“The world will be better without you.”
--Ezio Auditore, ‘Assassin’s Creed’
Chapter 98 – Disappeared
Elsewhere at Tigertrap Pass and far away from the battle was a lonesome Huang Ming, waiting beneath a tree. He had been waiting there for a few hours, and already the sun was beginning to set.
Huang Ming had little concerns about the battle being waged by his father against the Wei pursuers. This was not overconfidence, but a logical assumption after carefully calculating and weighing the possibilities. The Wei pursuers were too bold to have followed the retreating Wu forces this far, and it was inevitable that they be lured into an ambush. Even if the Wei pursuers were cautious, the geographical layout of Tigertrap Pass meant that they had no choice but to advance in an obvious manner if they wanted to catch the ‘defeated’ troops of Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong.
This was why Huang Ming was assured enough to leave the actual execution of the battle to his father. As the saying goes, a wise strategist could dictate battles from a thousand miles away.
Indeed, Huang Ming was more concerned about the mosquitoes that were buzzing in his vicinity. He futilely slapped various parts of himself to deter their bites and found himself ruefully wishing that he had chosen a different rendezvous point.
His grouses were interrupted when he heard a discreet whistle. He grinned and whistled back in response. Soon, a small troop of horsemen arrived, led by Huang Ke. In their midst was a dishevelled obese man; dirty and grubby. His clothes were tattered and in shambles; his mouth gagged with cloth and his hands tied as he was pulled along like a prisoner. Weariness and exhaustion weighed heavily on him, and his eyes were haunted.
“Ho, little brother! Look at what I’ve caught!” Huang Ke called out.
Huang Ming smiled, not wanting to remind his brother that the prisoner was only captured at his advice. Before the Wu remnants and Wei forces went into Tigertrap Pass, Huang Ming had told him to take some trusted men and patrol the entrance. They were to keep a lookout for a certain Marshal Gao Fang the Wave-Queller, the man responsible for the disaster at Dashan Plains.
Sure enough, the marshal soon appeared near Tigertrap Pass, trying to make his escape back to Wu. He was walking on foot, having forced to abandon his luxurious carriage that had been damaged by his reckless handling. Besides, the smell of blood and guts permeating the transport sickened him. He was about to commandeer one of the horses of his few remaining subordinates who were still with him when sounds of the Wei pursuers reached their ears. Panic-stricken, his lackeys whipped their horses and abandoned the marshal to save themselves.
They were his creatures after all, self-serving men of low quality calibre and dubious abilities that he had gathered solely to inflate his ego. Once confronted with real danger, there was no reason for them to flatter him any longer. Self-preservation was more important than pandering to the defeated marshal.
The marshal was alone and was even entertaining the idea of finding the nearest Wei soldier to surrender when Huang Ke found him. At first the marshal thought it was a rescue, but his joy turned to despair when he was unceremoniously tied up and gagged like a prisoner.
“You’re late. Did you make him walk all the way here?” Huang Ming asked in annoyance.
“He deserved it,” Huang Ke said defensively.
Huang Ming scowled. “Yes, but not me! I’ve been waiting here for hours, becoming food for the insects!” he complained.
“Think of it as a character building exercise, little brother,” Huang Ke smirked.
Marshal Gao Fang was almost delirious with fatigue, but hearing the light banter between the two brothers sparked fury and indignation in him. Bound and gagged, he could only glare angrily at them. When Huang Ming saw his constrained anger, he ordered the gag to be removed.
Immediately the marshal roared furiously. “How dare you! Do you know who I am?!”
“The Marshal of Wu, Gao Fang the Wave-Queller,” Huang Ming said mildly.
That doused Gao Fang’s fire very quickly. He was a shrewd man and had made certain conclusions while being forced to march towards Tigertrap Fort.
“Are you from Wei?” he asked, hope colouring his question.
The marshal gulped visibly. “Then… from Wu?”
Gao Fang closed his eyes, as if accepting his fate. When he opened them again, there was a sense of finality. Having been treated in such rough manner, he knew that all hope was lost. If his captors were from Wei, there was still a chance that he would be brought back alive as a trophy, possibly even paroled after a suitable ransom had been paid. But since they were from Wu and had shown little regard for his safety and comfort, it only meant that his life was in peril.
“Who do you work for? Tong Xuan?” he demanded.
Huang Ming smiled grimly. “Do you not recognize us, Marshal Gao?” he asked rhetorically.
Gao Fang frowned and shook his head.
“We’re the sons of Huang Zheng, and you have an unhealthy interest in our family,” Huang Ming informed him. “Did you think nobody would know about your attempt at our own home?”
Beside him, Huang Ke snorted. He had trembled with rage when Huang Ming had told him what had happened. Their mother and Cao Shuang had written letters detailing the kidnapping plot, and Huang Ming had intercepted them to avoid distracting his father before the decisive battle at Dashan Plains.
Huang Ming had calculated about Wu’s massive defeat there, but up to that point he had no plans for the marshal. He was more concerned about the eventual retreat back to Tigertrap Pass. But once he had read the letters, he knew he had to get rid of the marshal once and for all. After the battle was concluded in Wei’s favour, he drew his elder brother aside and whispered instructions for him to slip away from their father’s eyes. Once the retreat was under way, Huang Ke was to loiter around the entrance of Tigertrap Pass with a few trusted men to capture the fleeing marshal.
The marshal stared at them in horror. Then his face twisted in rage. “Huang Zheng! Pfaugh! I knew it! All that reputation of honour was just a window dressing, in the end he is also a dirty schemer!”
“You are mistaken,” Huang Ming said coldly. “My father knows nothing of this. In fact, I wager that he had completely forgotten about you, he has more important things to worry about.”
Gao Fang sneered in disbelief. “Don’t bother playing him up like some holy man. His shit is just as foul as mine!”
Huang Ming raised an eyebrow and gave him a once-over; causing the marshal to flush at the mocking, dismissive gesture.
“The one remotely similar thing you have in common with my father is in your choice of subordinates,” Huang Ming said slowly.
His brother was offended. “What the hell do you mean by that?”
Huang Ming shrugged. “Qin Lang, the guy he appointed to hold Tigertrap Fort is refusing to open the gates, because of his loyalty to the marshal. Similarly, we’re doing this for our father.”
Upon hearing the name Qin Lang, a glimmer of hope appeared in Gao Fang’s eyes. “Hah! So you want me to order Qin Lang to open the gates?” he dared to ask.
Huang Ming shook his head. “There’s no need. You’re here because it’s time to end your feud with our father.”
His faint hope extinguished, Gao Fang trembled in fear. “But how are you to return to Wu without opening Tigertrap Fort?”
“That is no longer your concern,” Huang Ming told him. He nodded to his brother, and Huang Ke unsheathed his sword. It was already nightfall, and the sword’s metal glinted with the moonlight.
“You can’t do this! I’m the Marshal of Wu!” Gao Fang shouted in terror. He tried to scurry away, but strong hands from Huang Ke’s soldiers pinned him down in place.
“You have perverted your office to suit your own desires,” Huang Ming said tonelessly. “You have been vain, ambitious, greedy. You treated your responsibilities lightly, and a hundred thousand men have been lost. You are rich and powerful, but still covetous of others. Your crimes are heavy, your sins unforgivable.”
“No...no! No! I’ll pay you! I’ll give you everything!”
A feeling of disgust welled in the men as they witnessed the Marshal of Wu disgracing himself. What was this base creature that had dared to stir a hundred thousand men into battle for his own convenience?
In one swift motion, Huang Ke mercilessly chopped off his head.
Marshal Gao Fang the Wave-Queller was no more.
The Wave-Queller went to war,
Seeking glory and more,
On his chariot he met The Onslaught,
And his dreams came to naught.
The field of battle did he cede,
Not caring that his men still bleed.
Where he went, it’s a mystery,
Now a mere footnote in history.