That was the sound made by a tiny hand casually grasping the black chain.
Shadow King’s heart almost burst out of his chest with fright, “Zhuo Fan, Gu Santong, what are you doing here?”
Not to forget Luo Yunhai, the weakest. But compared to Shadow King, everyone was weaker, with the exception being Zhuo Fan and Gu Santong.
Luo Yunhai gnashed his teeth at the cruel sight, his nails digging into his palms.
Gu Santong took a look and got the gist of it. He said, “Dad, we’re late.”
[No, perfect timing actually.]
Zhuo Fan smiled inside while nodding in sympathy for the rest.
“Shadow King, you and Dugu Zhantian are the most loyal people I know. Why stoop so low?” Zhuo Fan criticized Shadow King, while also including the hurt Dugu Zhantian into his scolding, in passing.
Shadow King smiled, “Since you know about me, then you must also know that being on someone’s payroll means doing the work for them. I’m only following orders. But since you two are here, I shall take my untimely leave.”
Shadow King flew away in a cloud of smoke. Luo Yunhai cried, “Big brother Zhuo, stop him!”
Zhuo Fan snorted. He stuck out his two fingers as they released astonishing spatial energy right towards Shadow King.
Profound ranked martial art, Finger of Death!
The dragon roar shook the gorge. Having yet to tame his newfound nine dragon souls, Zhuo Fan still had the azure flame to cower them into short term submission and do his bidding. Like boosting the Finger of Death for instance, a soul martial art to unseen levels.
Shadow King felt the threat to his life before he was even hit. He flipped around and wrapped himself in the black robe for cover.
Finger of Death’s soul power struck the robe and slammed it into the ground.
Zhuo Fan checked it over only to find it empty. Shadow King was gone!
“For god’s sake, he still ran away?” Zhuo Fan sighed, “So he knows Red Herring too. And here I was thinking he’d used the robe to defend when in fact it was a cover to flee from our sight.”
“Can a spirit puppet turn invisible?” Gu Santong asked.
Zhuo Fan nodded, “Of course, how else do you think the shadow guards kept tabs on every power in the imperial capital? Though they can cheat our eyes, the same doesn’t apply to their scent, albeit thinner, thanks to the art. But an expert will point them out any time. Since Shadow King got us distracted, he used this chance to get away.”
Gu Santong snickered, “He-he-he, next time I’ll just use my nose to flush him out. Let’s see him run then!”
A cry of sorrow came from the tent, getting the two’s attention. They found Luo Yunhai hugging Dugu Zhantian and crying his eyes out. The four tigers crawled their wounded bodies over, as crestfallen as Luo Yunhai.
Luo Yunhai turned with hope, “Big brother Zhuo, please check Marshal’s state. I gave him a pill but it didn’t do anything!”
Zhuo Fan poured Yuan Qi into his body and shook his head, “7th grade demonic treasure, Soul Rotting Needle. There’s no hope at all.”
“7th g-grade?” Luo Yunhai was startled.
Zhuo Fan said, “Soul Rotting Needle is a demonic treasure targeting souls. It fuses with the target’s soul and eats it away to the point that nothing can separate it. Shadow King must’ve used it in that attack. Not even demonic cultivators would use such a ruthless move, except for bitter enemies and arch nemesis. This demonic treasure is hard to come by, but it only shows how desperate the emperor is in getting rid of Marshal.”
Everyone shuddered, overwhelmed with grief watching Dugu Zhantian’s ashen face.
Dugu Zhantian only felt loss and not sorrow.
“I have fought all my life with no regard to my own fate only to find my end with such a sordid passing, ha-ha-ha…” Dugu Zhantian turned to Zhuo Fan, “Even though unwilling to give my life, I shall obey my lord’s order. I only wish that you would clear some things for me.”
Zhuo Fan nodded, “Please ask, old Marshal,”
“I am versed in the art of war, but never had been complacent, always loyal to my lord and nation. What could I have done to garner His Majesty’s suspicion to give me this fate?” Dugu Zhantian’s eyes were filled with bitterness. Blood flowed from his mouth. As he turned a deaf ear to politics, he frowned in ignorance at the matters leading to this moment.
Zhuo Fan replied with a question, “Marshal, could you tell me what your biggest achievement is?”
“Defending the border from Quanrong’s invasion!” Dugu Zhantian stressed every word in pride.
Zhuo Fan continued, “Then old Marshal, had the Quanrong taken even one step forward before you came to command?”
Shuddering, Dugu Zhantian turned pensive.
Dugu Feng spoke with valor, “Before Marshal came, Quanrong pillaged unchecked, slaughtering our people. But once Marshal was charged with the border, they never stepped foot in Tianyu again…”
Zhuo Fan cut him off, “These lands are the emperor’s lands. Quanrong’s pillaging had nothing to do with him. In fact, the empire’s three guardian sects act as deterrence in keeping the Quanrong from taking Tianyu’s lands. As long as no acre was lost, everything was his. And since the Quanrong were miles away, it was no service to His Majesty.”
“Zhuo Fan, how can you say that? It is a great service to the people, to the nation…”
“Old man, quiet. Let him speak.” Dugu Feng argued and made Dugu Zhantian look heavy.
Zhuo Fan smiled, “Old Marshal’s greatest merit in his life, even bigger than Zhuge Changfeng, was to make the Seven Noble Houses cower in fear!”
Dugu Zhantian shuddered, coming to his own conclusions.
As an army man, glory and honor came from fighting outsiders. There were insignificant people to deal with rats pilfering the country. For this to be his greatest achievement would mean his biggest disgrace.
Zhuo Fan resumed, “I made some inquiries into the past centuries by talking to the house lords only to find out that from the moment young Sanzi appeared, the imperial family’s power waned, giving way to the rise of the Four Pillars. The previous pillars couldn’t deal with the situation and with Yun Xuanji’s guidance, His Majesty had you and Zhuge Changfeng take office and command, leading to the Four Pillars of today.
“What I’m saying is, the Four Pillars came to be only to keep the houses in check. His Majesty gave you command of the army and had you fight the Quanrong, but not with the intent of protecting the borders, instead the purpose was to harden the men for the right time to face the seven houses. To teach the seven houses a lesson, he needed you two to stand in opposition and balance the scale. That implied coexistence as well. Once one of you was out, the other would outlive his usefulness. In other words, you’re of no value any longer, expendable, replaceable.
“For His Majesty to draw in his net and wield all the power of these lands after dealing with Zhuge Changfeng, he has to take one last person out of the picture, you.”
Everyone stood dumbstruck at the revelation. Dugu Zhantian’s heart was bleeding from pain.
[My very existence was a sham, a chess piece to balance the powers.]
“What then is the Quanrong army doing here? His Majesty can’t be so foolish as to let them in!” Dugu Zhantian exclaimed.
Zhuo Fan sighed, “Old Marshal Dugu, you’re so naive, blind to the cruel and horrifying capacity of human greed, especially a monarch’s. I dare say the emperor is willing to let these lands go to waste rather than not having them under Yuwen clan’s rule.
“Let them in? Ha-ha-ha, these wolves are helping him devour his enemies in his way to rule the world. At most, he’ll just have to throw these wolves a bone.”
His explanation was in perfect tune with the emperor’s grand design.
Only Dugu Zhantian now lay in Luo Yunhai’s arms, with closed and heavy eyes.
[What have I been risking my life the last decades for…]