Chapter 339: Danger!
"The bunch that came this time seems to be particularly familiar with our inner workings. The hidden sentries we usually put up for security issues were wiped out clean, and even the traps were bypassed or dismantled without any trouble at all.
"Thus, many of our men were killed without even putting up a fight. Honestly speaking, I never thought that there could be a military commander who possesses such a deep understanding of our means. Such a situation has never happened before.
"On top of that, they were very thorough as well. Soldiers would be positioned at all key locations to eliminate any escapees, thus often resulting in a complete wipeout. This has caused a huge panic amongst the bandits, and more than a dozen bands have chosen to seek refuge with us. Most likely, more will be arriving in the future. On this aspect, this incident does have its own benefits to us."
The middle-aged man smiled. There were two sides to every coin. It was due to the huge threat laying before them that the Iron Cloak Highwaymen were expanding at a rapid pace. At the current moment, it was already one of the strongest bands along the Silk Road.
Unlike most bands, the Iron Cloak Highwaymen accepted all groups that sought refuge with them. Typically speaking, accepting so many different powers should have threatened the legitimacy of the chief's leadership.
However, the chief of the Iron Cloak Highwaymen, Iron Cloak Li, was no ordinary man. Through the effective use of the fear tactics and rewards, he was able to instill absolute loyalty in every single one of his followers.
Under his skilled leadership, he swiftly integrated the new members into his organization, allowing it to grow swiftly without any issues.
Perhaps in the near future, just as what military strategist Zhou An had said, the Iron Cloak Highwaymen might just be able to become the dominant power on the Silk Road.
"... But chief, even though those soldiers have done us a great favor, we mustn't let our guard down. Judging by their speed, they should be arriving in our territory in a few days' time!"
"Of course, it's only right for officials to arrest bandits. However, the bandits won't simply wait idly for their deaths. Have you looked into how many people they have, and how strong their forces are?" A chillingly sharp glint shone in Iron Cloak Li's narrowed eyes as he spoke.
Those who were familiar with him would know that he was already concocting a scheme in his head.
"I have asked the bandits who have managed to get away, and I sent some men to investigate the various marks they left behind in their camping grounds. Based on my estimates, there are around eighty to ninety of them, and they are all True Martial realm experts. The commanders leading them are likely to be the recruits from the Three Great Training Camps.
"This operation is likely a collaboration between the royal court and the military to temper their recruits using us bandits and highwaymen," the middle-aged man analyzed contemplatively, stroking his beard.
"The recruits of the Three Great Training Camps?" Iron Cloak Li frowned. Even as an outlaw, he still knew a thing or two about the newly established training camps near the capital. As the Sage Emperor deposited great hopes on them, they were the biggest project of the royal court in recent years.
"That is indeed a little troublesome. If we kill those recruits, we might bring the royal court's rage upon us," Iron Cloak Li mused.
The recruits of the Three Great Training Camps were expected to become pillars of the nation's military in the future. If it happened that a highly-valued recruit was among them, killing him could spell trouble. After all, no bandits or highwaymen could possibly stand against the might of the royal court.
"If chief is afraid of trouble, wouldn't it suffice as long as we ensure that no one finds out? It's not like you would defer to them just because they are recruits of the training camps," the middle-aged man spoke up.
Bandits and highwaymen made a living out of robbery. Should they be judged under the strict laws of Great Tang, they would be damned for execution. Not to mention, the chief had slaughtered military officers on several occasions.
How could he possibly hesitate before a few mere recruits?
"Hahaha, Zhou An. You do know me well! Since killing the recruits of the training camp will bring us trouble, all we have to do is to ensure that there is no living soul to tell the story. Relay my commands, if anyone leaks out the news of this operation, I'll skin them alive!" Iron Cloak Li chuckled as a vicious glint flickered across his eyes.
Cowardice makes no man. In the world of bandits, one can't survive without more then a pinch of viciousness and cruelty.
"Yes, chief!" Zhou An respectfully accepted the orders with his head lowered.
"The officials may hunt down bandits, but who's to say that bandits can't hunt officials, too? Let's not trouble them with the journey here. Make some arrangements, our entire group shall move out together. This time, let's forge a river of blood!"
The mountain trembled, and a moment later, bizarre calls burst out in the surroundings. A dense congregation of bandits and highwaymen flooded out from the mountains with ferocious war cries.
With a swift glance, one could see Arabs, Turks, Tibetans, Goguryeons, Han... This group of diverse bandits and highwaymen was drawn from the entire region.
If one were to make a quick estimation, one would realize that they were more than six hundred strong! This strength was equivalent to the might of dozens of bandit and highwayman bands put together!
The desolate autumn wind blew. Wherever the army of bandits traveled, a swirl of dust would be left in their wake. Slowly, they were nearing Wang Chong and the others.
But at this moment, the young recruits were still unaware of the swiftly approaching enemies.
At an area several hundred li away, the atmosphere was tranquil, and not a single gust of wind could be heard.
"That brat truly leaves one red-eyed!" Beneath a towering maple tree with crimson leaves, Huang Yongtu glared at Wang Chong Bai Siling in envy. "He should have accumulated around two million gold taels by now!"
"There's no point comparing with him, we can't best him." Xu Gan replied.
They had been comparing their own gains with Wang Chong over the past few days, and they found their initial motivation swiftly dying down.
They were reluctant to admit it, but deep inside, they had already accepted the current state of things.
Wang Chong's cultivation might be inferior to them, but his ability in leading an army was indisputably far above them.
Even in the field of treasure-seeking, he had shown expertise beyond them, as well!
"Hmph, you might have come to terms with it already, but I can't! And that bitch Bai Siling too, how could she choose to ally herself with that immature brat? Just the thought of it leaves me uncomfortable!" Huang Yongtu ranted hatefully.
He could still grudgingly accept the other matters, but despite working alongside Xu Gan down to his bones in search of gold, how could his gains be lower than that bitch?
Just by following behind that brat, Bai Siling easily obtained gains far beyond them. How could Huang Yongtu possibly be comfortable with that?
Xu Gan chose to maintain his silence before Huang Yongtu's furious rant. He did have some qualms with Bai Siling's actions too, but he thought that it would be unseemly for him to display his emotions publicly.
Pointing to the map, Huang Yongtu asked, "Xu Gan, no matter what, we can't lose to her. I've already checked the map, and there's a den around thirty li from here. Shall we give it a try?"
After a moment of silence, Xu Gan nodded. "Let's go!" He skillfully leaped onto the back of his horse and galloped forward. To him, the most important matter at hand was to gather as much gold as possible.
He knew that such opportunities wouldn't come easily, and he might regret it for life if he were to allow it slip past his fingers.
"Let's proceed warily for this mission. The last dens we have visited are all empty. I have a feeling that the bandits are scheming something huge," Xu Gan advised hesitantly as he pulled on his steed's reins.
His days spent in the training camp weren't in vain. For one, it had cultivated sharp instincts for danger in him.
During this period of time, he could faintly sense that something bizarre was going on with the bandits.
"Hahaha, Xu Gan, you're making a huge fuss out of this matter. After clearing so many of their dens, it would be weird if they don't show any reaction. But how could mere bandits possibly rival an official army? We have more than forty True Martial realm experts with us here, do you think that just that small number of bandits can rival us?" Huang Yongtu burst into laughter, thinking nothing of Xu Gan's doubts.
Xu Gan pondered for a moment before a chuckle escaped his mouth as well. Huang Yongtu was right. Even at the very most, there were only twenty to thirty men in a single band, not to mention most of their cultivations hadn't reached the True Martial realm.
No matter what those bandits were scheming, they couldn't possibly be a match for his men.
"Seems like my doubts are unfounded. Let's go!"
Amidst the loud clopping of horse hooves, the group of forty galloped toward another bandit den thirty li away.
At that moment, a brilliant moon was hanging in a clear sky.
After several days of effort, Xu Gan and Huang Yongtu had accomplished their missions as well, so there was no need for them to resort to night operations anymore.
Nonetheless, their motive for doing so was clear; gold. Perhaps too engrossed in their pursuit of wealth, they weren't bothered by the thought of being discovered by the bandits, or how many bandits had escaped.
Di da da!
Several hours later, Xu Gan and Huang Yongtu finally arrived at the bandit den.
The group of forty dived into the forest, headed to the den at the top. Unexpectedly, they were unimpeded in their advancement.
There wasn't even a single sentry to be seen along the way. Silence permeated the entire mountain, and not a single other soul could be seen.
Kicking the doors to the den and seeing the empty interiors, Huang Yongtu bellowed furiously, "Damn it, yet another group of bandits who have moved their hideout!"
"This is bad!" At that moment, a panicked exclamation sounded. "Look there!"
Confused, Huang Yongtu turned to look in the direction Xu Gan was pointing. At the bottom of the mountain, along the main road, there was a huge cloud of dust rising into the sky. A massive army of bandits and highwaymen were brandishing their sabers and swords, charging right toward them ferociously.
Upon seeing this sight, everyone's faces paled.
At that moment, in that supposedly empty camp, a bandit suddenly snuck into the den, climbed to the topmost area, and struck the warning bell.
The resounding chime resonated across the surrounding mountain, pointing out the way for the bandits and highwaymen.
Chaos broke out at the top of the mountain. Xu Gan hurriedly led his men down the mountain, and Huang Yongtu closely followed suit.
It couldn't be clearer at this instant that it was clearly a trap, a deadly one that the enemies had laid for them.