Was very swamped with work and financial concerns. Apologies.



Historically speaking, there is no nation which is destroyed merely by attacks from an external enemy. This thing, called a nation, starts to rot from the top down instead. There is not one exception.

--Adrian Rubinsky, ‘Legend of Galactic Heroes’

 

Chapter 293 – The lost

 

Huang Ming stared at the non-descript envelope. It was addressed to him alone.

 

Min Guang? The youngest of the fellowship, that fresh-faced piece of white jade who up and disappeared so suddenly?

 

Huang Ming opened the envelope and quietly read it. A headache was beginning to form.

 

His friends waited impatiently as his eyes scanned the letter. Then he rubbed his forehead to ease the pulsing sensation.

 

“Well, don’t keep us in suspense! What did Min Guang write?” they chorused.

 

“He wants to meet.”

 

“Great! It will be just like the old times. When is he coming to Tianxin City?” they asked.

 

“Not here,” Huang Ming said glumly.

 

“Well, I can see why you’re annoyed, having arrived here. But I’m sure we can all arrange something. Maybe we can go meet him partway,” Lei Yan said.

 

Huang Ming sighed. “That is what he suggested.”

 

“Good. Where? Xushen River? The Maoyou Forest? Flowing Snow Mountain?” Lei Yan asked eagerly, rattling off famous landmarks that they had yet to visit as a group.

 

Huang Ming glanced at He Ding who had delivered the letter. The Odd Brush avoided his gaze guiltily.

 

“Tigertrap Fort,” Huang Ming muttered.

 

“What? Oh. Oh. Wait, what?”

 

His friends were quick to catch on. To meet halfway at Tigertrap Fort… meaning, Min Guang would be coming from the direction of Wei.

 

“That’s the gist of it. He’s writing on behalf of General Ran Wei,” Huang Ming continued grimly.

 

“What? But why? How did they even get associated?” his friends were in disbelief. How did that unassuming, naïve young scion know the brutal marshal of Wei? What was he doing in Wei in the first place?

 

“Maybe he is stuck there and needs help getting back,” Cao Shuang speculated.

 

“He could have just presented himself at the fort and I could interrogate him, what’s the point of sending a letter first?” Huang Ke said with suspicion.

 

“Interrogate?” Zhang Ping asked quietly.

 

“Of course. Anyone would be, if they are coming from across the border,” Liu Xiang answered for his colleague.

 

“But this is Min Guang. Our friend,” Lei Yan pointed out.

 

“So was Nangong Xie,” Huang Ke sneered, and that quickly sobered the rest of them.

 

Ma Jun shifted his large body uncomfortably. “What is the plan?” he asked.

 

“He set a so-and-so date at a place near the fort,” Huang Ming answered.

 

“Out of the question,” Huang Ke interjected.

 

“I was going to ask you to come along as protection,” Huang Ming said.

 

“Oh. Then it’s alright,” his brother nodded and crossed his arms.

 

“Are you two out of your minds? What if Ran Wei himself shows up?” Liu Xiang demanded.

 

“Just admit that you want to come along too,” Huang Ke scoffed, “You couldn’t resist the chance to see the man they call The Onslaught.”

 

“Well, if he does shows up, he certainly would be too much to handle for you,” Liu Xiang replied, but the way his teeth was bared showed his true hot-blooded intentions, the fiery competitive instinct.

 

Huang Ke snarled as well. “If he does shows up, it would be a good chance to kill him. Once and for all.”

 

“People do tend to stay dead if you kill them once,” Huang Ming said dryly.

 

“You know what I mean,” his brother flushed.

 

“The entire Min family is suspicious. They just appeared out of nowhere a generation ago and rose to prominence in a few short years,” Cao Shuang said as he eyed Huang Ming and the rest with a critical eye. “How did you even get to be chums?”

 

Huang Ming tilted his head, genuinely wondering about that. The original host’s memories were quite blurry.

 

“Didn’t they throw a grand birthday celebration back then? That was how we first met Min Guang,” Lei Yan offered.

 

“No, we met his sister,” Zhang Ping corrected. “We only met Min Guang later, when he came to thank us for coming.”

 

“Didn’t Lei Yan tried to hit on his sister that day?” Ma Jun guffawed.

 

The man in question flushed. “Yes, I tried. But I was upstaged by you,” he pointed at Huang Ming.

 

“Me?” Huang Ming was genuinely puzzled.

 

“Yes, you came up with an impromptu birthday poem,” Lei Yan insisted, “Still a mystery how you did that after chugging a bottle of wine that day. How did it go again?”

 

“I don’t remember,” Huang Ming said honestly.

 

The group of friends chuckled and exchanged knowing looks, while Huang Ming had to fake a smile.

 

“I really don’t know what this is all about…” he wondered aloud to change the topic.

 

Lei Yan grinned. “Who knows? He was always sticking to you the most of all of us. Maybe…”

 

***

 

“Confess.”

 

The deep voice of Ran Wei was menacing, guttural. It was also tinged with simmering anger and accusation.

 

The man who used to marshal the entire military might of the recently dissolved Kingdom of Wei was reduced to hiding out in a cave.

 

In the best of days, Ran Wei was someone widely pined for by women who admired strength and wildness. Now though, he looked worn and weary. Proud, but undefeated still. His chiselled features were still handsome, his eyes were cruel and smouldering beneath thick brows. The dancing light cast from the torches only made him look more demonic.

 

“What do you want to hear?” a soft voice asked in return. It came from a smaller, slender figure. In contrast to the weathered and battered armour worn by the marshal, this figure was dressed in an impeccably clean robes.

 

Were Huang Ming and his group here, they would have recognized their long lost friend, Min Guang. A little taller than they would have remembered, the naive and gentle expression now a little more colder and cynical.

 

Time had not been too kind to Marshal Ran Wei as well. Forced to accept a deal with the devil, he thrown Wei’s forces and at Tigertrap Fort to secure the rich and fertile lands of Wu.

 

In the end, the attempt failed disastrously before it even began, and the Jin devils took full advantage of it by sweeping south and extinguished the kingdom of Wei.

 

Ran Wei had kept a force in reserve, ready to exploit a breach the loaned cannons would have blown open in Tigertrap Fort. When Jin invaded in overwhelming numbers, Ran Wei knew it was impossible for him to turn the tide. The Wei cities fell one by one, their soldiers having been previously pulled away in that last desperate gamble.

 

The King of Wei ordered him to defend the capital, but Ran Wei took what troops and resources remained and marched them away. Why should he waste them away for the decrepit kingdom?

 

The King of Wei was an ineffective monarch and the court was surrounded by many who were jealous of Ran Wei, and so the marshal was content the capital fall. The king and his cronies tried to flee at the last moment, only to be caught by the hysterical citizens and were lynched in an effort to appease the Jin conquerors.

 

Thus when the Jin soldiers marched in, Ran Wei and his loyal troops were nowhere to be found. With the city devastated and the city in panic, he was able to spread his own narrative to the rest of the crumbling nation: that he was entrusted by their king to carry on the banner, to fight on and throw off the yoke of the Jin invaders, and to one day restore the kingdom.

 

Ran Wei may have been able to play to the sentiments and tug at the heart-strings of the people as the focal point of the resistance, but he was not going to waste his time and effort for the impossible. He hoarded his troops jealously, only fighting and raiding whenever necessary, abandoning cities in the face of overwhelming odds.

 

But Ran Wei’s very existence was a threat to the Jins, and in recent times they have stepped up their efforts to surround him and wipe out the resistance completely. Now he was reduced to hit and runs, roaming the countryside with a small warband and living off the land.

 

Left with no recourse, he had to turn to help from the most unlikely of sources.

 

“You know what I mean,” he growled, his face in a mixture of derision and disgust as he stared at Min Guang. Such a contrast between them: one a towering, brutal marshal; the other a boyish youngster.

 

“I have sent the letters, as you wanted,” Min Guang replied.

 

“And nothing else?” the marshal demanded.

 

Min Guang smiled mirthlessly. “The men you sent to watch my movements should have told you that.”

 

“For your own sake, I hope so,” Ran Wei warned.

 

“If he gets the letter, he will come. He will be there,” Min Guang said confidently.

 

“Good,” Ran Wei smiled wolfishly. “I have a gift for him, after all. It’s somewhat… perishable.”

 

Min Guang sighed as he turned to face him. The marshal expected the young man to flinch when they locked eyes, but the young scholar was unexpectedly bold, not showing any fear towards someone who had slaughtered his way through numerous battlefields.

 

Marshal Ran Wei could not help but contrast this baby-faced young man with another scholar from Wu. Nangong Xie was also a handsome man, but he was like a pool of murky water tainted by resentment, unlike the cool and clear presence of Min Guang.

 

“May I ask something?” Min Guang ventured politely.

 

The marshal was not impressed by the deferential language and waved a hand as a sign of allowance.

 

“What is it that are you hoping for? The kingdom of Wei is beyond redemption, and despite all your rhetoric, you are not one to toil fruitlessly for a lost cause,” Min Guang stated.

 

“You are correct,” Ran Wei answered.

 

“Then why are you continuing on this path? You could easily just slip away and live out the rest of your life in anonymity,” Min Guang suggested.

 

Ran Wei barked harshly in laughter. “And do what? Do you see me being a farmer? Or as a hunter, eking a meagre existence in the mountains somewhere?”

 

“It would be an improvement over your current situation,” Min Guang said flatly.

 

The marshal stared at him, in disbelief at his audacity. Then he laughed uproariously, appreciating the candor.

 

“You have yet to answer me,” Min Guang prompted. “You cannot take on either kingdom. You cannot win against Jin nor Chuwu.”

 

“Yes, I can’t win,” Ran Wei admitted frankly.

 

Then he chuckled.

 

“But I can still make both sides lose.”

 

 

A hunted killer,

A man so cold and bitter.