A gale assailed across the grass of the hunting grounds. The instant the flame leaped, the sudden sound of blades colliding against one another erupted.
The feast was thrown into chaos. Hai Liangyi climbed up from the ground. With a burst of unexpected energy, he slammed headlong into Pan Rugui and bellowed, “Castrated traitor! Don’t hurt my Lord!”
Li Jianheng was on the horse, trembling all over as he watched the glinting and flashing display of cold steels. Clinging on to the horse’s neck, he closed his eyes and cried out, “Ce’an! Ce’an, save me!”
All of a sudden, Xiao Chiye kicked Ji Lei back into a retreat. Without even looking back, he backhandedly stabbed the Imperial Bodyguard who was attempting to launch a sneak attack behind him and snuffed the life out of the latter. Warm blood spattered over half of his body. He pulled out Langli Blade, took two steps forward, and struck the Eight Great Training Divisions soldier charging at him to the ground.
Chen Yang had already flipped atop the horse. He hauled Li Jianheng up, whistled at the top of his voice, and shouted to Prince Chu’s guards, “Follow me to protect His Highness. We’ll break through the siege towards the east!”
Before the horses could move, Ji Lei said in a cold voice, “Stop him—”
Ji Lei had yet to finish his word when he saw a blade slashing down on him. He held up his blade horizontally to block it. The next moment, both his arms sank down heavily as Xiao Chiye’s blow pained and numbed them. A sound escaped from Ji Lei’s throat as the impact sent him staggering. Astonished, he looked before him.
Xiao the Second!
“You played dumb to exploit the situation for your own ends.” Ji Lei crouched abruptly with legs astride and forcibly lifted his blade. He bellowed in fury, “I’ve misjudged you!”
A gust of wind assaulted from the side, and Xiao Chiye turned his head to dodge the attack. He swept the edge of his blade in a diagonal arc on his right, and a stream of glistening blood followed in its trajectory. Following right after, his blade collided with Ji Lei’s once again.
Lang Tao Xue Jin charged in, knocked over the table, and dragged the tablecloth along with it as it galloped through the bonfire. In that moment, the fire surged, setting tents and withered grass on fire. The very instant Lang Tao Xue Jin brushed past him, Xiao Chiye flipped atop its back. With the back of his blade, he swatted the buttocks of the horse Prince Chu was on and said a deep voice, “Go!”
“Protect His Majesty!” Xue Xiuzhuo strode over to pull Hai Liangyi away. “Elder Hai! Let us go to protect His Majesty!”
Emperor Xiande gasped for breath. His lips and face were pale. Xue Xiuzhuo squatted down to hoist Emperor Xiande over his shoulder and fled from the fire along with the other civil officials.
Xi Gu’an wanted to give chase, but Hua Siqian pointed directly at Prince Chu and said, “His Majesty’s fate is sealed, so there’s no need for us to kill or not kill him. But Prince Chu must die tonight! If he escapes, then you and I will be labeled as the traitorous party! Ji Lei, gather the Imperial Bodyguards and join forces with the two thousand Garrison Troops in the City of Tuancheng to surround the hunting grounds. You must kill Prince Chu! Xi Gu’an, hurry back to the capital at top speed! The Eight Great Training Divisions will take charge of protecting Qudu!”
By the time he spoke to this point, he had calmed down.
“We have the imperial heir in our hands, and the Empress Dowager in command. As long Qudu doesn’t fall into chaos, even Qi Zhuyin herself will not be able to act rashly if Prince Chu dies! As for the Xiao Clan, there will be plenty of opportunities to deal with them in the future!”
The stench of blood on Xiao Chiye was thick and heavy. His lips were tightly pursed as he killed everyone in his path the entire journey. Whoever dared to block his way, Langli Blade would decapitate that person, regardless of whose camp they were in!
Li Jianheng’s stomach lurched. But he covered his lips and did not dare to puke.
The remaining forty men at the sides were all Xiao Chiye’s personal guards. The steed under his legs galloped away without a moment’s pause. Behind them, the Imperial Bodyguards followed hot on their tails.
Just as their group galloped to the front of the forest, Xiao Chiye suddenly commanded, “Scatter!”
The remaining forty men tore off their guard attires in unison to reveal riding outfits that were exactly the same as Li Jianheng’s. Then, the procession dispersed with a loud clamor and charged into the forest from various spots.
With dark clouds shrouding the moon, there was no way anyone could tell the direction in which Prince Chu had fled under the darkness, especially from a distance away.
Ji Lei reined in his horse outside the forest and turned his head aside to spit. He said, “Surround the hunting grounds! Dig deep and search! If you encounter Xiao the Second, don’t engage him in a one-on-one fight. Form a team of at least four men and attack him from all sides!”
Branches kept whipping across his face, hurting Li Jianheng so much that he kept using his arm to shield his face. The surrounding guards had already dispersed, leaving only Xiao Chiye and Chen Yang beside him.
“Dismount.” Xiao Chiye lifted Li Jianheng and threw him to the ground to let Chen Yang take over.
Li Jianheng tumbled until even his head was soiled with dirt and earth. He said in a plaintive voice, “Ce’an, Ce’an, what are you going to do?”
“Your Highness, please follow me.” Chen Yang pulled Li Jianheng up. “It’s too conspicuous to travel on a horse through the forest! The Imperial Bodyguards are experts at encirclement and assassination. Riding a horse is like being a live target. We can’t take this risk!”
“I’m not leaving!” Li Jianheng fearfully yanked his arm back and pleaded, “Ce’an, you are the only one who can protect me!”
Xiao Chiye said, “Knock him out and carry him away!”
With that, he turned the horse around without waiting for Li Jianheng to reply and galloped away deeper into the forest.
◈ ◈ ◈
Lightning flashed in the sky, illuminating the sinister forest with layers upon layers of spooky shadows. The sounds of horses’ hooves, of blades being drawn, and of men dashing rang out in succession. The only thing missing was the sound of people speaking.
A whiff of the impending rainstorm wafted through the dark night. Xiao Chiye did not know how long he had been fleeing for. Lang Tao Xue Jin gradually came to a halt.
Dead silence suddenly descended all around.
Raindrops came pelting down from the sky, and a drop shot down before Xiao Chiye’s eyes. The darkness, amid that soundless drip, looked as if a monstrous creature was creeping slowly out of it. Countless Imperial Bodyguards stalked towards Xiao Chiye like a tightly woven net of oppressive darkness spreading towards him.
No one gave orders.
Rain pattered down, and the sharp end of a Xiuchun Blade1 sliced through the water droplets. In the twinkling of an eye, it reached the side of Xiao Chiye’s neck.
At the same time Xiao Chiye bent his head, Langli Blade left its sheath. With a “clang”, the back of the blade halted the retracting momentum of the Xiuchun Blade. He pressed Langli Blade back into its sheath again. There was an ear-piercing sound of scraping as the damaged sharp edge of the Xiuchun Blade cracked. Along with its master, it was kicked back. Both tumbled and fell into the rainwater.
Numerous figures abruptly leaped up from all four sides of his horse.
Xiao Chiye clapped his palm on the back of the horse. His entire body leaped out of the saddle, and once again, Langli Blade left its sheath. This time, the glint of the blade swept across, splitting open skin and flesh in a ring around him. Blood spattered onto his face and trickled down to his chin along with the sound of human bodies dropping.
Xiao Chiye landed back onto the back of the horse but did not sit on it. Instead, he maintained a crouching posture with the edge of his blade partially sheathed.
The sound of breathing. The pattering of rain.
In this pitch-dark night where one was as good as blindfolded, Xiao Chiye had already used his ears and hearing to its maximum capacity. Not one of the Imperial Bodyguards who had been wounded earlier made a sound. Those closely woven footsteps circled around him a short distance away, forming an indestructible encirclement with him in its center.
He who was impatient right this moment would expose his weakness.
Xiao Chiye waited in silence, and it was in this moment that Qiao Tianya, who was hiding in the darkness, truly realized what being a lone wolf meant.
Xiao Chiye was so unhurried and calm that it was as if the more precarious and dangerous the situation he found himself in, the more cool-headed and unpredictable he could be. And that blade of his was the fangs he bared this very night.
Qiao Tianya felt a rare sense of restlessness. The source of this fretfulness came from his order not to kill Xiao Chiye. It was far harder to trap and thwart this kind of dangerous predator than to kill him. Because more often than not, there was only one chance they had to get close to him. If they could not take him down, then they would end up slaughtered by this man.
Qiao Tianya closed his eyes. When he opened them again, ruthlessness brimmed in them.
He pulled out his own Xiuchun Blade and took a step out. The next moment, there was a flash of his figure as he burst into action and hacked down on Xiao Chiye’s back with a lightning move of his hand.
Xiao Chiye reversed his blade to parry the blow and turned around to kick Qiao Tianya on his abdomen. The men from the remaining three sides slashed their blades down on him in unison. He stopped the blades with one arm, but someone saw an opening on his left and sliced the sharp end of his blade towards his face. Xiao Chiye struck his elbow at the side of the blade. The blade swung sideways along with Xiao Chiye’s elbow as he slammed the other man in the face with it and sent the latter flipping over to the ground.
Once again, Qiao Tianya followed closely on his heels.
The rain fell in torrents. There was no shouting, only the sound of blades. Rainwater had scrubbed away at Xiao Chiye’s facial features until they looked all the more ferocious. In this never-ending encirclement, he maintained the acuity that was specific to him and him alone. Time and time again, he warded off the onslaught of assault led by Qiao Tianya, moving in the darkness as though he was treading on thin ice.
Qiao Tianya pressed on with his offensive. They were indeed experts at drawn-out encirclement. Was a lone wolf terrifying? They just had to surround him and wear down his patience and calmness into nothingness. He would surely reveal a weak point once they tire him out with their never-ending attacks!
Pressure from the intense flurry of blades gradually made Xiao Chiye breathless. The downpour masked some of the finer details in the surroundings, like the crossbow being pulled out under the cover of darkness.
The more Xiao Chiye fought, the more fierce he was. The blood under his blade flowed endlessly. But all of a sudden, Qiao Tianya waved his hand and led the group of black shadows into a withdrawal, plunging Xiao Chiye once again into a silence without human voices to rattle his soaring fighting spirit.
The rainwater glided across the back of his hands. Xiao Chiye could no longer hear the footsteps. Heavy rain drenched him thoroughly. Under him, Lang Tao Xue Jin anxiously treaded its hooves.
The sound from the crossbow trigger was very soft, yet Xiao Chiye seemed as though he had heard a deafening sound. He suddenly slapped his horse. Lang Tao Xue Jin leaped away, but he rolled off the horse instead. In a flash, there was a succession of “thud, thud, thud” as a row of short arrows stabbed into the muddied water behind him.
Xiao Chiye wiped away the rain on his face, only to hear the sounds of “twang” from all directions. He leaped up at once and darted away.
The irritating footsteps followed him relentlessly!
An arrow suddenly grazed Xiao Chiye’s arm. At the same time a gash of blood materialized, he felt a twinge of numbing itch.
They were really treating him like a violent beast to subdue and capture!
There was a dip in the terrain ahead. Xiao Chiye sprang up with all his might and leaped across the ditch. He had only just landed on his feet when a sudden gust of chilly wind came assaulting him from the side.
Xiao Chiye seized the momentum to roll forward as a blade hacked down on the spot he was just at. Before the killer could extract his blade, there was a tightness in his throat as Xiao Chiye shoved him down into the muddied water and broke his neck.
A jumble of arrows stabbed into the tree trunk beside him. Before Xiao Chiye could get up, he was suddenly kicked in the back. Caught by surprise by the man behind him, he tumbled into the undergrowth. But in this brief period of oversight, he braced himself against the ground to steady himself.
When Xiao Chiye got a clear look at the man before him, he licked away the traces of blood between his teeth and called out to him as though they were lovers, “Oh, Lanzhou.”
Shen Zechuan was also bracing himself on the ground with a hand. A thin blade was sandwiched between his fingers. He stared at Xiao Chiye in the rain and pounced.
Xiao Chiye’s palm was next to the hilt of his blade. But unexpectedly, Shen Zechuan was already right before him. The latter slapped back Langli Blade with one hand and grabbed the front of Xiao Chiye’s clothes with the other hand to fling him over to the ground.
Mud splashed all over. Xiao Chiye hooked his arm around the back of Shen Zechuan’s neck and turned the freed Langli Blade over and sent it slashing towards Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan immediately pressed his body down and came face-to-face with an upside-down Xiao Chiye. The instant their eyes met, he struck the side of Langli Blade aside with a lighting move of his hand. Blood droplets on the edge of the blade hit his face and slid along his chin to mingle with the rain before dripping onto the center of Xiao Chiye’s eyebrows.
The Imperial Bodyguards behind closed in on them. Shen Zechuan wanted to lift his body, but Xiao Chiye slid his palm up to press him down until they could almost hear each other’s breathing.
Panting slightly, Xiao Chiye said, “You want to court death with me that much?”
But Shen Zechuan bowed his head and said, “Even a wolf will not be able to run anymore once struck by an arrow. Your movements have slowed down by so much. You can’t go on anymore, can you?”
Xiao Chiye’s fingers teasingly caressed Shen Zechuan’s nape. His thumb slipped to Shen Zechuan’s Adam’s apple and pressed against it forcefully.
“I can still break a neck like this.”
The thick growth of grass rustled as a human figure bore his way out of it. Without even looking, Shen Zechuan raised his hand to toss out his blade. The other party instantly collapsed to the ground. The killing intent in Shen Zechuan’s eyes did not recede, but he pushed away Xiao Chiye’s touchy-feely hand and dragged him along with him as he slid down the slope.
Qiao Tianya was a little late. By the time he arrived, there were only two corpses. He briefly turned them over for a look and plucked the blade from the throat of the dead man. He narrowed his eyes and said, “This doesn’t seem to belong to Xiao the Second… And how did these killers get in? Xiao the Second is the dog leash to hold Libei in check. He cannot die. Wasn’t that the fucking consensus?”