Chapter 17: The cold aura of a sword
The second month, the twenty-sixth.
Gao Jianfei waited.
Zheng Cheng told him, “Mr. Zhuo can’t see you at the moment, but he said that you can wait here.”
Little Gao laughed, his smile gentle and calm. “I can wait. I guarantee you, you’ve never seen someone who can wait like me.”
“I’m more patient than anyone, maybe even more patient than an eighty-year-old man. I used to live in the deep mountains, and once, I waited to see a camellia bloom. Can you guess how long I waited?”
“No less than three days.”
“Then you picked the flower and pinned it onto your coat?”
“No,” said Little Gao. “Once it bloomed, I just left.”
“You waited three days just to watch the few seconds of a flower blooming?” Zheng Cheng was also a patient person, so he understood Little Gao’s deeper meaning. “No matter what you are waiting for, you have a reason for waiting. Even though you didn’t pick the flower, you still achieved your purpose. And it wasn’t simply to watch the camellia bloom.”
“What other purpose would I have?”
“A flower is also a life, and the instant that it bloomed, it was the birth of a life. When a life is born into the world, it is profound and miraculous. Nothing in the world can compare to it.”
He stared at Little Gao “I think that the three days you spent were not wasted. After your observation concluded, your sword technique would have improved significantly.”
Little Gao looked at him, surprised. This ordinary, square-jawed young man was much more intelligent than he appeared.
“It’s even more important to have a purpose when waiting for people. You surely won’t wait for Mr. Zhuo to arrive and then just leave.” Zheng Cheng calmly asked, “What is your purpose this time?” He didn’t let Little Gao respond. “There’s no need to answer the question. I don’t want to know.”
“You asked me. Why don’t you want an answer? Why don’t you want to know?”
“Because the less one knows, the better.”
“If you didn’t want to know, then why did you ask?”
“I just wanted to give you a reminder: if I say something like this, then Mr. Zhuo is also thinking it. And when he asks you the question, you’d better have a good response, a reason that will satisfy him. Otherwise, it would be better not to wait for him.” He was very solemn and sincere. “There are not many people alive who have left Mr. Zhuo unsatisfied.”
When he finished speaking, he began to leave. He didn’t want to see Little Gao’s reaction to his statement.
But when he reached the door, he looked back. “There’s something else I forgot to tell you.”
“Mr. Zhuo instructed me to give you anything you want, regardless of what it is.”
“He really said that?”
Little Gao laughed. His laugh was extremely joyful. “That’s wonderful. Extremely wonderful.”
When Zhuo Donglai called Zheng Cheng in, it was already almost noon.
Zheng Cheng couldn’t see anything different about him. It was as if all the tragic and fearsome things that had happened yesterday had nothing to do with him. What had Zhuo Qing done to exact revenge? He didn’t mention or ask about it at all.
He just asked Zheng Cheng, “Is Gao Jianfei still waiting?”
“Yes. He’s still waiting,” said Zheng Cheng. “But his request was impossible to completely fulfil.”
“What was his request?”
“He wanted me to in two hours time arrange for twenty tables of the finest food and drink, all prepared by cooks from Chang’an Restaurant and Brilliant Lake Spring restaurant. He also wanted me to in two hours time find all the finest professional working girls in Chang’an to drink with him.”
“How many did you get?”
“I found 72, at least half of which were already in bed with a man and had to be pulled out.”
Zhuo Donglai laughed. “At that hour, any girl who isn’t it bed with a man surely isn’t a professional. You did well. It must have been quite a lively morning here.”
“Extremely lively. All the Agency brothers who can drink ended up joining him. He wanted everyone to celebrate with him.”
“Celebrate? Celebrate what?” asked Zhuo Donglai. “What is it about today that he thinks is worth celebrating?”
“He didn’t say. But I’ve always said, many people act like this when they think they will die soon.”
Zhuo Donglai thought for a moment, and his pupils suddenly began to constrict. After a very long time he said, “Unfortunately, I happen to know that for the moment, there is no way that he will die.”
The wine had been drunk, the guests departed. In the courtyard and the hall were a few broken hairpins and discarded necklaces, some belts and gauze stockings along with broken snuff bottles and rouge boxes as well as some other unidentifiable objects. It seemed as if they had all been especially placed so that the host would know that everyone was thoroughly drunk.
And the host?
If the host wasn’t drunk, how could the guests truly enjoy themselves?
Little Gao looked like he was dead, laying face down on a long table. But when Zhuo Donglai arrived, the dead person awoke, and let out a long sigh.
“Why do you always wait until everyone is gone before you show up? Do you really hate seeing people enjoy themselves?”
Zhuo Donglai looked at him coldly. “I definitely don’t like it. There’s nothing amusing at all about waking up and seeing drunk people.”
He stared at Little Gao. “Thankfully, you’re not drunk. The others are drunk, but not you.”
Little Gao’s eyes held not the slightest fraction of intoxication.
“I can see you are quite sober,” said Zhuo Donglai. “More sober than a rabbit in spring.”
Little Gao laughed, a hearty laugh. “You’re not mistaken. Not mistaken at all.” Laughing, he said, “Your eyes are sharper than the eyes of a fox in autumn.”
“You get others drunk. Why aren’t you drunk?”
“Because I knew the fox would be coming sooner or later. When a fox is coming, the rabbit needs to stay sober.”
“If a fox arrives, it won’t help the rabbit to be sober.”
“If a rabbit knows a fox is coming, the best thing to do is run away as fast as possible.” Zhuo Donglai laughed. “Unless, of course, the rabbit isn’t afraid of the fox!”
“How could a rabbit not be afraid of a fox?”
“Because behind the rabbit is a spear, a spear pointed at the fox’s heart. The spear could pierce the fox’s heart at any time.”
“Spear?” Little Gao blinked. “Where is a spear?”
Zhuo Donglai laughed. “Obviously it comes from within a solitary box. A solitary box, once lost, but then found again.”
Little Gao laughed. He did not blink again, and in fact a look of heartfelt admiration filled his eyes.
“You found out?” he asked Zhuo Donglai. “How did you find out?”
“What do you think I found out? I just know that there is a type of person in the world, who, when they lose to someone, will find a way to repay the debt tenfold. I know that Xiao Leixue just so happens to be that type of person, and he just so happens to have found you already.” He laughed. “I know this little bit.”
Little Gao looked at him for a long time, and then sighed. “That’s not just a little bit, that’s a lot. No wonder Xiao Leixue told me that doing business with Mr. Zhuo is not fun. Often there are things you don’t need to say, because he knows already.”
Zhuo Donglai’s smile was beginning to seem forced. “Unfortunately, I don’t know how much I actually know.”
“Do you know that I was sent here by Xiao Leixue?” Little Gao answered the question himself. “Of course you know. And you most certainly know that what he sent me here to discuss isn’t something good.”
“There are many types of bad things. What type did he send you here to discuss?”
“The worst type, basically.” Little Gao sighed again. “If it weren’t for the fact that I owe him a favor, I wouldn’t have been willing to come talk with you about it at all.”
“Wrong!” Zhuo Donglai smiled again. “In this point, you are wrong.”
“In some aspects, the best types of things turn out to be the worst. And in some ways, the worst types of things turn out to be the best. In the world of men, many situations are like this.” He continued to explain, “If Mr. Xiao had decided not to send someone to talk with me, but instead decided to come in the middle of the night when no one is around, and bring along his box… Well, that would be the worst type of thing.”
“So no matter what it is he sent me here to talk with you about, you won’t be too upset?”
“Well, that’s excellent.”
And yet, Little Gao’s expression became very solemn. Imitating Zhuo Donglai’s own tone, he said, one word at a time, “He wants me to take over Sima Chaoqun’s position. To bear the standard of the Great Protection Agency, and to be its ultimate leader.”
Anyone would expect Zhuo Donglai to leap up upon hearing this.
But he didn’t even blink. He just coolly asked Little Gao: “That’s what Xiao Leixue wants?”
“Yes.” And then Little Gao asked, “What do you think?”
Zhuo Donglai didn’t even take a moment to consider. He simply responded with two words. “Very good.”
“Very good?” Little Gao was shocked. “What do you mean by ‘very good?’”
Zhuo Donglai smiled, and then bowed toward Little Gao.
“Very good means that your excellency has already become the head of the Great Protection Agency. You hold the number one seat.”
Little Gao was flabbergasted.
Zhuo Donglai’s attitude was already becoming more respectful.
“From today on, the brave leaders of the thirty-six routes are under your command. If anyone does not comply, Zhuo Donglai’s blade will be the first to chop them down.”
He stared at Little Gao with his dark, grey eyes. “But from today on, you are part of the Great Protection Agency. The Agency follows the course set by the leader. You must be utterly loyal and spare no efforts in your service. The troubles of the Great Protection Agency are your troubles, its enemies are your enemies.”
Little Gao finally let out a sigh. “I understand what you mean.” He laughed bitterly. “At first I didn’t understand why you would agree so quickly. But now I get it.”
“It was always this way. Just like the two edges of a treasured sword.” Zhuo Donglai’s voice was solemn and calm. “If you wish to gain something, you must pay a price.” His voice suddenly became hoarse. “I think you know what price Sima Chaoqun paid in the past.”
“And you?” asked Little Gao. “What did you pay?”
Zhuo Donglai laughed. “What did I pay? What did I gain?” Pain filled his laughter. “I’m afraid I can’t answer that question, because even I don’t know.”
He was not lying, and his words really were filled with emotion. So much so that even Little Gao had begun to feel sorry for him.
Thankfully, Zhuo Donglai quickly regained his rock-like calm. And then he raised a question sharper than a blade.
“I’m willing to let you lead the Great Protection Agency. And I’m willing to swear my loyalty and my service to you. I believe that we understand each other, and can benefit from this kind of arrangement. But, what about others?”
“The Great Protection agency is comprised of forces on thirty-six routes. To get them to sincerely support your leadership will not be easy. What are you willing to do?”
“What do you think I should do?”
“First you must gain prestige, and then you can have trust. When you have trust, you can command the heroes and make people obey you. For you to assume this position, you of course must first gain prestige.”
“Gain prestige? How do I gain prestige?”
“Sima and I have gone our separate ways. He’s already disappeared in a rage.”
“If you know, then I’m quite certain many others know. Before his death, Zhuo Qing would not have forgotten to dispatch people to carry the news.”
“As long as it didn't interfere with his revenge, and he had the means, I’m sure he wouldn’t forget. I think he could do a lot of things.”
“When you heard that Xiao Leixue sent me to take over leadership of the Great Protection Agency, you had no inclination to oppose. Because you need my help.”
Zhuo Donglai didn’t deny this point. “Right now, our circumstances are not stable. Mr. Xiao presumably understands the situation well, and so he sent you here.” He continued, “Mr. Xiao and I understand each other, and I would never have considered refusing.” He looked at Gao Jianfei and said, one word at a time, “To gain prestige in these circumstances, you must use the most effective and direct method.”
Little Gao looked at him. After a long time, he asked, one word at a time, “Are you saying I must kill Zhu Meng?”
“This is your requirement?”
“It’s not a requirement, it’s an inevitability,” he said coldly. “Faced with this kind of inevitability, we really have no other choice.”
Gao Jianfei suddenly stood up and walked to the window.
Outside, the snow had not yet melted. The weather was clear and sunny, but everything was still covered in white. The sky had become an azure blue. Far in the distance, a white cloud floated past. It came to a stop, and then flew again.
A long time passed. Zhuo Donglai sighed. “I understand. You and Zhu Meng are men of Jianghu. You take promises very seriously, and you don’t care about death. You know that living and dying can be determined by the snap of a finger.” His words were sincere. “You met by chance, but instantly got along. You will be together until death.”
He sighed, a sigh truly filled with emotion. “In the eyes of those ‘gentlemen’ who don’t truly understand friendship, perhaps you don’t count as friends. But I understand.”
He continued: “So I also understand that to ask you to kill Zhu Meng is truly grievous. Not just for you, or for him, but for everyone.”
Little Gao was speechless.
“So I hope that you understand something,” said Zhuo Donglai. “If you don’t kill Zhu Meng, someone else will. If he doesn’t die by your hand, he will die by someone else’s.”
“When the Qin State lost the support of the people, everyone under heaven vied for power. Sima Chaoqun lost his position in exactly the same circumstances. And therefore, Zhu Meng’s head has already become the target of any hero among the 36 routes of the Great Protection Agency who wishes to seize power.”
He continued to explain: “Zhu Meng is the hero of a lifetime, and he is the archenemy of the Great Protection Agency. Anyone in the Agency who can take his head will gain enough prestige to assume Sima’s place. At the least, there are three people who have a chance.”
“And you fear them!”
“What I fear is not them.”
“Then why don’t you seize the position?”
“Because of you,” said Zhuo Donglai. “I don’t fear you, but when you add Xiao Leixue into the mix, it is an unstoppable force.”
Yet again, he spoke the truth.
“The reason I didn’t kill Zhu Meng before was because I wished to leave him for Sima. And the reason I don’t kill him now is because I wish to leave him for you. It would be better for him to die by your hand than another’s. In any case, he is a dead man.”
Little Gao suddenly turned around and stared at him. His eyes were bloodshot, his face colorless.
“The three people you mentioned. Have they already arrived in Chang’an?”
“Who are they?”
“A ruthless sword, a deadly spear, and a hidden weapon coated in barkcloth tree poison. Each one is qualified to be listed among the 70 most fearsome weapons under heaven.”
“I asked you who they are, not what weapons they use.”
“They are all killers, and they all have informants in Chang’an. They should be able to locate Zhu Meng within three or four hours. That is all you need to know.”
“Why don’t you tell me their names?”
“Because if you heard their names, it would most likely affect your will to fight.”
“Can we find Zhu Meng before they do?”
“You can’t, but I can.”
“Where is he?”
“In my grasp,” said Zhuo Donglai casually. “He’s always been in my grasp.”
Evening clouds covered the sky. Mountains and hills stood in the boundless twilight, as did Zhu Meng. He stood before a pile of yellow earth.
It was a freshly heaped pile of yellow earth. No spring grass grew on the grave, and no stone tablet had been erected. Perhaps the person inside the grave had already transformed into a butterfly and flown away.
Perhaps what was buried in the tomb was actually the lost years of a hero, or the tenderness of youth.
But Zhu Meng was still there. And Sima was still there.
And so the tangled web of resentment and hatred was still there. No one could untangle this knot.
Dusk grew deeper.
Zhu Meng stood there mutely. A long time had passed. Those who remained from among his brothers also stood there looking at him mutely. Who knew what he was thinking in his heart? Who knew what they were thinking?
What they did know in their hearts was that if life was like a play, and if his life was a play, then the time had undoubtedly come for the curtain to fall.
Regardless of how tragic and moving the play was, it was time for the curtain to fall.
Die Wu had taken the first step, and they must complete the path.
No matter how arduous, it must be completed, and they only wished to be able to sprinkle their path home with the blood of the enemy.
Zhu Meng finally turned around and faced his brothers, who had been with him through thick and thin. He looked at each one of them with his large, bloodshot eyes. He stared at each face slowly, looking at them as if it might be his last chance to do so.
And then, his voice hoarse, said, “In life, there is no banquet which lasts forever. Even children and parents will eventually part. Right now, we have reached the time to part.”
The faces of his brothers twisted, but Zhu Meng pretended not to see.
“So now, I want you all to leave. The best would be to take different roads, no more than two of you per road. I want you to stay alive. If even one of you lives, then the Lion Clan has hope.”
No one left. No one moved.
Zhu Meng jumped forward, shouting hoarsely:
“F*ck your ancestors! Didn’t you hear what I said? Do you want every last person in the Lion Clan to be wiped out and exterminated?”
Still, no one moved. No one said anything.
Zhu Meng forcefully ripped the belt off his waist, a leather strap as wide as a hand. He charged toward them.
“If you don’t want to leave, if you want to die, then fine, I’ll beat you to death right here so that I don’t get pissed off!”
The belt descended, leaving a strip of purple, a strip of blood.
But these men, who disregarded life and death, pain and suffering, only closed their mouths, gritted their teeth, and remained motionless.
Sima Chaoqun stood at a distance, watching. It seemed as if he had no feelings whatsoever regarding what was happening.
And yet, fresh blood oozed from the corner of his mouth.
He was grinding his teeth too hard, and had bitten himself.
The wind blew. It was unclear when the wind had sprung up, but it gusted against their bodies, cold, cutting like small knives.
Zhu Meng finally dropped to the ground.
“Fine. If you wish to stay behind to die with me, then I’ll let you stay. But,” he said harshly, “you must not forget, whether it is me or Sima Chaoqun who prevails in this battle, it has nothing to do with you. You must not make a move against him.”
Sima Chaoqun suddenly gave a cold laugh. “It’s useless. No matter what technique you use to try to stir my emotions, they will all be useless.”
“What?” asked Zhu Meng hoarsely. “What are you saying?”
“I just want you to understand that even though my family is gone, it doesn’t mean that I will intentionally help you achieve your goals. I won’t let you kill me and use my head to revive your prestige, to revive the Lion Clan.” Sima Chaoqun’s voice was completely hoarse. “If you want to take this head from this neck, you’ll need to use real kung fu to do it.”
“Your mother’s dog farts!” raged Zhu Meng. “Who said anything about asking you to let me off? I still view you as a person, who would have thought that you fart like a dog?”
“Well said. Well cursed.” Sima looked up to the heavens and laughed. “If you have the guts, then come on over!”
Zhu Meng was just about to charge forward, but then he suddenly stopped. The thunderbolt-like fury suddenly subsided into calm. He looked at Sima Chaoqun with a very strange expression on his face, as if he had just seen him for the first time.
“You don’t dare to approach me?” taunted Sima. “Could it be you only have the guts to attack your brothers? Could it be that ‘Fierce Lion” Zhu Meng is nothing more than a coward?”
Zhu Meng suddenly laughed, a wild laugh.
“Well said. Well cursed. Cursed really freaking well.” He laughed like a shrieking ape. “Sadly, it’s really useless.”
“What?” Sima Chaoqun was still laughing coldly. “What are you farting about?”
This time, Zhu Meng was not angry. In fact, he let out a long sigh. “Sima Chaoqun, you are a true man. In my whole life of roaming, I’ve never admired anyone. Yet now, I have to give you a little admiration. But if you think that Zhu Meng is just a boorish man who doesn’t know right from wrong, then you’re mistaken. I understand what you’re thinking.”
“What do you understand?”
“You don’t need to try to provoke me into killing you. And you don’t need to use these methods to try to piss me off. I’m defeated. I’ve lost my soul like an idiot, because of a woman; I am more heart-broken than if my own mother died.” He suddenly slapped his chest. “But as long as I have breath left in my body, I’ll fight to the bitter end. You don’t need to provoke me, I will definitely keep going all the way to the finish.”
“Zhu Meng’s head isn’t here for just anyone to take. Not even to help you achieve your aims. And I don’t need your help to achieve my aims.” His large eyes stared at Sima Chaoqun. “Our battle today is not about life and death, victory and defeat. I don’t care about that. However, it seems like you are trying to help me.” His voice became more harsh. “If you try to do that, then you are not a person raised by loving parents, but a person raised by dogs. If you hold back even one move or stance, then I will die here and come back as an evil spirit to haunt you.”
Sima Chaoqun looked at him, at his large bloodshot eyes, at his frame, which, although gaunt, still carried the spirit of a fierce lion. After a long time, he said, “Very well. I promise you. No matter what, in today’s battle I will use all my power and fight to the death.”
Zhu Meng looked at him, this man who had once been the most outstanding figure in the world, the greatest hero under heaven, and yet who had fallen deep into the muck. He let out a sigh. “You and I are doomed to be enemies. I only wish that in my next left, we can be friends. Regardless of who wins or loses today, who lives or dies, this is my wish.”
The wind grew colder.
The distant mountains were cold, the dark grave was cold. The men stood in the cold wind, but their hearts were filled with hot blood.
This hot blood would never grow cold.
It is because the world has people like this whose blood will never grow cold that we should never have fear in our hearts, because as long as people like this exist, then righteousness will also exist.
This point must be emphasized, because this is the essence of spirit.
Dusk grew deeper.
Standing there in the twilight, Sima Chaoqun and Zhu Meng had become two indistinct shadows.
But in the eyes of the men, their blood boiling, these two shadows were more brilliant, greater and stronger than anyone else in the world.
This was because theirs was not a struggle of life and death, of honor and glory, of victory and defeat.
They gave no regard for the life and death, the glory and honor that others in the world could never abandon. They were simply doing something that they believed must be done.
It was because of their principles of conduct.
Heads can be lopped off, blood can be spilled, riches and honor and glory can be discarded like old shoes. But principles can never be discarded.
—Isn’t it true that some people will say they are too foolish to act in this way?
—What kind of person would say such a thing?
Zhu Meng stood respectfully, facing off against Sima Chaoqun. Life and death would be determined in the blink of an eye.
Strangely, the spirit that had dissipated the rage between the two of them was not revenge, but uprightness.
Zhu Meng suddenly asked, “For nearly ten years, you have never been defeated, have never met your match. The weapon you use to deal with your enemies is a Thousand Hammers Great Iron Sword, correct?”
“Then where is your sword?”
“My sword isn’t here, but I am,” said Sima Chaoqun. “You’re here to battle me, not my sword. As long as I’m here, it’s good enough.”
“You came to a struggle of life and death, victory and defeat. Why wouldn’t you bring your sword?”
“Because my bare hands are enough to slay a lion.”
Zhu Meng slowly wrapped his belt back around his waist, leaving him with two empty hands.
“I’ve roamed Jianghu my whole life,” he said. “I love to exact vengeance. Who knows how many faithless, immoral, dishonest, impudent villains I’ve assassinated with my blade? When I kill people, I usually use a Great Sweeper Blade.”
“Where is it?”
“Here,” said Zhu Meng. “My blade is here.”
He stretched out his hands, and someone brought forth his Great Sweeper Blade, a weapon which could retrieve the head of an enemy from within an army of tens of thousands.
“It’s a good blade,” said Sima Chaoqun. “A killing blade.”
“It is a good killing blade,” said Zhu Meng, caressing the sharp edge. “But this blade has always killed villains, not heroes.”
The blade was in his hands.
His left hand gripped the hilt, his right hand began to twist the edge. A clashing sound rang out. The blade was still in his hand, but now it was now in two pieces.
The broken blade became a flying rainbow. It flew off into the deep, dark, dusk. It flew until it was nowhere to be seen.
Zhu Meng’s voice grew hoarse, so much so that it seemed he could barely talk. But his bravery had not gone anywhere. “If Sima Chaoqun can use his bare hands to slay a lion, can’t Zhu Meng give it a try as well?”
His hands clenched into fists, fists of iron. Sima Chaqun’s fists of iron were as sharp as blades.
“You’ve traveled far, and you are the guest,” said Sima. “I won’t force you, but you should really be the first to make a move.”
When he heard Zhu Meng say “great,” Man Niu knew that he himself would soon be finished.
“Man Niu” was a person, a true man.
But sometimes he acted more like an ox. He had the temper of an ox, and the stubborness of an ox. Wilder than a wild ox, and fiercer, he was also strongly built, just like an iron ox.
But sadly, this iron ox’s heart seemed to be made from porcelain. The slightest touch could shatter it.
So he sat as far away as possible.
The others stood, but he sat, because he feared that he couldn’t handle it.
There were many things he couldn’t handle.
What he could least endure were those petty villains who sold out their friends. When he met people like that, he would readily put his life on the line to deal with them.
He also couldn’t handle the kind of friends who burst with personal loyalty, because when he met people like that, he would readily give his life over to them. Give his life without any requirement, and without regret.
So when he heard Zhu Meng say “great,” when he saw Zhu Meng begin to attack with his fists, he knew that he himself would soon be finished. It was similar to when Cleats had seen Zhu Meng standing next to Little Gao. Other than death, there was no second path to take.
He only wished that before he died he could see Zhu Meng and Sima Chaoqun battle. And he wished that before he died, he could follow Zhu Meng to the Great Protection Agency and battle Zhuo Donglai.
If he could accomplish these things, then it could be said that God had not treated him poorly, and he could die without complaint.
Only death could provide release from the suffering of the ages. He had already prepared to die, so his requirements were not excessive.
And yet God did not agree.
He watched Zhe Meng seemingly revert to his former awe-inspiring self, brandishing his iron fists, attacking. And then suddenly from behind him flew out a black noose. It encircled his throat.
Man Niu wanted to cry out, but it was too late.
The noose tightened, crushing into his Adam’s apple. He felt all the power in his body dissipate. His muscles grew slack. Excrement oozed out.
Zhu Meng and Sima were locked in fierce combat, and the attention of everyone else was fixed on them. No one noticed that he was dead. No one even cast a glance at him.
And so this iron ox of a man quietly left the world.
His death was even more tragic than that of Cleats.
When masters battle, usually it is a matter of one move. Life and death, victory and defeat are usually determined in brief moment.
Sima and Zhu Meng’s battle was different.
Theirs was a bitter battle.
They were both exhausted. Not only were their hearts exhausted, but their bodies were worn out.
Their hands no longer had the strength to use stances that could slay an enemy in the twinkling of an eye.
Occasionally Sima’s fist seemed clearly capable of overcoming Zhu Meng, but after attacking, his power and position were half what they should be.
Zhu Meng’s situation was the same.
These two heroes of the age, who could rebuke all of Jianghu, now seemed like two wild beasts locked in a life-or-death struggle. A truly a grievous sight.
What was strange, though, was that Zhu Meng’s brothers seemed to have no reaction whatsoever.
When Zhu Meng was knocked down, struggling to regain his footing, they didn’t react at all, as if completely unconcerned.
They had all been attacked by an opponent before. Getting up after being knocked down was nothing special.
But then when Sima fell, his eyes suddenly filled with an unspeakable dread. His body flipped over; he rolled toward Zhu Meng and grabbed his leg.
This was not a stance that a hero and true man would use.
Sima Chaoqun had roamed wildly his whole life, and had never used a stance like this. Zhu Meng never imagined he would.
And so he was knocked down. The two of them rolled on the ground. Zhu Meng’s anger rose. A banging sound rang out as he slammed his fist onto Sima’s back.
Sima held onto him tightly and didn’t let go. Then he spoke quietly into Zhu Meng’s ear, in a very strange voice: “It seems your brothers are all dead. But we must pretend that we don’t know.”
Zhu Meng was shocked, and wanted to ask. “Why?”
But he didn’t utter a word, because Sima covered his mouth, and once gain spoke into his ear, “We must keep fighting, make them think that our battle will end in mutual defeat, that we’re going to kill each other.”
Zhu Meng was no reckless brute.
He was a worldly-wise person, and he realized that the situation had suddenly changed.
His brothers were all there, but their heads lolled loosely on their necks.
He caught scent of a sickening, nauseating odor.
As they were fighting their bitter battle, someone had silently broken the necks of all of his brothers.
Could his brothers, who had fought with him through a hundred battles, really be killed so easily?
Zhu Meng didn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it and wasn’t willing to believe it.
But his body was filled with coldness.
Sima seized the opportunity to flip over and press down on Zhu Meng, then punch his sides and ribs.
But he didn’t hit very hard. And his voice was even softer.
“It doesn’t matter if we are enemies or friends. You must listen to me. Otherwise we will both die filled with regret.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“We go. Together,” said Sima Chaoqun. “When I say go, jump up and leave.”
Someone suddenly laughed.
An eccentric-sounding voice spoke out, “It turns out Little Sima is a little smart. But sadly, Zhu Meng is still useless.” The person laughed sinisterly. “The world contains only Zhu Meng the killer, not Zhu Meng the escaper.”
Sima suddenly leaped up and said, “Go!”
Night. Cold and dark. Even a person with strictly trained eyes would have a hard time seeing the trees and rocks, let alone be able to distinguish roads and directions.
In any case, this place had no roads.
If a person reaches a place with no roads, it generally means that they are at the end of their own road.
Sima Chaoqun panted. Even though it seemed his lungs had already burst, he still tried to control the sound of his breathing.
Every bone and muscle in his body felt as if were sitting on a butcher’s block, being carved with a knife.
Zhu Meng’s situation wasn’t any better. The two of them stood shoulder to shoulder, panting unceasingly. Even though they could not hear the bowstring or the footstep of the hunter, they both felt the hopelessness and bitter sorrow of injured wild animals on the run.
“Do you know who that person was?”
“Yes,” said Sima. “It wasn’t just one person, and they are both capable of dealing with us.”
Zhu Meng laughed coldly. “I never imagined that the matchless Sima Chaoqun would say such discouraging words.”
“It’s not discouraging. It’s the truth.”
Zhu Meng said nothing. A long time passed. Then he spoke. “Yes. It’s the truth,” he said, his voice filled with sadness. “Sima is not the same Sima from the former days, and Zhu Meng isn’t the same Zhu Meng as before. Otherwise, how could we be pursued like wild dogs into the middle of nowhere?”
“I understand what you mean. You would rather die than flee. The world only has Zhu Meng the killer, not Zhu Meng the escaper. But why would you be willing to give your head to despicable, brazen villains? Why would you deliver up your own head to them so that they can take over your reputation and glory, your good wine and happy songs?”
“I also understand what you mean,” Zhu Meng said harshly. “If we have to deliver up our heads to someone, it should be someone worthy. Not Zhuo Donglai.”
Suddenly, the sound of applause could be heard within the darkness.
“Well said. Very well said.”
It was the same eccentric person, with the sinister voice. “Two such wonderful heads. Why deliver them to that bastard? I think it would be much better to deliver them to me.”
His voice was both far and the near, both from the left and then the right. It made it impossible to tell where exactly he was.
Zhu Meng’s body grew stiff.
This person was not Zhuo Donglai, and was more fearsome than Zhuo Donglai. In his entire life, Zhu Meng had never encountered someone with a more frighteningly high level of lightness kung fu. He simply couldn’t believe that there could be someone in the world who had achieved such ability, to be able to flit about at will like a demon.
He quickly regained his calm, as Sima Chaoqun whispered in his ear, “It’s not one person speaking, it’s twins. As long as we remain calm, they won’t act rashly. We mustn’t allow them to see the truth about our current state.”
At this moment, the two of them were suddenly illuminated. Every wrinkle and scar and expression was illuminated.
At least thirty deftly constructed Kongming lanterns shone brightly in all directions, shining onto their bodies.
In this instant, they stood there straight and erect, their faces expressionless.
Even though they could not see their opponents, they would not allow their opponents to see their fatigue and pain and fear.
They had fought through hundreds of battles. Their bodies had been forged into steel. They would never surrender, and whoever it was that demanded their heads would not find it an easy task.
Though the lanterns shone brightly, the surrounding darkness was as black as ever.
Sima Chaoqun suddenly laughed.
“Gongsun Gongsun, you’ve been well since we last parted?” Smiling, he said, “I know that you two are people who know what is good and bad. If I help you achieve your goals, help you gain power, you will definitely give our headless corpses a decent burial, and come spring and autumn, you will commemorate us and place fresh flowers and fine wine in front of our tombs.”
Laughter rang out from the darkness. “Well said. Very well said.”
This time the laughter rang out from both the right and the left at the same time. And then two people walked out from the darkness into the shining lantern light.
They looked completely different.
One wore a crown of pearls and a jade belt, and carried a long, pearl-encrusted sword. His clothes were as resplendent as a young noble’s.
The other appeared to be a beggar, crippled and leaning on a long wooden crutch.
But if you looked carefully, you would see that their statures and appearance were exactly the same.
Zhu Meng suddenly found himself thinking about two people. Two people who he’d always thought had nothing to do with each other.
—The extravagant chief of the 27 tribes of Northeast China, whose lifestyle rivalled even the pickiest young lord. “Rich Prince” Gongsun Baojian. 
—The endless wanderer, too poor to eat 3 meals per day, frequently drunk in the gutter, rejected even by the Beggar Sect. Gongsun Qi’er. 
No one knew that they were brothers, much less that they were twins.
They were blood brothers. Why would one live a life of luxury and the other live in poverty? Zhu Meng still hadn’t wrapped his mind around it when he suddenly thought of two other people.
He suddenly thought of Sima Chaoqun and Zhuo Donglai.
—Why would Zhuo Donglai mould Sima Chaoqun into the world’s heroic idol?
The truth of the matter was complex and simple. Simple, and yet complex. Zhu Meng had a hard time figuring it out, let alone others.
And yet at long lost, Zhu Meng did figure it out.
If Sima Chaoqun hadn’t known that these two were twins, he would have believed that Gongsun Baojian was an unparalleled lightness kung fu master. When he heard his demonic voice, he would have been awestruck, just as Zhu Meng had been moments ago.
And now Zhu Meng understood. It was all a smokescreen.
They were like fireworks in the palace courtyard when curfew has been lifted on the night of Lantern Festival. They seem to be brilliant and amazing, full of constant changes, but they are really like the mythical Seven Treasures Pagoda or a traditional folk performance of the Fish Dragon and the Stretch Monster.
They are fake, empty. In the twinkling of an eye they are revealed to be false and empty, empty and false.
But they truly had mastered the ability to control the brilliance for a moment.
Some people might think that to have that sort of control, is to control eternity.
But if life is like an inn, then in the unhurried unchangeableness of heaven and earth, what real difference is there between “a moment” and “eternity?”
Among them was one who was willing to sacrifice, and to do so with no regret.
But the only question was—who was the one willing to sacrifice? And which one was truly content?
Zhu Meng could not figure out the answer to this question, and in the current situation, he didn’t have time to continue thinking about it.
He heard Sima Chaoqun speak to the brothers.
“Actually, I knew you two would arrive.” He was still smiling. “Several years ago, you had already cultivated the desire to expel me from the Great Protection Agency. You just didn’t have the confidence to do it. And you two will never attempt something if you lack confidence. Therefore, you had to wait until today.” He suddenly sighed. “I just never thought you would arrive so quickly.”
“You should have,” said Gongsun Baojian. “We have been waiting a very long time for an opportunity like today’s.”
“But how could you know that the opportunity had arisen?”
“Of course I would know.”
“When did you find out? I know that you have no truly fine horses in your stables. Even traveling a thousand miles in a day, the fastest you could arrive would be in four or five days. Don’t tell me that five days ago you predicted yesterday’s events, that Zhuo Donglai and I would become enemies and oppose each other?”
“You never thought that I would have spies placed in the Great Protection Agency?”
“Of course I did. But that would be useless.”
“Because five days ago, even I myself never imagined there would be a day like today. How could others know?”
“What about Zhuo Donglai?”
“He didn’t imagine it either.” Sima’s voice held pain. “Until I actually drew my blade, he never imagined that I would.”
“And even if he did imagine that it would happen, he wouldn’t tell you.”
“The friendship between us lasted for over decades. Even though it was destroyed in an instant, there is still no one in the world who understands him better than me. Even if he wanted to betray me, he wouldn’t betray me to you.”
“Because you’re not worthy,” he said indifferently. “In Zhuo Donglai’s eyes, Your Excellencies the brothers aren’t worth a coin, even added together.” He sighed again. “So, I really don’t understand how you are here today, unless you actually have some sort of ability of foreknowledge.”
Gongsun Qi’er suddenly let out a sigh. “Even though I don’t have the ability of foreknowledge, I did just think of something.”
Gongsun Baojian asked his brother, “You thought of something? What did you think of?”
“I suddenly thought that you should be like me. You should wander around Jianghu for a while.”
“Because if you were like me, an old hand at trickery and deception, you would understand his true goal.”
“What is his true goal?”
“His true goal is to keep us chatting with him, to keep talking. His courage is departed, his energy sapped, his power exhausted. He is using time to chat with us so that he can restore his vitality. Then, when we make a move, who’s to say whether or not he could hold his own for a while?” He shook his head. “Refusing to give up until all hope is lost, not giving up until the very last moment. Until his head is actually lopped off, Little Sima really won’t drop the idea of prevailing.” 
Sima Chaoqun laughed, as did Zhu Meng. They laughed heartily.
“Well said. Very well said.” Zhu Meng laughed at Gongsun Qi’er, and then beckoned to him. “Come, come. Come on over. The faster the better.”
“You want me to go over?”
“Grandfather Zhu has taken a liking to you, you tricky and deceptive little bastard. I want to deliver my head to you. You just need to come get it.”
Sima Chaoqun laughed loudly and slapped him on the shoulder. “Good. You can have this little bastard. Leave the bigger bastard for me.”
“Good. Let’s do it.” Zhu Meng’s laughter was filled with heroism. “If we can’t handle these two little sons of b*tches, then we need to go buy some tofu to beat ourselves to death with.”
The two of them stood shoulder to shoulder, laughing in unison. Whatever is “life,” and whatever is “death,” it was pushed to the side by their laughter.
The expressions on the faces of the Gongsun brothers hadn’t changed.
Some people’s faces will never change, and will never have new expressions. These brothers were like that. Gongsun Qi’er let out a breath and asked his brother, “Did you hear what our dear friend said?”
“Who is he?”
“It seems he’s Zhu Meng, of the Lion Clan.”
“Impossible,” said Gongsun Qi’er. “It couldn’t be him. Zhu Meng of the Lion Clan is a true man who knows the difference between gratitude and resentment. He’s never been able to live under the same sky as Little Sima of the Great Protection Agency. How could they suddenly be wearing the same pair of trousers together?”
Zhu Meng suddenly clasped Sima Chaoqun’s arm. In a deep voice, he asked, “Did you hear what the beggar said?”
“I heard very clearly.”
“He spoke with the air of a beggar, but he really hit the nail on the head regarding our situation today. We have been mortal enemies for our entire lives. Who would ever have imagined that today we would become friends willing to die together?”
“Are we friends?”
“Yes,” said Zhu Meng loudly. “From today onward, we might as well write off the old hatred of former days.”
“Good. Very good.”
“We become friends in one day, we remain friends for life. As long as I, Zhu Meng, am not dead, then I will keep this vow, lest I be slain by men and spirits alike.”
Sima Chaoqun felt hot, righteous ardor filling his head. “Don’t worry. We won’t be slain.”
The ardor was like a fire; once stoked, it heated their heroic spirits. The last bit of ability they possessed had been sparked ablaze.
Because they finally realized that they were not alone in the world.
Because each man knew he had a friend, a friend willing to die with him, a friend faithful regardless of life or death.
Having lived to this moment, they could die without regret.
They clasped hands, feeling that the righteous ardor carried with it some sort of mystical power. It poured forth from their hearts until their faces seemed to glow with a brilliant aura.
And now the expressions on the faces of the Gongsun brothers changed.
Zhu Meng and Sima turned around at the same time. They were back to back.
“Come, you two,” said Sima Chaoqun loudly. “It doesn’t matter how many you have with you, come all at once.” The sun had set in the western mountains. The heroes had reached the end of the road, and the Gongsun Brothers had considered them to be fish in a cauldron, meat on the chopping block.
But now they retreated two steps.
Now they understood that even when heroes reach the end of the road, they are still heroes, and will not tolerate insults.
At this moment, the sky grew darker. It seemed they had reached that time before dawn when the night was darkest.
Within the boundless darkness, there suddenly could be heard a cold and desolate sound. It was the melancholy yet graceful voice of a young girl. She sang a desolate and slow song, a sad song that would be difficult to remove from the mind.
Where did the singing come from?
On such a cold, dark evening, in these desolate and harsh mountains, how could there be someone singing such a sad, heartbreaking melody?
 Although being used as a name, "baojian" literally means "treasured sword"
 Although being used as a name "qi'er" literally means "beggar"
 Two cool Chinese sayings are used here. The first is “to not die until one reaches the Yellow River.” The second is “to not shed tears until one sees the coffin.”