Thunderstruck, you've been Thunderstruck.

--AC/DC

 

Chapter 305 – A rook for a king

 

“What have you done?” Jin Hua demanded.

 

“I have done everything,” Huang Ming replied mildly, unconcerned by the unsheathing of swords all around him. Sunli was beside him in a flash, her dreadful spear in hand, her eyes glaring at the hostile Jin soldiers.

 

“Maybe you brought me out here to really just have a discussion. Or maybe you just wanted to get me out of the fort, and then take action while I am away,” Huang Ming said as he eyed the royal Jin couple.

 

Prince Jin Bao flinched slightly, but it was enough to affirm his thoughts.

 

Princess Jin Hua stared at her husband. “You sent troops to the fort without telling me? Again?” she asked in stunned disbelief.

 

“It was the most opportune time,” Jin Bao insisted.

 

“Call them back!” Jin Hua despaired, “The new weapons in the fort would render any surprise attack pointless.”

 

“Now now, don’t blame him. I would do the same thing in his shoes,” Huang Ming said.

 

“But you wouldn’t have done something as boneheaded as throwing bodies at the wall!” Jin Hua shouted.

 

Jin Bao’s face darkened at the comparison.

 

“Oh, give your husband some credit. He has something planned. Am I right, prince?” Huang Ming soothed.

 

The prince’s lips curled in a sneer, even though Huang Ming was giving him face.

 

“How did you guess?”

 

“I was indeed guessing,” Huang Ming chuckled.

 

“You are too clever for your own good,” the prince growled. His men took that as a sign and they shuffled menacingly. But Sunli and the Chuwu guards did the same, and once more the situation became tense.

 

“Well, let me guess further,” Huang Ming said nonchalantly. “You probably struck a deal with Ran Wei, so that he becomes your insider in the fort. You promised to give him amnesty, perhaps even a distinguished rank once he surrenders.”

 

Even Sunli was taken aback by the suggestion. “But that would enrage all of Wei! He would be labelled as a traitor!”

 

“Ran Wei is a realist. He knows it’s impossible to defeat Jin on his own and restore Wei. And he also knows our cooperation is only skin-deep. It is in his interest to grab as much benefit as he can. Having regained the luxury and excesses that he had lost, he would not want to lose them again,” Huang Ming explained.

 

“You seem to know everything,” Jin Bao sneered. “Yet, you are here while he’s the one in the fort.”

 

“Of course I had to be out here,” Huang Ming shrugged. “He wanted me to out of the fort. Only then would he be confident enough to act out his drama.”

 

He nodded his chin towards Jin Hua. “Why don’t you tell her what you had planned?”

 

Prince Jin Bao gave him a glare but still obliged. “Ran Wei planned to coordinate from the inside and open the gates after putting up a token resistance. He would surrender and because you are absent, all the blame will be put on your shoulders.”

 

Then he turned to give a self-satisfied smile to his wife. “It suits our wishes perfectly. To get the fortress, to end Ran Wei’s nuisance as well as to discredit Huang Ming.”

 

But Jin Hua was not pleased, in fact the princess’s expression was full of disgruntlement.

 

“What is the matter?” the prince asked unhappily.

 

Jin Hua was exasperated and pointed at Huang Ming. “Him being here doesn’t mean you succeeded, it meant he had already seen through it!”

 

“I do not believe it!” the prince snapped back, finally losing his patience. “Why do you keep putting him up on a pedestal? Are you that enamoured with him?!”

 

As soon as the words left his mouth, the prince rued it. The shocked look on his wife’s face compounded his regret.

 

Indeed, Jin Hua was stunned by his outburst. She had never experienced it before, and for a brief second the ugliness of jealousy had completely shocked her. Having been completely confident in her ability in wrapping her husband around her little finger, the short display of anger shattered that preconception.

 

“She is right, you know,” Huang Ming interrupted deliberately to prevent either of them from immediately reconciling. The royal couple forcefully turned to face him, mixed feelings of uncomfortable relief welling within them.

 

“Ran Wei wanted to preserve his reputation after surrendering, but I had my brothers leave the fort before you army would arrive,” he continued.

 

“You did what?”

 

Prince Jin Bao stared at him in disbelief.

 

“I got tired of Ran Wei lusting after the fort, so I just gave it to him,” Huang Ming said breezily.

 

“But... what if he still surrenders?” Sunli asked.

 

Huang Ming turned his eyes at Prince Jin Bao. “The Jins would react as you have right now. They would not believe that the fort was given up so easily, and would think it was all a trick by Ran Wei.”

 

“So you had that Min Guang woman sacrifice herself so that you can entrap Ran Wei?” Jin Hua asked.

 

“She was already in his hands when we met again,” Huang Ming reminded the princess.

 

Jin Hua sneered. “Then she is an indecisive slut to waver between him and you over and over.”

 

“She had no choice, her family was in his hands,” Huang Ming replied coldly. “Why did you think my brother Huang Lang is in the fort when he is not employed in any official capacity? To paint landscapes?”

 

***

 

“My parents?” Min Guang asked anxiously as she followed Zhao Tong and Qiong Ying.

 

“See for yourself,” Qiong Ying smiled and gestured ahead of them. Waiting for them was Huang Lang. With him were a score of people. Min Guang could recognize her clansmen, including her parents.

 

The Min family shed tears of regret as they reunited.

 

“We have wronged you. Forgive us for pushing you into Ran Wei,” they wailed.

 

As Huang Ming had expected, the ordinary people who had joined Ran Wei in order to revive the Wei kingdom had become disillusioned. Ran Wei may had planned his excess indulgences as a smokescreen to fool him, but it worked all too well. Huang Ming had told Huang Ke to act as if he had truly been provoked by Ran Wei’s dissolution so that all who had seen their confrontation really believed that the former Wei marshal had truly fallen from grace.

 

When Huang Ke decided to abandon the fort and marched off in disgust, some of the Wei contingent deserted Ran Wei. Not privy to Ran Wei’s plans, they thought they would be sacrificed in a last stand in Tigertrap Fort in order to satisfy his vanity. Thus it was easy for Huang Lang to locate and gather the Min clan into safety.

 

“Would not Ran Wei pursue us?” one of the Min clansmen asked.

 

“We are heading back into Chuwu territory, he would not dare,” Min Guang assured.

 

“What if he joins the Jins anyway?”

 

Huang Lang smiled. “He is only important to the Jins because of his reputation among the Wei people. Having lost that, there is no reason to keep him around.”

 

“What if he gives the fort to the Jins?”

 

“They would not feel indebted to him. The Jins will be able to take the fort without his help,” Qiong Ying answered vaguely.

 

“But why would you give this place up?” Min Guang asked. “The fort is in a very strategic chokepoint. Giving it to the Jins would be giving them a springboard for future trouble.”

 

“We’re giving them nothing,” Huang Lang said with a small smile.

 

***

 

Huang Ming saw the looks on Jin Hua and Jin Bao. He laughed quietly and added: “Besides, there is no fort to speak of.”

 

“What the hell do you mean by that?” Jin Hua demanded.

 

Huang Ming gave her a smile. “Big red button.”

 

***

 

Ran Wei snarled with frustration. “Ran Bing! Where is Ran Bing!” he shouted.

 

To his dismay, his sister was nowhere to be found. She was supposed to watch over Min Guang for him, and yet both women had disappeared.

 

“Even your women have left you,” one veteran muttered.

 

With one slash of his sword, Ran Wei cut the veteran down. His men were shocked, but did not sanction him for the sudden killing of their colleague.

 

Ran Wei was nearing his wit’s end. He could not believe his sister would abandon him at this dire hour. Min Guang must have done something to engineer her escape, and perhaps Ran Bing had been defeated in some way for it to happen.

 

“Open the gates and send word to the Jins,” Ran Wei said through gritted teeth.

 

His men stared at him dumbfoundedly.

 

“We cannot defend this place by ourselves,” he told them.

 

“Are you going to surrender?” one of them asked quietly.

 

Ran Wei could see their eyes staring hollowly at him.

 

These were the most loyal of his followers, the ones that he had thoroughly indoctrinated into following him. They believed that he would be the one to revive the fallen Wei kingdom.

 

The professional, military men that was the core of his inner circle had been whittled down through attrition and he had to replace them with these followers that he had picked up and recruited when Wei fell.

 

Ran We had wanted such men, but now their fanaticism in him was something he did not enjoy. Even now, the few true soldiers he had left were eyeing those new men warily. Can’t they see the reality of the situation?

 

“Of course not. I am just lulling them into a false sense of security. Then I can infiltrate within them and find a way to restore the kingdom later,” he said.

 

It was a vague answer without any details. But the eyes of his men shone and they readily believed him, just as they had believed him every step of the way that led to this situation.

 

‘Fools!’ he wanted to scream at their faces. ‘Can’t you see that it’s impossible for us to overthrow the Jins? They have more men, more weapons and Chuwu is not going to help us again!’

 

The men thought the surrender would be faked, unaware that Ran Wei was already planning to make it very real. All he needed now was to convince the Jins of his true intentions, which was a very difficult manner now that they were suspicious of the near-empty fort.

 

“We need to open the gates and invite them in, they will not believe… they will not fall for it otherwise,” Ran Wei amended his words.

 

And so the gates of Tigertrap Fort were thrown open, much to the astonishment of the Jins. The Jins were already surprised at their initial success. The dreaded guns of the fort did not open fire when the Jins had first approached, and now the very gates themselves were open without a single drop of blood?

 

It all seemed too good to be true.

 

To the credit of the Jin commander, he ordered his army to halt. He was incredulous when his scouts brought in a messenger from Ran Wei.

 

“Where are the Chuwu troops?” he demanded.

 

“They have fled the moment you appeared,” the messenger replied honestly.

 

The Jin commander was suspicious, but ordered his vanguard to enter the fort, whereupon he was greeted personally by Ran Wei. Even though the Jin commander was dubious, he could not resist revelling in the situation.

 

“You’re the mighty onslaught, Ran Wei?” the commander asked haughtily from atop his horse.

 

In another time and place, Ran Wei would have easily cut the man down without even blinking.

 

Perhaps he was contemplating doing just that.

 

Then a massive explosion changed everything.

 

It was as if a tremendous crack of thunder had boomed. The very earth shook and heaved. Men shouted and horses neighed in panic.

 

“Ambush!” the Jin commander shouted, and Ran Wei could not blame him for thinking so, because the explosion came from the fort itself.

 

More accurately, from the vicinity of the workshops and stockpiles of manure that Huang Ke had been so protective about.

 

Chaos and terror reigned as the explosions continued.

 

They did not detonate immediately one after the other, but timed so that the cacophony of constant noise never stopped, as if a titanic being was taking slow, deliberate steps all around them.

 

And for those who could still had their wits around them, they could see Tigertrap Fort literally collapsing all around them.

 

Men cried in fear as debris of blasted stone and splintered wood rained on them. The concussive force even knocked the horses off their feet. Others were smashed into meat paste by falling boulders, and the ground cracked and yawned open as the thunderous discharges continued.

 

Ran Wei had not been able to see what were in those cordoned off workshops. But he knew enough that Huang Ming had been manufacturing the secret black powder and firearms there…

 

There was no time for Ran Wei to dwell on the matter, for the Jin commander had somehow managed to stay upright and took out his weapon. His murderous eyes were now fixed on Ran Wei.

 

“Curse that man!” Ran Wei screamed as he unsheathed his own sword in reply.

 

He might be facing the Jin commander, but those words were for Huang Ming…

 

 

Detonate,

All the hate.