Avalon 6.12 The Road Ahead, part 4 of 5

When they reached Anyi, Meng Shi checked with his nephew Meng Yi, the one he left in charge of the city.  No more wagons or barrels of magic powder went up the road on the way to the army in Handan.  That was good, so Meng Shi spent a day interviewing Yi, and others, concerning the condition of the city.  He found things calm and the people far more settled and at peace with Qin rule than he expected.  He told the others that his nephew was a natural.  They headed out for Xianyang, the capitol of the Qin state.  That would be a five or six-day journey.

On one of those nights, they sat around an inn within Qin territory, and the subject of the servant of the Masters and his attempt to develop a plague came up.

“But here is the thing.  This scientist of the Masters has talked about being alive in the far future.  He has the king thinking about immortality, but in the way the gods are immortal, and I have not heard any suggestion that perhaps that is not the case.  The king is superstitious, you know.  He has decided that there must be some kind of magic formula.  He is going to be the spark that sets off two thousand years of Chinese alchemy in the search for immortality.  True, there are some good things discovered in that time; but mostly, what a waste of human skill and ingenuity, and too many good people will die, testing the potions, and in other related ways.”

“But that isn’t what made the people turn against him, is it?” Millie asked.  She had been wondering about that, and did not get a satisfactory answer from Evan, who admitted he knew little about Chinese history, or from Katie, or Lincoln.

Meng Shi admitted.  “I can only read the writing on the wall, so to speak. I have no definitive answer, either; but I would say he will centralize everything, like some two-bit fascist, socialist dictator. He will massively raise taxes, which will crash the economy.  He will redistribute the wealth, mostly to his own pocket, and to his friends, which are those who suck up to him.  He will begin massive government work projects, digging canals, making roads, building the Great Wall of China.  More than a million people will die from overwork and malnutrition.  The people will be miserable, and hate him.”

“What about the nobility?” Katie asked.

“That much is certain,” Meng Shi said. “He is convinced the hereditary nobility is what caused the Zhou Dynasty to fall.  He plans to replace the nobles with an elite class of bureaucrats.  You know how graft and bribery work.  Worse, at least the nobles had a vested interest in what happened to their land, and the workers on their land.  You can’t get rice from a dead man.  National bureaucrats can make the most inhumane, insane rules and could care less what happens to local people, as long as the people keep the rules.  That is all that matters to bureaucrats.”

Alexis complained.  “Bureaucrats are just people, like any others.  They are good people, mostly.”

Several people scoffed, and Lockhart quipped, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Meng Shi said, “You should find the time gate down around Shu, in Qin territory.  Let me say, if you go through the city and stop in the market, I hope you don’t have to sneeze.”

“Why?” Decker asked.

Meng Shi grinned.  “About five years ago, a man in the market sneezed in front of a petty bureaucrat.  The bureaucrat complained that the man made the pomegranates wet.  He went home and wrote a rule that said you were not allowed to sneeze within twenty-feet of a market stall.  He had the man arrested.  He wanted the death penalty, and the judge said his hands were tied, because it was the rule.  I had to intervene.  I took them all to the market, got a feather, and tickled the bureaucrat’s nose until he sneezed.  Then I told the judge to pass the sentence.  Both cases were dropped, but the law is still on the books, so to speak.  So, if you go to the market in Shu, try not to sneeze.”

###

When they arrived in Xianyang, they quickly found the factory and warehouse where they were making the magic powder.  Meng Shi had the authority, being of the king’s court, to commandeer the house next door. Alexis, Lincoln, Millie, and Evan all protested, but Meng Shi already had his purse out.  He later mentioned that he gave the homeowner enough money to buy a new house, if that became necessary.

Elder Stow asked if he should get out his sonic device, but the day was on.  The sun got ready to set, and the factory appeared empty.  Meng Shi said he did not necessarily want to kill the workers, but they had to be sure the cowboys were there.  Lockhart added that this might be their one chance to capture the cowboys and put them out of business, permanently.  So, they waited.  They cooked what food they found, and had with them, and settled in for the night, sleeping on the floor, and watching out the windows.

When the dawn arrived, they watched the workers file into the buildings.  Decker imagined they were making a new batch of gunpowder for the wars ahead.  Katie voiced her reservations.

“I understand we have to catch the cowboys, but if we set off the black powder now, won’t we be killing mostly innocent workers?”

“I have asked Tien, my son, to protect the innocent,” Meng Shi responded.  “I have also asked him to search the minds of the people to see where the knowledge of making the gunpowder may have spread among the people.”

“Will he have to kill those people, too?” Katie asked.

“No, he can clean the memory, but you must understand.”  Meng Shi stepped over to the back door and called.  “Alexis, Sukki, and Lincoln,” he called, and they came in from the cooking fire in the back yard, to listen, so they all would hear and have no excuse. “We won’t always have the luxury of the gods to clean up the mess.  In situations like this, very often the innocent and guilty will die together. It can’t be helped. To delete the work of the masters, or whatever cowboys happen to wander through the field, sometimes the innocent will suffer.  Better you make peace with that thought now.  Alexis, better you get your tears and complaints out now and over with. Going forward, I may need all of you to do what must be done, regardless of who suffers.”

“Understood,” Decker said.

“Understood,” Lockhart agreed.

No one else said anything, except Boston, who raised her voice.  “We got company.”

People rushed to the widows.  They saw the two cowboys and a third man ride into an alleyway as soldiers began to fill the street.  The third man wore fancy silks, and Meng Shi named him.

“Li Si.  He is the king’s counselor.  He should not die.  For the rest of them, you need to defend the house.”

Decker shot out the window.  The soldier that appeared to be in charge and getting the little army ready to charge the house, collapsed.

“The homeowner turned us in,” Lockhart surmised.

“Probably figured to double his money,” Katie agreed.  Katie got her rifle, and Lockhart, his shotgun, and they took up the position to the right side of the door, opposite Decker.  Evan got Katie’s handgun and went to the door, beside Lincoln.  Li Si stood up in the alleyway and yelled at the soldiers.  One of the cowboys pulled him back down behind a box.

“Get ready,” Decker yelled, as Sukki stepped up beside him, holding Boston’s handgun.  Decker switched his rifle to automatic fire.  Katie had already done that.

The soldiers across the street appeared to take a deep breath, and prepared to attack, when Boston, holding Alexis’ hand and dragging her behind, stepped between Evan and Lincoln, and out the front door. She had her wand out, and used it like a flame thrower.  She laid down a line of fire in front of the soldiers, and burned many, including some in the face. The soldiers scattered. Some ran for their lives, but many backed up into the houses across the way.

Several arrows came from the archers on the roof across the street.  They struck the front of the house, but did not come near Boston.  One of the cowboys, however, fired his Winchester. Boston took a bullet in her shoulder and staggered back into the house, as Alexis pulled her to safety.

“Damn,” Boston griped as Alexis got to work.  She had Elder Stow’s device, which she ran over the wound.  The bullet pulled out and clattered on the floor.  Alexis laid hands on the wound, and a golden glow surrounded her hands and Boston’s shoulder.  Right away, the bleeding stopped and the wound began to close up.

“Get ready.”  Katie yelled it this time.  Sukki went back to stand behind Decker, after checking on Boston. Lockhart traded places with Evan. He made Evan back-up Katie with his pistol, while he held the shotgun by the door, ready for the charge.

“That feels better,” Boston said to Alexis.  She grabbed Alexis with her good hand and tried to catch Alexis’ eyes.  “You have to fire the explosive arrows.  You need to get the guys on the roof.”

“Shut-up,” Alexis told her.  “You need to relax to heal.”

“Puts.”

“What are they waiting for?” Evan asked.

Evan got the question out before he threw his hands to his ears.  Everyone covered their ears, and opened their mouths, Katie, Alexis, and Lockhart making a sound of surprise and pain at the same time.  Meng Shi stood by the window at the side of the house and held the sonic device.  He stuck it out the window, but turned it up all the way.

For a few seconds, only the sonic scream could be heard, before it got overshadowed with the sound of a massive explosion.  The warehouse blew up and became splinters, while the roof broke apart high in the sky. Shortly, the workhouse blew up. The buildings, what remained of them, burned in a great conflagration—an inferno that destroyed everything.  A couple of workers staggered out from the fire, but they were on fire, themselves, and quickly collapsed.

Meng Shi turned off the sonic device and handed it back to Elder Stow.  He had a tear in his eye, and Elder Stow accepted the device without a word.

As soon as the warehouse roof fell to the ground, to be consumed by the fire, and the screaming sonic device got turned off, the soldiers across the street vented their anger and fear with screams of hate.  They charged the house.  Guns blazed. Soldiers fell in the street by ones and in groups.  Two made it to the front door, only to be blown back by Lockhart’s shotgun.

The cowboys, Juan Reynard and Tom Porter used their Winchester repeaters sparingly.  They tried to keep back the travelers in the windows and door. Finally, Reynard stood to get a clear shot, and either Katie or Decker got him with three bullets, dead center. Reynard collapsed, and the outlaw, Porter, stood, red anger in his eyes, and emptied his Winchester.  He pulled his six-shooter, but took three bullets of his own, spun, and fell face down in the street.

Avalon 6.12 The Road Ahead, part 2 of 5

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.