“I assume everyone understands… the gravity of our current situation…” In the Mansion of ZiChuan Ning, ZiChuan Xiu had gathered Luo Jie, Bai Chuan, Chang Chuan and the rest of his men.
Everyone nodded undoubtedly, showing their understanding of the situation.
“If I vow to be Supreme Commander – Yang Ming Hua’s enemy… Which side would you choose?”
Luo Jie: “We don’t really have anything against Supreme Commander – Yang Ming Hua…”
Bai Chuan: “But considering the fact that he is your enemy, Sir…”
Chang Chuan: “So naturally and without a doubt, we would…”
The three spoke in unison: “Support the Supreme Commander and bring death to ZiChuan Xiu!”
“I have had enough of your shit; it is finally time for payback!”
“That is right, I don’t care if it was Yang Ming Hua; I would gladly go to hell if it means that I can get my revenge on you…”
“We won’t hesitate for a second even if we have to sell our souls to the devil!”
“I understand, but let’s not be hasty… I will give everyone the freedom of choice. I will turn around and count to ten. Those who do not wish to stand by me may exit through the door. I won’t hold it against you. If after I count to ten, and you are still here, then it means you have decided to follow and support me with the absolute conviction… Hey… Luo Jie, What are you running for? I haven’t even started counting yet. C’mon man, at least I deserve that much?”
“Fine, I’m starting to count: One, Three, Five, Six, Eight…”
“Hold on, stop. You are counting too fast… and you are skipping counts. I haven’t even had to chance to run yet! Again!”
“One, Two, Three…”
“Huh, Chang Chuan, I can’t get the door open!”
“Shit, that bastard has barred the doors!”
“We can’t get out… He never intended to let us out in the first place!”
“Bai Chuan, hurry and get the master key!”
“I left it in my room… We are almost out of time. Luo Jie, you are a big fellow, just kick it open!”
“Luo Jie, hurry or it will be too late… He is going to get the better of us again!”
Bang! (Luo Jie smashed against the door)
“Ouch, what are these doors made of?! It didn’t even move!”
ZiChuan Xiu turned around explaining: “They are made of materials used for security vaults… I see that everyone is still here. I’m really glad… They say one can only tell who his friends truly are when the situation is most dire… And given the threat we now face, I can safely say that everyone’s loyalty to me is beyond reproach. I’m touched… I feel I’m about to cry…”
ZiChuan Xiu wiped his nose.
“Sir.” The secretary knocked on the door into Commander Lei Xun’s office: “Deputy Commander Di Lin has requested to see you.”
“Ok, I understand.” Lei Xun wasn’t too happy hearing the name. Di Lin was but a callow brat, yet he had somehow gained Yang Ming Hua’s favor. Just because he won a few battles against the Demons, he now thinks he is better than everyone else. Rising to the position of Deputy Commander at the age of barely over twenty, who knows, perhaps he would surpass even him…
Lei Xun glanced at the time; it was already seven PM. Another hour from now, the curfew would be in effect, and the attack on the House of Headmaster would commence… Coming here at this hour, what could Di Lin want?
“Let him in.”
Di Lin walked in to the office, and gave Lei Xun a polite salute. The lack of his usual arrogance made the whole thing more tolerable for Lei Xun.
“Di Lin, do you know what time it is? Shouldn’t you be doing what you’re supposed to do?! Why are you here?” (Lei Xun meant that Di Lin was supposed to go kill Ge Ying Xing.)
“Well, Sir. Let me explain. During my campaign in the Far East against the Demon Horde I have managed to acquire certain assets, and I want to give them to you as a tribute, to show my appreciation.”
Lei Xun’s stressed cheeks were instantly relaxed and his voice became gentler as well: “Oh, you’re being too kind, Commander Di Lin. You didn’t have to.” (Everyone knows you have stripped the Demons bare of their riches in the Far East, leaving no stone unturned in the process. So of course you are bloody rich!)
“But I’m a commissioned officer, it’s not proper for me to accept such a gift!” (You better not waste my time by bringing me some worthless magic stones or gems… I won’t take your leftovers!)
Di Lin cajoled Lei Xun with all the flatteries he could muster: “Sir, I have always admired your infinite candor! But these meager gifts were originally meant for you anyways, so please grace me with the honor and accept this tribute!” He whispered to Lei Xun’s ears: “This is not something you see every day. It’s something I took from the Demon Nobles during the Siege of Ga… something. I assure you it is worth a fortune!” Di Lin’s lips curved into a flattering smile.
(He sure knows his way around the politics!) “Well, Commander Di Lin, you are being very persistent… You should know that I never ever accept any gifts (Because they were too cheap) …Very well, I will make you an exception, just this once. So what is so special about this one? And again, there won’t be a next time!”
Di Lin gave a mysterious smile: “Of course, Sir. Would you allow my servants to carry it in here? They are waiting outside.”
Lei Xun quickly gave the order to the Guards to let them inside.
Two soldiers with their hats pulled down moved in with an iron box the size of half a man, Lei Xun pondered: “So big, what could it be? Diamonds? Gold? Rare magical Items…? Looking at the amount of effort they are putting into moving that thing; it has to be heavy…”
The box was lifted onto Lei Xun’s desk; Di Lin’s quietly closed the office doors behind him, then slowly unlocked the locks on the iron box. He smiled: “There is only one way to find out, Sir.”
Lei Xun eagerly opened the box but was left stunned… The box was completely empty.
He looked at Di Lin in an alarming fashion: “You…”
The shocking turn of event.
The soldier standing on his left suddenly reached for his sabre, and there came an attack aimed for his neck… an attack without any finesse or sophistication, the only exception of it being fast! Faster than sound, faster than lightning, faster than anything he had ever seen! But the truly frightening part of it all was that it came without warning. Without any sudden movement and in the blink of an eye, the razor-sharp blade was already at his neck, as though it had materialized in thin air!
Lei Xun was a capable fighter, but against a deadly move like that, his reflex was all he could rely on… Shifting his body to his right, he instinctively raised his left hand in an attempt to block the incoming attack.
Slash, his left arm was severed at his wrist, slowing the blade slightly, but it still cut deep into the artery below his neck.
Almost at the same time, the soldier on his right struck Lei Xun lightly above his right shoulder… so gently that he almost couldn’t tell he was struck, until the paralyzing sensation began to spread from the point of impact, and in an instant, it extended to the rest of his body. Nearly all of his blood vessels, nerves endings and even his breath were numbed, frozen. The little bit of Qi[] he managed to gather in a desperate attempt to retaliate was sealed shut as well… how could someone’s martial art be this overbearing? In the moment between life and death, Lei Xun could only think of one name… if it really was Stirling, then his death was almost a certainty, but at the very least, he could alarm those guarding outside… Lei Xun channelled every last bit of his remaining strength, and cried out…
But all he felt was the coldness of steel stuck between his throat, unable to utter a sound… Di Lin’s lightning strike had pierced his vocal cord and cut off his air.
The last image Lei Xun saw before the fuzziness took over was Di Lin standing before him with a blood soaked blade in his hand, grinning and gloating. In that moment he realized something: the whole thing was oddly familiar, as if he had seen it happen once before…
The number one fighter of House ZiChuan, the mighty Commander of the Central Army – Lei Xun, gaped with his eyes wide open, and died where he stood… As to whether he realized the reason of his death would forever remain a mystery to all…
The entire assassination took place in under a second… Only after the fact did his left wrist, which was cut off by ZiChuan Xiu, hit the ground. Bam.
ZiChuan Xiu retracted his sabre and Stirling took a step back. They were both veterans of war; they had killed before… But killing in such underhanded fashion and by outnumbering their opponent, left them slightly… Anyways, they didn’t feel too comfortable looking into Lei Xun’s pair of wide eyes!
Di Lin on the other hand, looked as if nothing unusual had happened. Wiping the blood of his sword against the deadman’s coat, he jested: “And he calls himself the number one; it was no different than slaughtering a lamb… Just look at him, I can tell he didn’t die a happy man!”
Stirling whispered: “Justice! Deputy Commander De Lei and Banner Master De Ke will finally rest in peace.”
“Hey, Stirling, can you not curse me like that… You know I killed De Ke, and saying he is going to rest in peace, are you suggesting…”
Stirling gave him a harsh look but kept his silence: the death of the boy would forever remain a thorn in his heart…
ZiChuan Xiu listened against the office door for any movements. He then turned to the others: “They haven’t noticed us yet.”
Everyone was relieved at the sound of that. They were in the Central Army Headquarters, and they had many capable fighters amongst them. If Lei Xun had made any sounds at all, or even the smallest hint of struggle was heard outside, no matter how skilled they were, they wouldn’t have been able escape with their lives.
The rest was easy: First, they dumped Lei Xun’s body in the iron box, then they cleaned up the blood – this part was the easiest, thanks to Stirling’s Freezing Breath[], Lei Xun’s blood was frozen solid before he could bleed out. Next they pried open the hidden drawer in Lei Xun’s desk to find the central army commander’s seal… There were a large sum of cash and jewelleries hidden inside the drawer as well, and naturally, a certain someone wouldn’t mind liberating them for the greater good, but Stirling stopped him: “Don’t! We didn’t kill Lei Xun out of vengeance… what you are doing is an insult to our cause!”
ZiChuan Xiu respectfully replied: “Of course.” And returned everything back to where he found them… while pocketing half of the spoils in secret.
And so the trio walked out of the office, head held high and an iron box in their hands. Not even once were they stopped for questioning… The way Di Lin arrogantly walked in front of the pack; no one was stupid enough to get in their way.
The moment they left the Central Army Headquarters, the trio felt like a weight was lifted from their shoulders. Only then did they realize the sweat had already soaked through their thick uniforms.
The streets were eerily quiet, with barely any pedestrians walking about. Clearly the time of curfew was drawing near.
“We will have to act separately from now on!”
Stirling felt uneasy as he studied ZiChuan Xiu: “Your task will be the most dangerous of all. How about you take over the command of the Imperial Guards, and let me…”
Di Lin nodded in agreement: “I also think Xiu is taking too much of a risk… Let me instead. I’m Yang Ming Hua’s close confidant, they won’t suspect me…”
“No need!” ZiChuan Xiu turned to Stirling: “Second Brother, you are the heart of the Imperial Guards. Yang Ming Hua will attack the House of Headmaster tonight… They need you there!”
“And you Big Brother, the fifty thousand soldiers of the Far Eastern Army will only answer to you… You cannot be replaced.”
“Therefore, I’m the only one capable of accomplishing this task.”
“Big Brother, remember: the red lamps are our signal! The moment you see three red lamps being lit atop of the city gate, ride through the gate and bring them hell!”
The trio joined their hands: “See you tomorrow!” A rather common phrase to say goodbye, but every one of them here had a dangerous mission filled with uncertainties ahead of them. Will the three brothers really be able to watch the next sunrise together?
Stirling couldn’t bear it any longer: “Xiu, do you have anything you want me to say to Lady Ning? She has always… you know…”
ZiChuan Xiu gave it a thought: “Yes, I do…”
“Tell her to stop wearing those miniskirts. She is too skinny; they don’t look sexy on her at all. Also, tell her to make me some of that egg porridge tomorrow morning when I get back… and this time, more eggs, not just some rice and water. I’m a big boy you know… Hey, Brothers, where are you going? I wasn’t finished! Tell her to give me back the porn mags she took from me, or I will get really upset this time! I’m serious…”
[] Qi is a didactic concept in many Chinese martial arts, featuring both internal and external abilities. [] Freezing Breath, is a direct reference to the signature movie of a prominent character in one of Jing Yong’s book “The Smiling, Proud Wanderer”.