tang Fan saw another Brocade Guard leaning on Wei Shan; the injured Lu Yan. His injury looked to be worse than Du Gui’r’s. At this moment, his eyes were shut tight, and he was motionless as he leaned upon Wei Shan, who half-propped him up.
“Is that the cave?” Sui Zhou asked Tang Fan.
“Yes… that’s it,” Du Gui’r answered, “but I haven’t been inside. I don’t know if there’s any dangers.”
That was too late to consider, though. The rain was much lighter, but it was still falling, and coupled with the bone-stabbing evening wind. Everyone was exhausted, hungry, mentally tensed, and already approaching their physical limits. Du Gui’r and Lu Yan in particular really needed a place to rest and recover.
Sui Zhou gave a command, and they all jogged ahead, crossing over holes beneath their soles to enter the cave.
The second they were in, everyone felt relief. The wind and rain continued to float in, but it was much more comfortable than continuing to remain outside.
Following his own line of sight, Sui Zhou slowly moved the flamestick around to survey the area. Some rocks were under the feet, and the stones were craggy, but this would only be for one night, so that wasn’t a problem.
Du Gui’r had been right; the cave was indeed tall, spacious, and quite deep enough. Sui Zhou’s flamestick couldn’t reach the end of it at all. He walked forth for a time, found a dry spot, and had Tang Fan and Wei Shan help the two wounded people sit down onto it.
The flamestick wouldn’t be staying lit for very long, nor was the fire big enough to warm. Wei Shan looked all about. “Brother, I’ll go inside to see if there’s any branches that can be lit.”
“Don’t go in too deep. As soon as something’s off, give warning,” Sui Zhou answered.
Wei Shan agreed, took a bamboo tube out of his pocket, drew the flamestick out of it, then lit it up, walking inside while holding it aloft.
Sui Zhou first crouched down to help check over the state of Lu Yan’s injury. The latter was indeed gravely injured; his waist had been hacked, bone surfacing. There were wounds of all sizes in other areas, too. As they had been hurrying on their road, Wei Shan hadn’t been able to bandage him up, the blood loss causing his entire face to go pale.
Sui Zhou sprinkled goldsore ointment on his wounds. Lu Yan twitched a bit out of pain, like he wanted to struggle, but he was held down by the long-prepared Tang Fan.
With Tang Fan’s aid, Sui Zhou tore off pieces of his clothes to practically bandage him up well, then turned to see to Du Gui’r. The lady’s injury was lighter than Lu Yan’s, but she was still a young woman that wasn’t subjected to much pain in normal days; she was quickly crumpling from the hit, looking even weaker than Lu Yan.
Tang Fan felt her forehead — it was scalding, causing his expression to go stern.
“Get her some pills,” Sui Zhou said.
“There’s no water here, though.” Tang Fan took out a medicine bottle, brows creased in confusion.
Sui Zhou didn’t have his gentleness. He straight-up took the bottle, dumped out a few pills, pried open Du Gui’r’s mouth, stuffed the pills in it, and slapped her on the cheeks. “Swallow,” he commanded.
Utterly unsophisticated and crude.
Tang Fan was speechless.
Du Gui’r’s cheeks were getting slightly red and swollen from the slaps. She swallowed twice with difficulty, managing to get the pills down, but coughed uncontrollably, the repeated action making her cheeks flush as red as blood.
Tang Fan lightly patted her on the back, gradually getting her to mellow out.
Witnessing this gentleness made Sui Zhou frown a bit, but he didn’t say anything. This was not a good time for a private conversation.
“I found dry firewood!” Wei Shan came dashing energetically out of the cave, his flamestick in one hand and a bunch of twigs in the other.
“Where from?” Tang Fan was slightly confused; why would there be branches in a cave?
Wei Shan shook his head. “I’m not sure. There was some previously-extinguished wood, so maybe some hunting party spent the night here. I took out anything that wasn’t yet used.”
That guess was especially unreasonable, but there was no better explanation right now, and this wasn’t the time to get to the bottom of it. Tang Fan took the branches to help set up the fire.
The effect a bonfire had, under certain circumstances, was limitlessly immense.
This bundle of flames immediately lit the cave up bright, letting them feel slight warmth. Even more importantly, it drove away the cold wind and rain, as well as the unease brought about by all the outside threats, allowing them to see hope.
Even though Du Gui’r was still out of it, she couldn’t help but get closer to the fire. Seeing this, Tang Fan helped her get up and move closer to it.
What a shame it was that all the blankets had been left in the tents, and that one had been abandoned on the road. At this moment, aside from the clothes on their backs, no one had spare articles to use to cover the ground or themselves.
Tang Fan noticed that Du Gui’r was shaking terribly. He wanted to remove his own outer robes, but the second he moved, a hand held him back.
“You want to catch a cold?” Envoy Sui’s face was sullen.
“She’s way colder than me, though.” Tang Fan blinked, not understanding.
“The fire’s been started. She’ll warm up soon.” Sui Zhou tossed a branch in, stoking the fire brighter.
As he was preventing him from doing anything, Tang Fan could do nothing but stop.
In addition to the two wounded, the other three sat around the fire, drying their clothes in passing. Tang Fan recalled that he had not been able to see his own fingers in the dark, no one had been able to see the road, and he had been too afraid to rashly light up a flamestick, yet Sui Zhou had been able to accurately discover the cave. “It was so dark; how were you able to tell which direction was which?”
Sui Zhou took out a small object from his lapels and passed it over. Tang Fan took it for a look, then gasped.
It was a compass.
When they had left the city, Chuyun-zi had also been carrying a compass, but Sui Zhou’s was several magnitudes smaller than his. It was approximately half as big as a palm, and had been made extremely delicately. It was engraved with the positions of the eight trigrams, a needle swaying gently at its middle.
Presumably, Sui Zhou had felt for the pin and the carved characters to speedily determine direction.
“Where did you get this from?” Tang Fan looked it over with some admiration.
“Before leaving the capital, I asked the Imperial Observatory. If you want one, I’ll ask for one for you when we get back.”
He said this like the things were bok choy, where he could get as many as he wanted. A compass as detailed and tiny as this one was very difficult to manufacture, and there were only three in all of the Great Ming. One was reserved for the Emperor, while the others were in the Imperial Observatory, though Sui Zhou had asked for one. Now, for the sake of currying favor with Tang Fan, not even one would be left for anyone else.
Tang Fan just shook his head. “We’ll talk when we get back, but what happened tonight? Could it be ‘Underworld Soldiers Passing By’, like how Chuyun-zi said?”
“Yes, but also no.”
“Why do you say that?”
“If I haven’t guessed incorrectly, from the moment we came to the Weining Sealet, we were already caught in our opponent’s array — or, should I say trap.”
Tang Fan was in no rush to question him, as Sui Zhou expectedly continued after a pause. “After I left the tent, I checked and found nothing. I had wanted to go back around for you, only to find that I couldn’t locate your tent. Not only that, I couldn’t locate anyone else’s tents, either.”
That was the exact same circumstance the rest of them had encountered. “Brother, us too!” Wei Shan interjected.
Sui Zhou nodded. “Later on, I used the compass to search, but I was attacked partway through.”
Tang Fan frowned. “An ambush?”
“It wasn’t just one person, and their martial arts were very good. It was slightly difficult for me to deal with them, so I retreated as I fought. I didn’t expect to later inadvertently run into you two.”
Hearing this, Tang Fan looked toward Wei Shan. “It was the same for you?”
The other took in a deep breath. “Yes, we suffered a lot of attacks. Lu Yan was injured, then, and there were troops all around, which we couldn’t circumvent at all. It seems that the underworld soldiers Priest Chuyun spoke of are real! This place really is cursed!”
Recalling the scene, his face had remnant fear all over it. It had seemed like they had been trapped by infinite troops, those ghosts that had never dissipated for years lingering around them, menacingly shooting attacks at them. Wei Shan and Lu Yan’s psyches had suffered a shock; terrified and weak in strength, they had also needed to avoid getting trampled by the horses, making them quickly fall downwind. Lu Yan had ended up staking all of his effort in breaking them out of the enclosure, becoming badly wounded in consequence.
“What weapons did your attackers use?”
Wei Shan shook his head. “I’m not sure, it was too chaotic. We couldn’t see, only listen with our ears, though Lu Yan suffered a slash wound.”
“What about for you?” Tang Fan asked Sui Zhou.
“Sabres, as well as swords.”
“No spears or pikes?”
That completely certain answer made Tang Fan sink into contemplation. A long time later, he shook his head. “Underworld soldiers coming by may be true, but ghosts taking humans lives might not be. Just like you said, there’s a trap somewhere in here.”
“When killing enemies on the battlefield, in order to achieve lethal effects from a long rage, weapons like swords and sabres are generally not used. Instead, long weapons such as pikes, dagger-axes, spears, and ji are.”
Tang Fan nodded. “Right, that’s exactly the issue here. Have a think; if those that ambushed us really were the wronged souls of soldiers from the Mongol-Jin battlefield, why would they use sabres and swords? It seems like people planned to kill us using Underworld Soldiers Passing By. Looking at it now, this all definitely was plotted for in advance. First came the heavy wind, rain, thunder, and lightning, after which there came the ‘underworld soldiers’ for a secretly set-up ambush. No matter how capable Li Zilong is, there’s no way he can actually summon the elements, able to use the help of the world around him to accomplish things at most. That is likely how Underworld Soldiers Passing By is made. The previous Ming troops dying or disappearing must have been related to them getting held up here.”
Sui Zhou thought for a short moment. “For the current plan, we can only await daybreak.”
After dawn, the wind and rain vanished, the array deactivating without being cracked.
Wei Shan still had many points of confusion. “If they’re not underworld soldiers, then who attacked us? We couldn’t see the road, so how were they able to see and attack us?”
Brocade Guards trained for a long time and shouldn’t be this weak, but everything Wei Shan had just experienced was beyond reasonable belief. There was no need to speak of anything else, as the usage of underworld soldiers for an array, as described by Tang Fan, was already unprecedented.
He still remembered that while he had been fighting with the other side, because his eyes couldn’t see, his ears had needed to hear. The ears of a martial artist were keener than the average person’s, but no matter how keen they were, they were inferior to eyes, which had made him a half-beat slower to react every time. And yet, their opponents had apparently been able to sight them in the dark, which had made Wei Shan and Lu Yan abnormally deadlocked.
In spite of how bright Tang Fan was, even he couldn’t explain that issue, only able to shake his head and tell the truth. “I’m not sure, either.”
“I’ve heard that some people might actually be capable of this after specialized training,” Sui Zhou said. “Also, they may not necessarily be able to see, they can just remain in the dark for a long time, and have purposefully trained themselves to be able to react quicker there. Upon reaching the pinnacle of their listening ability, they might be able to use their ears as eyes. Looks like after we get back, the Northern Bastion Office will have to add another article to its training.”
Wei Shan: “…”
Hold on — he had just been asking a question because he was confused! How had that turned into Mister Envoy thinking to add to the Office’s training?! If his pals learned of this, they’d hate him!
Giving a single thought towards Sui Zhou’s usual relentless training methods, Wei Shan couldn’t suppress a shudder.
That said, he understood that were it not for Sui Zhou’s strictness, they might not have been able to get away just then.
Thinking of the scenario of getting drilled within an inch of his life every single night after returning, Wei Shan suddenly felt those ‘underworld soldiers’ to not be so frightening.
Tang Fan sighed. “I don’t know what happened to Eunuch Wang and the rest.”
“He’s cunning,” Sui Zhou answered blandly. “Nothing will happen to him.”
That statement was comforting, at first, but after he chewed it over carefully… why didn’t it seem like a compliment?
The rain outside was not as heavy as it had been when they had left the tents, but it had never ceased. Going out of the cave, everything was dark, which made it all the more warm and inhabited inside in contrast.
“We lit up a fire here. Will the ambushers not follow it to us?” Wei Shan worried.
Neither Tang Fan nor Sui Zhou had an answer to that question.
Truth be told, they’d had no other option. If that fire had never been, Lu Yan and Du Gui’r would likely have frozen to death by now, if not died of injuries or fever. Furthermore, not only would enemies be able to see the fire, but Wang Zhi and the rest would, too. Maybe they would come meet up.
Nothing in the world was completely flawless. As the advantages had surpassed the disadvantages, making the fire had been the best option.
The fire burned hot, slowly warming everyone up, their damp clothes not sticking to them so uncomfortably. After hearing Du Gui’r mumble about being thirsty, Tang Fan spotted a leaf on the larger side, left to collect some rainwater to feed her, then felt her forehead. The medicine must have started to take effect, as it wasn’t as scalding as it had been, letting him put his heart at ease.
This night had mostly passed busily from all the fleeing and avoiding of attacks, no sleep to even be had. Tang Fan had long been fatigued beyond compare; after heavily sitting down, he immediately fought his eyelids, then dozed off at some unknown time.
When he woke up once more, the burning fire entered his eyes. He shifted automatically, then discovered that he was snuggled up against Sui Zhou. The man had one arm around his waist, nearly bundling him entirely up into his arms, and had even covered him in his outer robe at some unknown point.
Tang Fan was a little moved. Even though this position was slightly awkward, he was afraid of waking the other up with the noise, so he dared not move anymore.
However, Sui Zhou had always been a light sleeper that was quite vigilant, so he had woken up almost the instant Tang Fan had opened his eyes. “Don’t move. The robe will fall off once you do.”
It would have been better if he hadn’t said anything, as once he did, Mister Tang recalled that scene that had happened in the tent before. His handsome face lightly flushed, and he had no idea what to do out of embarrassment.
Thankfully, the light shining on his face made this not too obvious.
He looked for a random topic. “What time is it?”
Wei Shan was curled up, asleep, next to the fire, while the other two injured people were even more unaware of human affairs.
“You just napped for half a shichen.”
No wonder it was so completely dark outside. Tang Fan was a little disappointed.
The next moment, however, he immediately sat straight up, Sui Zhou’s outer robe slipping down on him.
It wasn’t just him; Sui Zhou reacted the exact same way, and quicker, seizing his sabre and standing up.
Wei Shan woke up on his end, too.
All three of their gazes fell to the outside of the cave.
Rain still descended, but that obviously wasn’t their concern, which would be the flickering human figures showing up in the company of the rain’s sound.
Who was it? Friend, or foe?
Tang Fan stood up as well, heading over to Du Gui’r and Lu Yan. If a fight broke out not long from now, he would have to look after these two so that Sui Zhou and Wei Shan wouldn’t have later worries.
He didn’t notice that he was still clutching Sui Zhou’s outer robes in hand, however.
The footsteps drew closer and closer. Everyone was holding their breaths, staring unblinkingly outside.
The silhouettes coming towards the cave’s edge seemed to have no hesitation. Once they reached the entrance, they suddenly slowed, sneakily probing the inside. After seeing only half of the other’s revealed head, Tang Fan said, “Corporal Meng?”
Gasping, the other party revealed his entire head, expression both shocked and pleased. “Sir Tang, Sir Sui! Is it really you?!”
“With the way you were checking, wouldn’t we have long found you out if we were the enemy?” Tang Fan asked, exasperated.
Meng Cun smiled awkwardly, quickly helping his companion enter. Everyone then realized that said person was Chuyun-zi.
Hearing their voices, Chuyun-zi strenuously raised his head, managing to smile at them. Half of his clothes were stained in blood. After getting drenched by the rain, that blood faded and new blood constantly gushed out, making his light-colored Daoist robes look dreadful.
Everyone quickly came forward to help, taking Chuyun-zi from Meng Cun’s hands to help him sit.
“You two were attacked also?” Tang Fan asked.
“Yes.” Meng Cun smiled bitterly. He had also suffered many injuries, oozing blood all over, but they were luckily all superficial wounds, nothing serious. “I came across Priest Chuyun on the way here, and saw the fire, so I hurried to escape with them. I just vaguely heard Eunuch Wang and them angrily shouting; I’m afraid that their situation is likely much worse than ours. The second we left, those underworld soldiers must have all charged at them. Please go rescue them, Sirs!”
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou exchanged a look. “You’re certain that they’re still being besieged?” the latter asked.
Meng Cun inhaled deeply. “Yes, more circled us for an attack. It was Eunuch Wang that helped take some of the pressure off and let us come report first, so that we could flee!”
“Guangchuan?” Tang Fan asked.
The two had reached a level of mutual understanding where, in many instances, they would clearly know of the other party’s mind without saying a word.
Sui Zhou nodded slightly, looking towards Meng Cun. “Do you still have the strength to fight right now?”
“Yes!” the other answered seriously, no hesitation. “This subordinate will defend this place unto death!”
Sui Zhou nodded, and without delay, he called Wei Shan. The two rushed for the vast night outside.
Of those inside the cave now, Tang Fan knew no martial arts, Chuyun-zi and Lu Yan were both heavily injured, and Du Gui’r couldn’t do much, leaving only Meng Cun that could resist in case something happened. Since he had been able to break Chuyun-zi out of the heavy siege, his skills likely were not too inferior.
“When you discovered the light here, did your opponents not follow you?” Tang Fan asked.
Meng Cun shook his head. “No. The range of motion for the underworld soldiers appears to be limited to the array. We broke out of the encirclement, so no one is catching up.”
“They aren’t underworld soldiers.”
Meng Cun was confused. “Huh?”
“Those aren’t underworld soldiers, just some people using their guises to confuse us and use the night to attack.”
The other was terrified. “It’s not ghosts that tried to kill us, but humans?!”
Tang Fan nodded. “That’s why I’m wondering why they clearly know that we’re here, yet aren’t giving chase.”
Meng Cun understood nothing. “H-how could that be? I clearly felt like I was surrounded by so many troops, my entire body was horribly cold, and there was the sound of horseshoes, horns… if they weren’t underworld soldiers, where did all that come from?”
Tang Fan had just shared his own guess with him that he still found it hard to believe, but he couldn’t think of any words to refute him with. His previous experience of escaping from death made him relax a bit, a weary look appearing on his face.
Chuyun-zi had fallen asleep beside him long ago. Seeing this, Tang Fan said, “You should rest for a bit.”
Meng Cun smiled painfully and shook his head. “This subordinate still has to keep watch, lest anyone barge in. You sleep first, Sir.”
Tang Fan was truly tired, and resting his eyes for no more than an hour hadn’t been enough to relieve it. Not being too polite with him, he pulled Sui Zhou’s outer robe over himself, then shut his eyes.
It became quiet inside the cave once again.
Du Gui’r had been disturbed by Meng Cun and Chuyun-zi’s entry, her brows slightly creased, as if restless. It was unknown what she was muttering about. Lu Yan and Chuyun-zi had been so heavily injured that they were now sleeping soundly, even thunder going off right next to them not likely to wake them up.
Meng Cun casually looked all around, peered at the dark sky outside, then turned back inside, his line of sight falling upon Tang Fan.
Because of how cold it was, Tang Fan was pretty much about to shrink his entire self into Sui Zhou’s robe, yet still appeared to be a little chilly. In his sleep, he curled up slightly, but because he was too exhausted, he never woke up.
Meng Cun moved, tossing a stone below him out of the cave. There came a crisp sound, not too much of a commotion, but if any of them had been sleeping lightly, they would definitely wake with a start.
No one did, not even Tang Fan.
Only now did Meng Cun silently get up and head for Tang Fan, all whilst pulling out a dagger from his sleeve, then slowly unsheathing it.
With his skill, he would surely end his counterpart’s life in the blink of an eye.
He grinned evilly, shifting his figure in preparation to leap up.
However, at exactly that moment, Tang Fan suddenly opened his eyes, smiling at him. “You bore with it for a long time, eh?”
 AKA jinchuang ointment, used for treating sores and accelerating wound healing. (In-depth article here.)