Alexis asked one question in the morning. “When was the last time we were in China?”
Lincoln looked it up and rattled off the answer. “We were in Tibet about three hundred years ago. But Rajish came from India, so that might not count. China proper, at least on the Wei River, we found Shang Feyan in the days when the Zhou overthrew the Shang. That was more than seven hundred years ago. Before that was Yu Huang in the sacred mountain, after the Shang took over from the Hsia. Then Lin—Chin Shao Lin, founder of the Hsia Dynasty, and before that, Nuwa.” He stopped.
“How long ago was Nuwa?” Katie wondered.
“About twenty-five hundred and maybe forty years ago. Call it twenty-five fifty.”
“I remember the hoopers,” Lockhart said.
Decker let out a small, “Haw”.
“Nuwa is my friend,” Boston said. “The dragon, I mean. I love my goddess.”
Jing Ke swallowed his breakfast and got that old look on his face. “You know Nuwa?”
“We met,” Katie said. “She traveled with us for a few days, but she was very busy. The sky fell, you know.”
“She certainly knows us,” Lockhart added, and felt the nudge which he was learning was wife-speak for shut-up.
Jing Ke looked at the woods and the horses. “There is a mountain,” he said. “It is not far from Handan. They say it is the place where Nuwa fixed the sky.”
“She made the Pendratti and Sevarese go away in their space ships and reestablished Earth as a no-fly zone,” Lincoln told Evan and Millie, and he supposed Sukki, too. Jing Ke shook his head, like maybe Lincoln said that in French, for all he understood.
“Pack it up. Get the horses. Time to move.” Lockhart got up and changed the subject.
Boston had one thing to add before she rode out ahead. “You know, we’ve been in this time zone ten whole days, and nobody has yet tried to kill us, or anything.”
“Boston!” Alexis yelled at her, but it was too late. Sure enough, they did not get out of the woods before they became surrounded by a hundred soldiers.
The travelers had to get down and walk their horses, under escort, with soldiers on both sides. When they came out of the woods, they saw a great wall and two forts, one near and one barely discernable in the distance. It was not a great wall of China wall, but it looked like a serious obstacle for any opposing army that carried only swords and spears. That opposing army appeared spread out in tents that stretched to the horizon. The Zhao army had their own tents behind the wall, where the travelers walked. Jing Ke dared to speak to Lockhart, and Katie while they walked.
“Li Mu took the year of the earthquake and the year of famine to build his fortifications. I understand he used every natural resource in the landscape he could, like rivers, mountains, and forests. He did not dare spread his men too thin, but patrols, like this one, keep a watch on all ways.”
Lockhart understood, but Katie added her own thought. “Thermopylae is a natural choke point. Three hundred Spartans can hold it, as long as the enemy does not discover the secret path over the mountains.”
An hour later, they entered the fort and left their horses on the ground. Decker had his binoculars and the scope for his rifle. Lockhart grabbed the other pair of binoculars and Katie got her scope, and they climbed up to the wall, now seriously guarded. They left all their knives with the horses, but they took the handguns, plus Decker and Katie carried their rifles. Lockhart slipped the shotgun on his shoulder, and they climbed the stairs.
The travelers got stopped not far down the wall, as the captain stepped forward. He whispered to one of the middle-aged men, and stood back. An older man stood there leaning on a cane, not due to his age, but seemingly from a wound that appeared mostly healed. A third man, maybe forty or so, continued to look out on the enemy, but the first two turned on the travelers. The middle-aged man spoke.
“If you are spies sent by the Qin to test our defenses, speak plainly. You have been caught. You will be locked away, but at least you will not be tortured.” He paused, and took a closer look at the group. “You are strange looking people. What are they growing in Qin?”
“We are not spies,” Lockhart responded calmly. “We are not native to any of the lands here. We are travelers who have come a long way and still have a long way to go.”
The middle-aged man prepared to speak again, but Jing Ke stepped forward and interrupted. “I am Jing Ke, servant of King Xi of Yan. We left Yan ten days ago to come to you. Yan has no army to send at this time, but I have been instructed to see if there may be other ways we may provide for your relief. I was told to speak to Guo Kai, to see if there is some way, in my king’s name, I can help find a path to peace.”
The old man laughed, and the middle-aged one growled. “Twice, now, in the same day I have been presented with words impossible to verify. This one speaks of a magic powder in the hands of the Qin that will make holes in our wall. And now, you say you have been sent from Yan to speak of peace. Are all of you from Yan? I have never seen yellow hair before.”
“Not much of a spy,” Alexis said softly to Jing Ke. He responded, like it did not matter.
“I have watched you in these past ten days and heard you speak openly and honestly about things no one on this earth could possibly know. But I believe you, and I have learned that sometimes honesty can get more of the truth of the matter than subterfuge will ever know. My king can do little right now, but he genuinely wants to help. It may be for selfish reasons, to put off the invasion of his own land for as long as possible, but what difference does that make if I can help. Maybe I can find that elusive path to peace. Who can say?”
“Wait. There is more. Let me show you,” The third man said as he turned at last to face the group. “Lockhart, lend me the binoculars,” he said, before he opened his arms and said, “Boston.”
Boston had a man holding her arm and holding a sword by her side. Boston slipped from the arm and raced into the hug before that man could otherwise move. The man who spoke, clearly, the Kairos Meng Shi, removed Boston’s glamour so she stood there in all her elfish glory.
“Now I feel kinda naked,” she said.
“Hush,” Meng Shi said. “Tell me what you see. I am looking for barrels of black powder. I followed one of the outlaws, and a whole troop of wagons to this place, but lost them in the camp. I am sure they have brought them to Wang Jian and my cousin, Meng Wu. I am sure it is only a matter of time before they bring them forward and boom, no more wall.”
The old man laughed again on seeing the elf, but the middle-aged man found his voice after his initial shock. “That would be a disaster. They have twice our number. We are barely able to hold this strong defensive position.”
Meng Shi introduced the other two men. “Li Mu, general in charge, and my laughing friend is his assistant, general Sima Shang. Sima Shang has the defense against the south and came up here for a strategy session.”
Katie and Decker already started looking through their scopes. Elder Stow also got his goggles, and the soldiers backed off a little, but stayed ready.
“Li Mu. I am honored,” Jing Ke said, and made an appropriate bow. “These travelers have been sent by the gods. You have heard the demon guardian from the burning court of Diyu speak. They have all been empowered by the gods to find the three evil ones making the magic powder, and stop them, by sending them back to the land of torment.”
On the mention of the Chinese hell, the guards took another step back. One looked ready to run, but his fellow guards held him in place.
Lockhart handed Meng Shi the glasses and spoke on the strategy meeting. “If they break through the wall, no strategy meeting will help much. You will mostly have screaming and panic.”
“There,” Lincoln shouted and pointed. “One of the cowboys.”
Meng Shi tried to look where Lincoln looked. He said, “Elder Stow. Can you scan the line there and see where they may have brought up the barrels of powder?”
“Of course,” he said, and removed his goggles to give them to Evan. He pulled out his scanner, and shortly projected a holographic image of the line, with yellow dots indicating where the gunpowder barrels stood, several together, in several locations down the line.
“I would say they are preparing to move,” Decker said.
“Definitely,” Katie confirmed his assessment.
“Quick,” Meng Shi moved down the wall toward the travelers. “Elder Stow, your sonic device.” He held out his hand and Elder Stow handed over the device before he thought about it. Meng Shi turned up the device to full power, and pointed it at the line. It would drain fast, but he hoped it would do the trick. “Hold your ears,” he said, and let it rip. People shouted, screamed, and threw their hands up to cover their ears. A few fell to roll on the ground in agony. One by one, the stacks of powder exploded, as Meng Shi turned the device to point at each stack that showed on Elder Stow’s projection. Even with the naked eye, they saw men, animals, tents, campfires, and everything else, including bushes and trees get tossed and broken. They heard the thunder and saw the tremendous plumes of fire and smoke rise up into the sky.
Then the screeching whine stopped as suddenly as it started, and Meng Shi said, “We need to get down there and make sure they all got destroyed.”
Li Mu, who grabbed the edge of the wall and left his mouth hanging open, turned quickly and said, “Wait.”
Meng Shi responded before the general could form a clear thought. “What? Are you going to go there and make sure they all got destroyed? You going to send your army?”
Li Mu took a step back and waved him off. “No. I understand.”
“You’re welcome,” Meng Shi said, and guided the others to the stairs
“Take my horse,” Jing Ke shouted.
“No,” Meng Shi shouted back. “Your horse blanket proves you are from Yen. Li Mu has horses below, including the one I came on. If I can’t find mine, I’ll take one of his. Call it an even exchange.”
Li Mu nodded and waved for the Captain to get Meng Shi a horse.
When the captain caught up, he said, “But aren’t you afraid they will kill you for destroying their surprise and killing so many?”
“I did what?” Meng Shi smiled while men prepared his horse and the travelers got ready to ride. “Li Mu turned down my proposal, that since the famine last year, his food stores must be running low, so Wang Jian would graciously accept an honorable surrender.”
“But no,” the captain said. “The spring crops were good and the summer harvest looks to be bountiful.”
“Do, you see? I got turned down and I prepared to leave, when I found my friends, here, captured by a hundred of Zhao’s finest. Suddenly, everything began to blow up, and we raced to safety in all the confusion.”
Meng Shi mounted and the captain hurried them out the gate.