The Red Plains (The Forbidden List Book 3) (7 page)

BOOK: The Red Plains (The Forbidden List Book 3)
3.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Chapter 9


“This is most interesting,” Yángwū said as he walked into Zhou’s prison. The short man was shaking his head and wore a puzzled look in his eyes.

“Things not going to plan? That is a great shame,” Zhou said.

“Plans, plans, plans. Does everything in your world fit every plan you’ve ever made? Of course it doesn’t. That is life, Zhou. Come, you must have understood that by now, after everything that has happened, or do you still believe in destiny, in fate?” Yángwū moved into the centre of the room and sat on the floor. “Sit, sit. Let me tell you what is going on outside these walls. I would be interested in your take on these matters. You have the view from the other side.”

“I am not telling you anything,” Zhou said as he sat down opposite his jailer.

“Of course not, however let me describe the events of the past day.” Yángwū scratched his chin before resuming. “The rather loud explosion that disturbed my story appears to have been an attempt by the Empire forces to slow down the Mongol army’s traverse of the wall. Some clever fellow, I suspect that engineer, the one always dressed in padded armour and covered in soot, has used
huŏ yào
to destroy the stair cases. It has been quite inconvenient to lower men to the ground by rope.”

“Good,” Zhou said.

“Indeed. The gate is even more interesting. Now that there are men on the Empire side of the Wall the gate should be easy to open. It is, however, proving quite stubborn. The same officer seems to have blocked the gate with large rocks which we will have moved in another few hours. More interesting, and it is perhaps here that you can help me the most, the gate itself seems impervious to our attempts to open it.” Zhou felt himself being inspected by Yángwū, the man’s eyes piercing into his own, gauging and measuring.

“I do not know how that is being done,” Zhou admitted, “but I am glad it is. The Emperor will know your army is coming and will mass his own against you.”

“I do hope so. I am counting on it,” Yángwū said. “So, the gate is one problem. As you will know from your observations of this army, they like to travel on horseback most of the time. It cannot be good for their spine and posture, but they don’t seem to mind. I have another piece of information for you, to prove my honesty and give you a clear account of the past day, and it is very strange. Every so often, and it seems to happen at random, the ground appears to rise up, at least the plants and grass do, and strangle a few tens of Mongol warriors. Would you know how that was done? It is quite infuriating and, as yet, I have not found a way to combat it. The generals are becoming quite irritated by it. Mongols tend to be quite a superstitious lot, even their magicians seem to be concerned. I am loathe to let them devise their own solution to the problem, it would not be a pretty sight.”

Zhou kept his face still, and tried to hide the thumping in his chest by clasping his hands together. The Spirit of Life, the being who had given him the staff and infused his body with strength in his battle with the Duke, seemed to be taking part in this battle too. “I have no idea.”

“Really?” Yángwū shook his head. “Such a shame. I thought you more intelligent. I have seen something similar, a long time ago and had it reported to me again much more recently. The Nature Spirit has taken a hand in two battles now, one in the Spirit plane and now one here. Always before, her power was limited to the area surrounding her tree, or those of her brothers and sisters. I looked, you know. A long time ago, I looked for her tree, the source of her life and power. Never found it. No matter, it is clear her power has grown and extended with the joining of the two planes, Nature and Spirit. It has never happened before. Did you know that?”

Zhou let the man ramble on, listening for information and struggling to think of a way to turn anything to his advantage. He shook his head.

“Of course. You must forgive me, I keep thinking you were a fully trained and learned
, but you are not. You’ve been in the library though, haven’t you? A great shame that all that learning is lost. Not my choice, I hasten to add. If only they had not turned the heart against me it would still be there for all to learn from,” Yángwū said.

“You know about the library?” Zhou could not help asking the question.

“Of course I do.” Yángwū looked at him in confusion for a moment. The polite but menacing short, round-bellied man suddenly looking much older than the lines around his eyes and face would suggest. “Zhou, really you must learn to listen. I told you that I had been trained on the mountain. My teacher is long gone now, but some of my scrolls would still have existed in the library. The Wu do not discard knowledge lightly. Perhaps, whilst there is a little time, I can assist your education a little. Old habits are hard to let go off and sharing learning, teaching others, is something I did for a very, very long time.”

There was a wistful tone in Yángwū’s voice and Zhou noted the faraway look in his eyes. Memories are powerful, he knew. They recreate times and places where you could live forever. All you have to do is let go of the now. There were times when Zhou was tempted to do just that. To live, to exist, in a time where his wife and child were alive and they were happy. It would not take much, just open the barred and locked doors, demolish the strong walls he had spent time building in his mind. The memories would destroy him, he knew, but the temptation was strong. He gritted his teeth and forced the sadness back down.

“Teach me what?” Zhou said.

“Let’s start at the beginning and see if we can build a common frame of reference.” Yángwū paused for moment, rubbed his chin again and then began. “You know about the planes and the journey through them to the spirit realm? Good,” he said as Zhou nodded, “we can get through that quite quickly then. The first is the void, the nothing, the place where the Fang-shi draw their power. The void and our world were once as one, as were all the planes.”

“I didn’t know that,” Zhou admitted.

“Ah, well there was a battle many thousands of years ago. A battle between the universe that created the world and the creatures that lived on it. There was only that one world. Nothing else existed. The creatures and the universe battled for hundreds of years until one being found a way to break the hold the universe had on this world. Think of it as if the universe had fingers, ten of them, and the creatures learned to prise those fingers off the world. As each lost its grip another plane was born.”

Yángwū raised a finger
. “
First was the void. It is the plane where this world, our world, once existed. It holds the memory and the agony of that separation. That is the power the
tap into, and why so many of them are driven insane or power hungry, the void wants our world back, to make it whole again.”

A second finger went up. “Second is pain. An echo of the universe’s pain at losing its grip on its creation.” Another finger extended upwards, counting. “Third, fire. The searing heat of revenge, a creature that is alive but ephemeral. Capable of so much damage, but able to sustain life. There is something of a fire in all of us, we burn energy to stay alive and to move.”

A fourth finger. “Water is next. Capable of moving, flowing, becoming a vapour or a solid block of ice. It fills every nook and crack. You cannot escape from water, nor should you, we are made of it.”

“Made of water?”

“You have seen cremations. Once the water is gone, the body is just a pile of ash. We are made of water. Now,” his thumb marked number five, “air. We need it to survive, fire needs it to burn and water contains it. By mixing all three, we are born. The sixth,” and he held up his other hand to continue counting, “is rock. It is the firmament upon which we stand, the material from which we build things. Our bones and flesh, the ash left over, is just another form of rock.”

“The seventh realm is death, where the Mongols draw their power from. It comes before life, all things must give way to it. Death is easy to come by, life is harder to create. The universe could have crushed the world when the battles began, one squeeze of its unimaginably giant hands and the world would have died. So easy to do for the universe, but it didn’t. It made a harder decision, it allowed life, the eighth plane.”

“Now we enter the realm of the spirit, the home of original life. You’ve been told there is one of every creature that exists here, the true animal, and that is, as far as it goes, the truth. But extend that thought for a moment and you will encounter a concept so startling that you will wonder why you never thought of it before?”

Yángwū waited. Zhou could see the expectation in his eyes. The stare was not that of captor, interrogator, jailor, it was that of a teacher waiting to see if their pupil could make the leap of intuition and knowledge needed. Zhou stared back.

“And the tenth realm?” Zhou said finally.

Yángwū let go a heavy sigh, of disappointment Zhou was sure. However much his captor wanted Zhou to learn, he was still the jailor, still the man who had brought the red tide to the wall. Still the man who was ultimately responsible for the death of Zhou’s wife and child. He was damned if he was going to play games with him.

“The tenth is the Jade Heaven. The realm where the Jade Emperor surveys this fractured world, where he imprisons the universe, and where he rules from.”

“The Jade Emperor is a myth, a god we don’t need any longer,” Zhou said.

“Oh no, Zhou. The Jade Emperor is real and he is not a god, not as you mean. He is the original spirit of us, of man and woman. It was he who learned to prise the universe’s fingers from the world it created. He was the greatest creation of the universe, with just one flaw, at least a flaw in the universe’s plans. The Jade Emperor, unlike all the other beasts and animals, had the ability to learn new things, to think new ideas, to be his own creator. He gathered the beasts together and had them battle the universe,” Yángwū explained.

“Then he has done nothing for many years. Again I say, we do not need him.” Zhou said, intrigued despite himself.

“Not for many years, you are correct, but soon he will. Soon it will be the meeting of the immortals, the princes he created to rule the planes in-between. They will meet upon the Three Peak Mountain to discuss the planes, to make plans, to reaffirm alliances and to protect the realms. If there is discord in their number then a thousand years of pain will be inflicted upon the world. I intend to be at that meeting.” Yángwū spoke with a fire in his voice, an anger and rage that Zhou had not heard from the man during any session of questions or discussion.

“You want to disrupt the meeting. You want to cause a thousand years of pain,” Zhou said, incredulous. “I will not, cannot allow that. I will kill you first.”

“Disrupt it? A little, but not for that purpose. And note, Zhou, how quick you change from disbelief to acceptance and righteous anger. Is that anger yours or does its home lay elsewhere? You are a puzzle still. No, I do not want to disrupt it. I have bigger dreams than that. I want to be the Jade Emperor, to take over his mantle.”

“You just said he is immortal and that he battled the universe, there is no way you could, anyone could, defeat such a being,” Zhou said. “You’re mad.”

“Immortal is just a word we use to mean long-lived, it does not mean ‘cannot be killed’. The
are long-lived, but they eventually die. I have seen the Prince of the Spirit Realm die. I tried to take his power, his strength and spirit, but it went to someone else. It would be impossible to deny that I also want some measure of revenge and when I become the Jade Emperor that will be an easy task to accomplish,” Yángwū said.

“You are just a
, like me,” Zhou said.

“I am
no longer. The spirit cast me out, denied me, and still denies me entrance to the realm. I had to search for new power, for a new way. It took hundreds of years, but in the far north, amongst ice and volcanoes I found the power I desired. I studied for another hundred years to become like my new master, and then I killed him and took his power. I am the Prince of the Fire Realm, and my seat at the council is assured.”

Zhou looked at the small man. His mind was telling him the old
had been driven mad by the years away from the spirit realm, but his heart trembled and his stomach was queasy. There was no evidence for the man’s words, no aura of incredible power, no heat radiating off of him, nothing to suggest he was anything but a bitter man who had lived too many years with revenge in his heart. Zhou swallowed, bringing moisture to his dry mouth.

“If that is true, why do you have need of the Mongols and the invasion of the Empire?” Zhou asked. “It seems a petty waste of an immortal life and power.”

“The other immortals are on their way to the mountain. We travel as all men do, by land and sea. The war will hold them up, delay their journey, put some of them in peril, distract them. The fewer who make it to the meeting, the better chance I have. The war is nothing but that,” Yángwū said.

“You are mad,” Zhou said.

“We shall see, little
We shall see.”

Chapter 10


“I don’t care whether or not we are upsetting the merchants,” Haung snapped, stabbing a finger at the administrator in front of him. “I want those houses down and the rubble available for my engineers. If they have a problem then tell them to come and talk to me. I’ll explain the realities of the situation to them, or put them on the wall so they can see it for themselves.”

“Honoured General,” the administrator began, “the Mayor of Liulimiao wishes you to know that he will be making a formal complaint to the Emperor for the destruction you and your men have caused this town.”

“Good,” Haung stepped forward, invading the prim administrator’s space and stared him in the eye. “Tell him he can do so when the Emperor arrives, or if he wishes to challenge my authority he can damn well present himself here and do it in person. Now, get out.”

Haung turned away, presenting his back to the administrator and returned to the table overflowing with scrolls, maps and diagrams. The quiet was only broken by the soft whisper of the other man’s slippers on the tiled floor as he left.

The town was everything that Gongliang had suggested, and less. The wall was low. If they had enough time Haung would have liked to double its height, but there was not. Still, the Mongols would need to make ladders to reach the top. Those, he hoped, they would not have brought with them. Another delaying tactic.

The years of peace had made the town planners complacent. They had allowed merchants to build their homes and warehouses right up to the wall and, whilst the road was wide enough for a wagon or two, it restricted the movement of troops and supplies. Those homes and warehouses were a fire risk too. No army wanted a big drop in front of them, full of enemy soldiers, and a raging fire behind. Demolition was the only option and as soon as Haung had come through the gates, the majority of his army still filtering down the valley, he had ordered Gongliang to start pulling them down.

The location was useful though. The town was situated on the south bank of the river at the point where two valleys joined. A stone bridge that would have been hard to destroy even if there had been any powder remaining was the only means of passage. The western valley, from which the river flowed, was wide, deep and full of marsh. A small road, built high up on the hillside, was the only pathway through that valley.

The main valley, the one the army had followed, now formed the course of the river. The meander, the wide turn the river made to flow south, had led to the development of a large cliff on the eastern side. Marshland extended down the river course as far as could be seen.

The road itself was on the western side of the river, on land slightly raised above the valley floor, and ran close to the city walls. A well-armed garrison might well be able to prevent a much larger army using that road by the simple expedience of loosing crossbow bolts at any and everyone who tried to march down it.

In front of the town and road, the land sloped gently down to the river. This area was wide enough for a reasonable force to gather, out of bow range, or to ride past the town. Though they would still have to join the road to make further progress and bring themselves in range of the crossbows.

All things considered, it did not make a bad spot to defend. Gongliang had come up with some simple ideas quickly and Enlai had gone off on his own saying he might know someone in the town who could be of assistance. Haung had not asked for more information or tried to stop him, the
had become increasingly irritable on the journey. A change Haung put down to the man’s worries about Xióngmāo. Whatever relationship those two had was beyond his concern at the moment.

The door creaked open behind him and he turned around, ready to shout at the next administrator bringing in some facile complaint from the Mayor. He let the anger drain away as Gongliang came in.

“I just saw an administrator rushing down the corridor, looking decidedly pale. Your handy work?” Gongliang said.

“They are a constant annoyance.” Haung slumped down in one of the wooden chairs and picked up his cup of cold tea, taking a swallow and screwing up his face at the taste. “I am sorely tempted to go and drag the Mayor out of his
, out of whatever tiny little room within it he is holed up in, and make him stand a stint on the wall, in full armour.”

“You could do it.” Gongliang sat in the other chair and placed his palm on the teapot. “I’ll have them send you some more tea, some hot tea.”

“I could do it, but he still rules this town and we need the people on our side.” Haung smiled, a tight grin that didn’t reach his eyes. “The tea would be good though. What can I do to help you?”

“The pits are dug and we will continue to dig and plant spikes in as many more as we can. There are pits on the approach to the wall, though they should be easy to avoid. We cannot dig down too far without the pits flooding with water, which gives me another idea,” Gongliang said.

“Will it upset the mayor?”

“Definitely,” Gongliang smiled.

“Then you have my permission to do it.” Haung returned the smile. “Now, what other good news do you have for me?”

“There is a small supply of powder in the town. That could come in handy.”

“I thought
huŏ yào
was tightly controlled,” Haung said, leaning forward in his chair.

“It is,” Gongliang admitted. “I’m not sure where he found out, or how he knew it would be here, but here it is and we can use it.”


“Enlai,” Gongliang said. “He sent a messenger with a map.”

“Have you seen him since we got here?”

“No.” The engineer shook his head. “I just get the occasional note, message or, as with the
huŏ yào
, a map. Everything he has sent has been useful though.”

“You were at the Wall before me, what do you know about him?” Haung asked.

“Do you mean Corporal Enlai or the one we have now?” Gongliang raised his palms in a gesture of confusion. “I don’t know anything about him except that he is the best fighter I have ever seen, better than Gang and Liu, and, forgive me, even better than you.”

“Nothing to forgive in that. The man is incredible. I just don’t know anything about him and I don’t like puzzles. Now he has vanished into the city and seems to know where to find lots of equipment and people who can help us.”

“Haung, I don’t have an answer, but I will get you some more tea. And you really should rest. The troops are making the preparations. I would say the Mongols will be here within a day, two at the most.”

“Not the best of news,” Haung said. “I’ll drink the tea and try to get some sleep. Wake me up if anything happens.”

“Of course, General,” Gongliang said, gathering up the tea things and carrying them from the room.

# # #

“Are there less of them, do you think?” Gang said.

“No,” Liu replied, “but if you want to count, I’ll go and ask them to stand still. Just so it is easier for you.”

“If you could, that would be much appreciated.” Gang laughed and slapped Liu on the shoulder. The thinner man stumbled forward under the weight of the friendly gesture. “You need to get some more meat on those bones, Liu. It’ll keep you warmer in the winter. Maybe then you wouldn’t have to wrap yourself up in all those clothes.”

Liu smiled at Gang as he tugged his clothes back into place. “Not all of us were blessed with a larger frame, Gang.”

“Blessed? This took hard work, a lot of food and many years.” Gang grabbed his belly in two hands as evidence.

Haung listened to the two warriors joke and bicker, but his eyes were focused upon the Mongol army that was riding down the road. It was not the strict lines and formations of an Empire army on the march, but it moved as one, like an ant colony migrating or a herd of cattle, which in effect it was. Every warrior was on horseback and was leading two or three other horses without riders. It looked exactly like the last time, before the Wall, but now he had no way of knowing whether the Mongol magicians were with them.

“How long?” Gongliang asked. “How long can we hold?”

“A few days, maybe.” Haung lowered his voice as he answered. No need for his estimate to spread to the troops. The men needed to think they could hold forever, despite the evidence to contrary and their earlier retreat from the Wall. The messengers he had sent on horseback, requisitioned from the stables in the city, to find the Emperor’s army offered some hope. Not enough to rely upon, but enough to maintain the spark of life, the possibility of salvation. “We’ll hold until the Emperor’s army gets here.”

“If my idea works, we might be able to hold even longer,” Gongliang looked over the wall towards the east where the river still worked to erode the base of the cliff.

“I would have preferred to take the bridge down,” Haung said.

“Not a chance,” his second in command replied. “It has been there a long time and is made of heavy stone. We don’t have the amount of powder needed to blow it up. The supplies Enlai found have been put to better use.”

“I know,” Haung nodded following Gongliang’s gaze, “but it still does not sit right with me. Never give an enemy an advantage, control their movements, know their thoughts, that’s what I was taught.”

is not a general. Listen to your army training as well. We could not stop them at the bridge, but we can use the landscape against them,” Gongliang said.

“Haung,” Gang called, “can you see? There are too many to cross the bridge.”

“Did you block the road?” Haung said.

“Yes,” Gang smiled broadened. “You worry like an old mother. I did what the engineers told me to and had the men build a rubble wall on the southern road, from the wall to the river. They are not getting their horses past that and the river’s too deep. We have them trapped.”

“Or they have us trapped,” Liu suggested in a whisper that only Haung heard. He could not disagree.

Haung looked along the city wall, wishing it was half-again higher. It was typical of Empire architects and engineers. Quite capable of building a wall that curved and followed the contours of the land they insisted on interspersing square block towers within it. Something to do with the academy processes of learning from the past, the order, the structure and a certain unwillingness to change. Apart from the aesthetic, there were some positives to the wall. It had been well built. Originally, great blocks of stone had been carefully cut and placed, hardly a visible join between, to form the wall. The towers grew from the wall in the same manner, no sudden breaks in the stone courses, they were part of the wall itself. The towers had platforms large enough for a contingent of archers or, if they had any, siege weapons. Crenellations lined the battlements and there were arrow slits built into the tower and wall.

Of the negatives, the wall had not been maintained very well by the city. Here and there, all along the wall, plants had found small weathered crannies in which to sprout and grow. The smooth surface now contained a selection of hand and toe holds that a very determined climber might be able to use to scale the wall. Some of the arrow slits had been blocked by the owners of the homes which had been built against the wall. This, annoyingly from Gongliang’s and Haung’s point of view, had meant the walkways on lower levels of the wall had been removed. The Engineers had done a good job of erecting a series of wooden platforms upon which archers could stand and loose their ammunition through the uncovered arrow slits.

In the two days, they had done the best they could to ready the old garrison town for battle. The militia had been called up and armed. It had not been a pretty sight, mismatched and mouldy armour, rusty weapons and a collection of men too old to stand the wall or too young to be blooded in battle. Haung had given as many of them as possible the short-range repeating crossbows, hoping their numbers would overcome the lack of accuracy. The real army had strict instructions to make the best use of the militia, but not allow them to interfere with the defence of the wall.

If it came to a lengthy siege, which Haung considered very unlikely, then they had water from the city well and enough food from the merchants’ warehouses to last for a few weeks. The biggest threat in a siege was illness and disease. Once that took hold, it was all over. With a rueful smile, Haung acknowledged the fact that he was over-thinking this battle. A few days is all they needed, all they had planned for and, like any well trained
, he had an escape plan. Though this one involved saving the whole town and army.

“Do you think they are going to talk first?” Liu asked.

“They didn’t last time,” Gang replied.

“That was the Wall,” Gongliang said. “Xióngmāo said that in their own land, if they attack towns, they offer a chance to surrender first.”

“Really?” Gang said.

“She explained that it takes too long to rebuild.” Gongliang shrugged.

“What happens if the town doesn’t surrender?” Liu asked.

“Then everyone inside is killed.” Gongliang looked away as he spoke.

“A forgiving people,” Haung said. “Liu, do you think you can find a
shè dào

Liu gave a slight bow and began to pick his way through the troops readying themselves on the wall.

BOOK: The Red Plains (The Forbidden List Book 3)
3.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Close Encounter by Deanna Lee
Marrying Miss Marshal by Lacy Williams
Conquer the Night by Heather Graham
Horse Games by Bonnie Bryant
The Devil's Beating His Wife by Siobhán Béabhar
On Wings Of The Morning by Marie Bostwick
The Vow by Lindsay Chase
Never Glue Your Friends to Chairs by Katherine Applegate
Olivia by Lori L. Otto