Chapter 8: Cornered Dragon, Rising Crane
His cell was cold, and with everything so silent in the prison he could hear every word from the outside.
It was funny how in formal meetings these men could speak so eloquently and respectfully, and yet when they were deployed on the field they'd banter like children. Was that a sign of a grudging respect between two rivals? No, if that were the case they'd show it more often.
He shivered. It wasn't really that cold, persay. It was his heart, his spirit that truly felt cold.
Here he was, his mind still relatively stable, his thoughts clear, his vision broad and his dreams wide, and yet he could not do a thing to help his family, his friends, his nation. Here he was trapped in a tiny cell, all because he had let that passion consume him. It was disgusting!
Night had fallen, he could tell because of the crickets and the light cackle of the watchmen's flames. As the light of those flames flickered in his cell window, Zhou Yu thought of what he had heard nearby.
Sun Shangxiang had tried to defend him against Zhao Yun. She tried to protect his honor, to insist that he still had honor. But the truth was, he'd forfeited his honor. Zhao Zilong was right: Zhou Yu had burned the city of Xiangyang. He'd followed the path of Cao Cao and Dong Zhuo. The people who believed in him were given a harsh taste of reality, but she did not forget him.
And neither, apparently, did Wu's troops.
Several soldiers had muttered that had Zhou Yu still been among them, Sun Quan would not have nearly died. Surely Zhou Yu would know better than Ma Liang regarding Sun Quan's plans and mindset. Surely Zhou Yu would have been able to save Wu's best soldiers from Sima Yi's trap. All these people had trusted him, had expected him to save their lives, and he'd let them all down. Yet they still spoke of him, still believed in his memory!
Zhou Yu sighed. Would that memory remain a memory? Could he redeem himself?
Suddenly, there were shouts, and clangs of metal, and soon Gongjin could hear that horrifying sound, that sound that would ring in his ears as he tried to sleep at night: the sound of men dying and blades hacking in flesh. These were sounds of pain and ruin.
He heard a shout from just outside the prison, and Lu Su came staggering in.
"Zhou Yu... Our lord ordered me to secure this prison, but now I find myself in a quandary." Lu Su moved to unlock Zhou Yu's cell.
"What do you mean?"
"Gongjin, you once said shortly after your capture that you wish you could make amends, yes?"
"I remember saying so."
"Now it is time for you to keep your word. Wei troops have entered the base. Zhuge Liang is missing, and our Shu allies are in a panic as a result." He proceeded to open the cell door.
"What? I thought Ma Liang was with them..."
"You know as well as I do that Ma Liang is about as effective as I am when Kongming is around. Alone, I can inspire some of our troops, and so can he. Yet, when their legend is on the field Shu's armies are emboldened. Zhuge Liang has kept Liu Bei alive for so long, and managed to take most of Sichuan without losing a single soldier. And you... You were Wu's finest commander. Sun Quan is in danger. Hell, with Wei all over the place we are all in danger. I was ordered to watch our prisoners and ensure that they will not escape. I doubt you will escape, not now. Your sword and armor are where they should be... Get moving."
"What of you? You are one of our finest tacticians. We need you on the field as well!" Zhou Yu rose from the dirt floor of his cell.
"Like I said, I was ordered to watch our prisoners... I don't think Ziming would be too thrilled to see you on the field when he has to stay in a cell."
"... Thank you, Zijing."
"Save it. Do your duty, and perhaps we can forgive you after all this."
While Zhou Yu brooded in his cell, Zhao Yun and Ma Liang scampered into the war tent.
"Zilong! I thought you were watching The Advisor!"
"I was! But after my scuffle with the Wusian princess I went to clean myself up. I heard something in the nearby bushes so I went to investigate. I swear... It must have been a spy. I could hear him constantly, but I could not figure out exactly where he was. The woods are thick, and I found it hard to track him..."
"You should not have left your post! The Advisor could be anywhere! If the enemy managed to assassinate him, we are finished... Even Master Xiaozhi could not save us now..."
"Yes, of course. Zhuge Kongming is our greatest asset, but our Lord has other strategists. Fa Zheng is a very skilled strategist. Regardless, we should try to calm the troops and search for him. Panicking now would only get us all kill-"
Before he could finish that sentence, Zhao Yun and Ma Liang heard shouts. As the emerged from their war tent, Zhao Yun had to quickly raise his spear and protect Ma Liang from an enemy commando. Wei had struck at the worst time, and for the first time in his career Zilong was not sure if they would prevail.
As Wei's troops began to fan out through the base, Sun Shangxiang and Xu Sheng rallied their men. "We are under attack! Soldiers, you have prepared yourselves for this day since your first day in the barracks. The Northerners are here to drive us out of these plains, to force us to flee back home as they retake Xiangyang. We will not let them have this luxury! Sima Yi has made us into fools, but we are not stupid enough to let him relish his victory. Attack!"
With a wave of his fan, Sima Yi watched as Wei troops raided enemy camps, and smiled as the dead corpses of his foes were dragged out for all to see. Scattered groups of Shu and Wu soldiers tried to fight back, but surely he had won. Xiahou Yuan was on his way, along with much of Chencang's reserves. Shu and Wu were finished today, and Xiangyang would be in the hands of the Caos once more!
A few Wei soldiers were helping themselves to the allied granary, when all of a sudden they spotted a very strange sight.
That is, a certain long-haired man pounced on them, one by one, and made short work of them with his sword.
Zhou Yu spent a few moments to look around. The five or so enemy soldiers who got into the granary were gone. Kind of like rats, he mused. The comparison was horrifying, surely, but there were times when one had to dehumanize one's enemy. Still, heaven would judge him in the end. The things he'd do to the enemy were crimes that all strategists and generals committed, but the things he'd do to their families would determine whether he'd see the Nine Golden Springs.
Sun Shangxiang hacked her way through squads of enemy soldiers, when she finally came across Zhao Yun and Ma Liang.
"You two! Are you unhurt?!" She yelled as she ran towards them.
"Who, me? I'm just fine... The General here..." Ma Liang was cut short by Zilong, who simply nodded. "I'm fine."
"Ma Liang, get back into the tent! Out here, you're a sitting duck. Zilong, would you mind coming with me?"
"I am a warrior of Shu, miss. You are the Princess of Wu. You have no authority over me."
"That may be so, but I doubt we have the luxury to debate ranks when our troops are dying all around us."
"I shall protect Master Ma. With any luck Wu Yi should be helping our troops beat back the Wei horde. With any luck, I will be able to join the battle later, but if Master Ma dies then we are truly finished. I suspect Master Zhuge has already fallen, and if so Shu needs every strategist she has left."
"Fine. Good luck."
"Yes. Same to you."
And Shangxiang sighed as she scampered off.
Zhuge Liang shivered as he was ordered to sit.
Sima Yi laughed from the other side of a small tea table. "Please, sit, Kongming. You and I can watch as your men are cut to the last, and Wu can barely help them!" Zhongda proceeded to sip some tea.
"I am rather surprised at how much you enjoy this."
"Well, of course. For years you have been a thorn in Wei's side. Now I have you in my grasp. If anything Jia Xu will find that I will be promoted over him, and we can finish off what's left of Wu."
An aide came running up to their table. "My lord, General Xiahou's men have arrived."
"Excellent. Your men, and those of Wu, are finished. Let us drink to the glory of Wei!"
Zhuge Liang gulped as he raised the cup to his lips. Sima Yi just grinned and waved his knife fan. Though Kongming usually loved tea, this particular cup was very, very bitter.
Xiahou Yuan's men strolled triumphantly through the ruined enemy camp.
Shu and Wu's scattered soldiers were fighting back, but with Wei's latest reinforcements their pitiful resistance would be over.
"General, there are notable pockets of resistance all around this encampment. Zhao Yun of Changshan has slaughtered any soldier who has attempted to approach the enemy's war tent, and thus we have no knowledge of their plans. Further, several Wu officers have been able to counter our warriors' advance. Only a few handfuls of enemy troops have surrendered, most seem intent to die fighting."
"I would expect nothing less from Sun Quan and Zhao Yun. Those two are stubborn and quite foolish in their stubbornness. Our warriors will bury them, but we cannot be careless. They are like cockroaches, refusing to die, but this camp must be clean. Double your efforts, men. If you miss one spot these cockroaches will simply dig in and we will lose more of our men!"
As he made this boast, he spotted a pretty young woman running towards him, clutching a pair of curved blades and glaring at him as though he killed her father.
Well, in a way, he certainly killed many of her friends and countrymen. If the Princess of Wu wished to challenge him to a duel, why would Xiahou Yuan refuse?
Short chapter, but I wanted to set up the next arc as soon as possible.
So I'm sure Zhou Yu's release was a shock. Yes, well, I had a similar situation in the first version this story. Lu Su's speech was a bit longer, Zhou Yu had some time with Sun Shangxiang (she visited him in his cell) and so forth. Yet I feel that this scene is somewhat less problematic. Firstly, Lu Su has been established as a fairly naive person compared to most of the cast. In this emergency he'd choose to believe in Zhou Yu rather than accept that Gongjin has gone off the deep end.
Well, he IS Lu Su, one of Wu's best tacticians. He may be naive, but he certainly isn't stupid.
I know one of my weaknesses is to make villains cartoony, but let's face it: most warriors in Wei aren't the nicest of people. It's not their fault, really, in Wei an officer has to be harsh as a means of survival, and let's just say that Sima Yi, Jia Xu, Cao Ren and so forth do have relatively noble moments at times. It's just that they also have to be very dedicated at killing the heroes of our story in both Shu and Wu, and vice versa. If this was a story revolving around Sima Yi, you'd bet that Zhuge Liang and Lu Xun would look like violent, petty monsters trying to keep Wei from reuniting the land.
And sure, Zhuge Liang seems sort of incompetent in this fic. Blame the fact that Fa Zheng was actually responsible for Hanzhong, the fact that Kongming lost miserably in the Northern Campaigns yet has some reputation for being a God, and that many of the stratagems attributed to him (Borrowing Arrows, Empty City Ploy) were the work of men like Sun Quan and Zhao Yun respectively.
Now, the man who single-handedly ran Shu merely seems incompetent, but that's only because we've been depicting various fights so far. Don't worry, Zhuge Liang will be getting some time in the spotlight. It's just that he currently has to compete with a fierce General and a brilliant Admiral, and Kongming isn't exactly a good enough tactician to handle those two on the battlefield.