Next chapter should be the last.



“No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.”
--Goldfinger

Chapter 307 – Shots fired

    “You got here pretty fast,” General Zhao Tong grunted.

    “Well, I just had to come out and see what the fuss is about,” Great General Huang Zheng replied affably.

    Their lighthearted tone contrasted starkly against their grim surroundings.

    They were standing in the remains of Tigertrap Fort. The entire area had been demolished. The proud walls that had withstood relentless onslaughts had fallen, the various buildings, barracks, factories and warehouses were nothing more than piles of smoking ruins. Dead bodies of Wei and Jin troops lay in the rubble, a final testament of the pointless conflict fought over the little patch of land in the middle of the valley.

    “No sign of Ran Wei,” Zhao Tong said.

    “Then he is not dead,” Huang Zheng replied flatly.

    “Nice that you think so, because your son and my daughter are missing too,” his colleague added.

    “Well, that’s not good,” Huang Zheng commented loudly for the benefit of the other generals and officers around them. He took a quick look at the men before settling his eyes on one of them.

    “General Mu Tou,” he called out.

    “Sir?” the man came to attention and saluted.

    “Stay here and take charge of the main army when it arrives. Once you have made arrangements for the survivors, you are to proceed with the campaign to subdue the rest of the Wei and clear the path to its capital for our king,” Huang Zheng said. He took out his military commission’s tally and tossed it to Mu Tou who caught it with shock.

    General Mu Tou stared at the military tally with his mouth agape, for he had just been handed command of the entire vanguard consisting of tens of thousands of men. The tally had been personally handed to Huang Zheng by their king, and now Mu Tou was in possession of it. The implication was that he would be spearheading the invasion force into the former Wei kingdom.

    The other military officers were similarly stunned.

    “Sir? What do you mean? What are you doing?” one of them stuttered.

    “As you have heard, my son is missing. I must go search for him. This is a private affair, and the commander-in-chief of the army cannot be distracted by such personal matters. It is only right that I give up my command,” Huang Zheng said gravely.

    “That goes for me as well,” Zhao Tong added grimly.

    When the other generals protested, Huang Zheng raised a hand to silence them.

    “How long more do you think our old bones can go on?” he demanded. “Did you really think we are in need of further glory? The king charged me on a mission and I brought you lot out here so that you can demonstrate your capabilities. One day we will be gone, and you will have to step up and carry the weight of the kingdom on your backs.”

    The generals and officers were visibly moved.

    “I understand. I will detach a company from the vanguard to follow you and General Zhao,” General Mu Tou started to say.

    Huang Zheng interrupted him. “No need. Our personal troops have already gone ahead, we will join them shortly.”

    Mu Tou frowned. ‘What personal troops?’ he wondered.

    But Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong had already rode off, their faces set with grim determination that made all the Chuwu men who saw them feel their hearts well up with pride. There was a sort of tragic beauty seeing the aged fathers seeking to rescue their lost children…

    They would not know that the two aged generals were actually bickering back and forth like a couple of grumpy old men.

    “Speak for yourself, my old bones have many more years in them,” Zhao Tong was complaining.

    “You are more than welcome to stay behind,” Huang Zheng retorted.

    They rode off to a short distance where a group of people were waiting. Some were armed and uniformed, others were ordinary civilians. Men, women, young and old.

    “Father,” Huang Lang and Huang Ke stepped forward and saluted.

    “Husband,” Madam Li greeted from atop her horse. The matriarch of the Huangs was dressed in military garb, and she looked absolutely awe-inspiring.

    “Father-in-law,” Liu Yuchun and Qiong Ying who were also dressed in military attire greeted together with the heavily pregnant Cao Tianyun.

    Huang Zheng nodded approvingly. Even the young women of his family had followed this course action, and once more he was reassured.

    He squinted his eyes, noticing something amiss. “There is someone I don’t recognize,” he said gruffly.

    The person in question nervously kept her head bowed even as Qiong Ying urged her forward.

    “This is Min Guang,” Qiong Ying introduced with a smile.

    “Why is that name so familiar?” Huang Zheng wondered aloud. Then his eyes widened. “Min…? That effeminate boy who used to stick around Ah Ming?”

    “She’s no boy,” Madam Li said firmly.

    “You mean he’s added another one,” Huang Zheng stated incredulously as Min Guang flushed.

    “Don’t embarrass the poor girl, you clod,” Madam Li chided.

Huang Zheng uttered a ‘harumph’ but did not object any further. How could he, when even his wife had given her tacit approval?

    “Is everything ready?” he asked instead.

    “Everyone else has gone ahead to the river. We are about to set off to get Huang Ming and Sunli,” Huang Lang reported.

    “Good. Well, then, let us get to it then. We have a brat to rescue,” Huang Zheng said and the Huangs chuckled.

    ***

    At the summit site, the Chuwu and Jin guards rushed outside to see a disorganized mob bearing straight for them, cutting through any who stood in their way. The scores of Chuwu and Jin troops turned to face this new threat together, their mutual suspicion temporarily forgotten.

    The attackers were only a small group in number, but they were mounted and had the element of surprise. Huang Ming squinted and could make out a tattered banner carried by them: ‘Wei’.

    “Hmm. Not exactly what I expected,” Huang Ming said as he blinked.

    “Oh? I thought you have been doing this for a long time,” Jin Hua snorted derisively.

    “That just means I’m experienced. I make plans, not see the future. No plan survives implementation. Any why are you not running?” he asked.

    “You’re still here,” the princess pointed out. “That means you already have a plan to deal with him.”

    “I thought you have a plan,” Huang Ming chuckled.

    Each was waiting for the other to use up their trump card first.

    Whatever retort Jin Hua had was snuffed out by a heaven-shaking roar.

    “Huang Ming! I’ve come for you!”

    Cleaving a bloody path through Chuwu and Jin soldiers alike was the battered and disheveled Marshal Ran Wei. His armor was in pieces his hair untied, he had arrow wounds, stab wounds, slash wounds, scorch marks and bruises… he was streaked with dirt, grime and dried blood…

    Yet his eyes were gleaming with full murderous intent. He whipped his tired mount, driving it into a frothing frenzy towards Huang Ming.

    “Stop him!” Prince Jin Bao cried in panic. Not out of any concern for Huang Ming, but because his wife Jin Hua was nearby. What if Ran Wei attacked her? Or worse, struck Huang Ming’s explosive vest? Why was she still standing near that damned Huang Ming?

    Someone managed to stick a spear into the breast of Ran Wei’s horse in mid-gallop. The animal reared up and stomped on the unfortunate attacker with its last strength.

    Like a character from an action movie, Ran Wei leapt up from the dying steed and continued on his relentless advance, his long sword arcing and cutting down any who stood in his face.

    Huang Ming watched Ran Wei’s ferocious charge towards him with morbid fascination.

    ‘Look at him, he’s like a vengeful hero. Does that make me the antagonist who hides behind a gang of henchmen?’ he thought to himself bemusedly. He gave Jin Hua a sidelong glance. Does that make her the damsel in distress? Does that make Sunli his loyal protector?

    Zhao Sunli stepped up to confront Ran Wei. Silvery light flashed from the tip of her spear as it twirled and spun to meet Ran Wei’s attack.

    “Get out of my way!” the Wei marshal roared. In the past he had entertained the idea of snatching Sunli away from Huang Ming.

    Ran Wei had relished the challenge of taming such a tigress. He also would derive some sort of twisted pleasure by inflicting emotional damage on Huang Ming. He thought had already done it once over the matter of Min Guang, but when that woman disappeared from Tigertrap Fort, Ran Wei knew he had been duped all along.

    There were no more such fanciful thoughts now. He had lost everything and knew there was nothing else except the satisfaction of revenge. There was only rage, and Sunli was just another obstacle towards the object of his hate. The fury fueled his every move, and despite her skills, Sunli was soon giving ground from his sheer brutal ferocity.

    Sunli’s spear thrusts were finding their marks on Ran Wei, but the enraged marshal advanced heedless of the new wounds he suffered. When she managed to snap his sword using the metal shaft of her spear, Ran Wei still stepped forward relentlessly and threw the broken sword like a missile. Sunli easily evaded it, but the sword spun past her and flew towards Huang Ming.

    Huang Ming casually sidestepped the projectile, and it continued to fly through the air. Prince Jin Bao who was a few steps behind him barely dodged out of the way. The broken sword buried itself in the chest of one his confidants, and the man died with a hideous shriek that shook the prince.

    Jin Hua was not too perturbed. “Whatever you have planned, you should do it now,” she commented dryly to Huang Ming.

    Ran Wei was now unarmed but he still radiated a fearful aura.

When Sunli launched a strike towards his head, Ran Wei fearlessly used his left hand to receive it. Sunli’s eyes widened when Ran Wei allowed the spear-head to skewer his open palm. Ran Wei howled with pain but still drove the spear deeper until his hand was torn apart. A few fingers flew off, while the rest of the flesh dangled uselessly like an overripe fruit that had burst.

    However, that sacrifice allowed Ran Wei to close the gap to Sunli.

    “Out of my way, wench!” Ran Wei roared and threw a punch with his free hand. Sunli was able block it but the impact staggered her. It gave Ran Wei the opportunity to lash out with a kick that knocked her aside, where she was immediately attacked by the fanatical Wei men, even as they themselves were being cut down by the Chuwu and Jin guards.

    Ran Wei laughed in primal triumph.

    At last, he had a clear view of Huang Ming. There were still Chuwu and Jin men surrounding them, but they were preoccupied with the last of his fanatical loyalists. There were nobody else standing in his way, he had a straight and unobstructed path towards Huang Ming in the midst of the chaos.

    But the sight of yet another beautiful woman near Huang Ming stirred the anger within Ran Wei once more. The delicate and slender looking beauty stood out from all the bloodshed and carnage all around the area. Despite the madness of the situation, Ran Wei’s eyes could not help but be drawn towards her even as the last of him men were cut down. For a brief moment, he was distracted; for a fraction of a second, he remembered his covetous nature.

    Then resentment, envy and wrath all combined and boiled over once more.

    ‘Damn this Huang Ming! How dare this damned scholar fool around when he pushed me into the pit!’

    Such were the thoughts that immediately came to Ran Wei’s mind.

    He raised his arms and spread them wide, lowered his hips and with a mighty kick of his heel, rocketed towards Huang Ming in a death charge. Crush his windpipe, break his spine, and rip out his head with his bare hand…

    BANG!

    There was a clap of thunder, and Ran Wei was stopped dead in his tracks. The sound caused everyone to stop and turn around in astonishment.

    In Ran Wei’s neck was a fresh hole, gouged by a metal ball that had embedded itself just below the throat.

    He gasped and gurgled in a horrendous fashion as blood spewed dramatically from the huge wound.

    Ran Wei’s eyes widened as he frantically tried to staunch the flow.

    The few Wei soldiers left looked on with horror as Ran Wei staggered on his feet. Ran Wei’s eyes bulged with anger and desperation as the mortal wound prevented him from breathing.

    He gave Huang Ming a hateful glare, and then the former marshal of Wei toppled over to rise no more.

    Ran Wei was dead.

    All eyes then turned towards Huang Ming. Ran Wei had stared at the young man as he died in agony, and so everyone assumed he was responsible.

    Indeed, Huang Ming had a hand outstretched with two fingers pointing at Ran Wei. A wisp of smoke was trailing from his fingers.

    “Alas, you forced my hand to use my Yiyang Finger,” Huang Ming sighed and shook his head.

    “What Yiyang Finger? You just used a gun,” Jin Hua sneered.

    Indeed, Huang Ming was hiding a smoking flintlock pistol behind his back.

    “You didn't need to call me out like that,” Huang Ming grinned and dropped the spent gun to the ground.

    The moment he dropped it, Jin Hua laughed. Then she revealed a flintlock pistol of her own.

    “Just as I expected, your ace in the hole is a gun,” she announced triumphantly as she pointed the gun at Huang Ming’s head. They were only a few steps apart, and there was no way she would miss despite the antiquated design of the firearm.

    She allowed herself a smile.

    “Seems like every world traveller protagonist has the same idea,” she smirked and cocked the pistol.

    Huang Ming did not bat an eye. “Mmm, so what do want to do now? Take me back with you to Jin and tell you more about what I know?”

    Jin Hua shook her head.
    
    “I think not. If what you said is true, I will have all the time and multiple lives to learn everything myself,” Jin Hua said.

    “Goodbye,” she said as her finger began to move on the trigger.

    Boom.


                He made distant thunder,
                Now she makes him shiver.