The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the oriole lurking behind.

--Zhuangzi

 

Chapter 284 - Better you than me

 

The Wei attempted attack on Tigertrap Fort was over before it could even begin. After the surprise bombardment that ripped apart the still assembling force, Huang Ke had sallied out of the fort with his cavalry and routed the shell-shocked Wei soldiers. Huang Ke then returned to the fort with numerous amounts of loot and supplies abandoned by the Wei.

 

“Are we taking prisoners, sir?”

 

“No, let them be,” Huang Ke replied quietly as he surveyed his handiwork.

 

“Again?” one of his men muttered with discontent. He was one of the Wu veterans that had wrested away the fort from Wei in the past. There had been quite a few who had questioned the decision to release the defeated Wei soldiers then.

 

“Are you very free and wealthy? We don’t need to spend our resources on them, let their king pay for their upkeep,” Huang Ke said sharply.

 

“Why not just kill them all? It would be less trouble for the future,” the officer persisted.

 

“Look at them. Do you think they want to come back?” Huang Ke demanded.

 

The officer shut his mouth, knowing that his superior was right. The ground was torn up and ruptured by the thunderous volleys of the fort’s cannons.

 

Among the blackened and scorched earth lay the dead and dying. A few of the Wu soldiers had gagged when they had surveyed the field, unable to take in the sheer carnage they had unleashed on the unfortunate Wei men. Bodies had been blown apart like so much overripe fruit. Incomplete carcasses littered the area and were already attracting flies. The stench of blood and rotting flesh mixed with the fumes of fire and smoke gave the entire area the smell of death.

 

There were a few Wei survivors. Grown men quietly weeping and sobbing. Others sat down and rocked back and forth among their dead comrades, their eyes staring into the distance. Others wished for death to quickly end their misery.

 

“This is just too cruel…” one of the younger Wu soldiers gagged.

 

“Better them than us,” Huang Ke said softly.

 

 

***

 

Far away from the one-sided massacre, the remains of the Wei force had stopped to gather their breath and wits.

 

Only a few hours ago, they had been marching towards Tigertrap Fort. They were to hunker down and unload the new-fangled contraptions they had received from Jin. Then they would sit back and wait as these wonder weapons would knock down the walls of the fort effortlessly.

 

Only, they were on the receiving end.

 

These survivors were fortunate to be a little further away when the catastrophe unfolded. Grown men screamed in horror as their colleagues exploded into pieces of meat and blood showered the ground.

 

They turned around and ran helter-skelter. Soldiers tore off their armor and threw aside their weapons, while the officers whipped their horses into a frenzy to get away.

 

They fled into Wei, the thunderous explosions and the shrieks of the dead still fresh in their minds.

 

But once in the safety of their city, they began to ask for answers.

 

“Where is Nangong Xie? Bring him before me!” Ran Wei roared.

 

At first, Ran Wei was in disbelief when the disaster was reported to him. He had personally seen Nangong Xie demonstrate the new weapons that he had brought from Jin. Though he did not know how they worked, the concept was easily understood. Use the power of fire powder in an enclosed space to forcefully launch a heavy projectile.

 

He understood the potential… and the dangers. What if the fire powder exploded prematurely? But Nangong Xie had personally drilled his men in the weapons. Besides, they were only given a limited number of the weapons and just enough fire powder for several volleys, thought to be sufficient to break down the walls of Tigertrap Fort. The Jins would be doing the same thing at Beihai. Together, they will pour into Wu and it would be a race to see who can grab the biggest pieces of the pie.

 

 A two-pronged attack, together with the disturbance at its capital would ensure the collapse of Wu.

 

Really, Ran Wei had to thank Huang Ming for this alliance of convenience. That man had dealt defeats to both Jin and Wei, giving ample excuse to the two kingdoms for revenge.

 

Of course, Ran Wei trusted the Jins as far as he could throw one of those cannons. But the lure of the rich and fertile lands of Wu were irresistible, and to quickly crush Wu before it could fully integrate with Chu was a further incentive.

 

This unexpected setback threw all of Ran Wei’s calculations askew, for he had committed a large part of his resources into this venture.

 

Wei had lost almost everything.

 

Trusted generals and officers. Soldiers. Horses. Supplies. The very wonder weapons themselves. Deals had been struck and hands shook to have cobbled such resources together.

 

By the time Nangong Xie was dragged to his presence and thrown before his feet, Ran Wei was suffering from a throbbing headache.

 

“Sir?” the crippled traitor from Wu stammered. His handsome face was pale and streaked with nervous sweat. Whatever confident charm that he had long since evaporated.

 

“Your weapons failed,” Ran Wei said icily.

 

“What? But that’s impossible! You have seen what the weapons could do!” Nangong Xie protested.

 

‘Yes, I did. They were indeed terrifying, but now you are more useful than those weapons,’ Ran Wei thought.

 

A scapegoat must be found, blame must be assigned. Someone’s head must roll…

 

Better you than me.’

 

Nangong Xie panicked when Ran Wei ominously looked at him in silence.

 

“Let me write to the Princess of Jin! She will send more weapons, more equipment!” the disabled scholar pleaded desperately.

 

Before Nangong Xie can babble on, a new arrival burst in. It was so sudden that the guards in the hall started for their swords before realizing it was a frantic messenger.

 

“Sir! Sir!” the messenger shouted with such urgency that Ran Wei immediately became concerned.

 

“What is it? Is it about Tigertrap Fort?” he demanded.

 

“No sir, from the north! The north!” the messenger repeated urgently.

 

“The Jins did not attack as promised?” Ran Wei asked. It was the worst possibility, but one that he had thought of. Even if the Jins had reneged on their end of the plot, Wei would at least have the pleasure of flattening Tigertrap Fort.

 

“They did, sir…” the messenger gasped, then sobbed.

 

“They attacked us!

 

Thought to pass the hurdle,

Only to go round in a circle.