Chapter 3

The Yellow Turban Rebellion

Applejack gritted her teeth around the rope and jerked her head back quickly. She let the end drop from her mouth and smiled at her handiwork. Another perfect lasso.

She stood before the gate, in line with the rest of the troops Sun Jian had led across the fields and the fens to this very spot. A tremor seemed to be building within the stillness, a fever ready to boil over in the blood of the assembled army.

When Sun Jian's chestnut horse strutted before the mass of troops, all the heat that had circulated in the air coalesced into one loud cheer. It was a boastful cheer, a brash cheer, but a cheer that was, perhaps, a bit too wild and a bit too bold for a truly fearless army.

Sun Jian stared out at the throng with steely eyes. For a moment, Applejack caught his gaze. Sun Jian's face betrayed no emotion, but a slight nod told the pony all she needed to know. This was it. Applejack tried to make her face as hard as his was.

Beside her, the three Sun children looked up gravely at their father. The held themselves just as tensely as the rest of the soldiers, but with a confidence that the rank and file lacked; their tautness was the tautness of a fine bowstring, deadly and without a chance of snapping. Sun Shangxiang glanced at Applejack and gave her a smile. Applejack saw her from the corner of her eye and flashed her pearly whites at her pal. The pony felt a little more at ease now. With a tough wrangler like Shangxiang at her side, handling those yellow hat guys was going to be a piece of cake.

As the cheer died down, Sun Jian lifted his battle-worn blade, and the rings that lined it jingled faintly in the encroaching silence. "Men!" he cried out, "On my signal we discharge our sacred duty to the Han and go forth to rout the rebels!"

Another cheer rose up as Sun Jian maneuvered his horse into position before the gate. Applejack leaned down and took the lasso in her mouth. She wasn't gonna let him down. She'd show him just how they did things back at Sweet Apple Acres!

"Open the gates!" Sun Jian's voice rang loud and clear.

The gates swung open slowly, and the muddy plain stretched out before them, dotted with sand, rocks, and rubble.

"Forward!"

The order had been given. Applejack was swept along with the surging tide of men, galloping forth into the barren landscape.

Twilight watched from the center of the camp as her friend slowly turned into a speck on the horizon. She couldn't keep from furrowing her brow. She knew first hand that the Yellow Turbans were serious…especially when it came to exorcising demons…

Still, Applejack was one of the toughest ponies she knew. Her friend would be able to take care of herself. She hoped, at least.

"Hey, Twi!"

A breathless Spike ran up to the pensive unicorn. "Liu Bei wanted to know if you would help him take care of some of the guys he pushed a little too hard on the march over here."

Twilight glanced in the direction Spike had come from. Liu Bei was standing by the tents and waving her over, a weak smile on his lips. Guan Yu and Zhang Fei scowled beside him.

The pony let out a sigh and began to amble towards him.

"So that's a yes, right? Awesome! You can start by pouring me a nice glass of peach juice. I'd get it myself, but you made me march for so long, and I'm so tired…"

Twilight didn't hear Spike's wheedling. Her mind was on other things. Things like the wall of swords and spears that her friend would be crashing into soon. Or the mirror that had gotten her into all of this trouble. Or how helpless she felt right now. She could only pray to Celestia that Applejack would come out of the fray unscathed.

The loop of the lasso went easily over the man with the yellow scarf tied around his head. His eyes darted around in confusion for a moment, but he didn't have long to get his bearings. With one short tug, Applejack had tightened the knot around his ankles and was dragging him screaming behind her across the rough earth. A squadron of the fanatics was just ahead of her. They bent their spears in her direction and took a few half-hearted pokes at the air before her, but their drawn faces told Applejack all she needed to know about their uncertainty. An expert flick of her head, and she had sent the roped-up man flying through the air like a stone from a sling. He crashed into his comrades, bowling them all over into a dizzy heap.

Applejack grinned as Sun Jian, still astride his mount, pulled up beside her. He wiped the sweat from his brow and returned her smile. He was clearly in his element and enjoying every minute of it.

"This isn't your first fight, is it?"

One of the Yellow Turbans approached their conference and leapt at Sun Jian from behind. Without even looking, Sun Jian swept his blade in a practiced arc and sent the young man sprawling. The air seemed to ripple where his sword had slashed.

"Well, the place I'm from ain't all sunshine and rainbows, if that's what you mean. Sometimes I gotta let Bucky McGillicuddy and Kicks McGee do my talkin' for me," the pony replied, letting the lasso drop from between her teeth.

At first she thought the look on Sun Jian's face was puzzlement, but when he made a move towards her, she knew that another of the enemy's men was trying to pull the same trick on her that they had tried on the general just a moment ago. With impossible swiftness, Applejack reared up on her forelegs and gave the guy behind her a double-barreled buck. He sailed through the air and landed a good several yards further away than Sun Jian's unlucky assailant had.

"They're real persuasive," she said sweetly.

The head of the Sun clan laughed his unmistakeable laugh, deep and sharp. "I could tell from the start you weren't a pushover, but I have to admit, I didn't expect such good things. Remind me to keep you at the forefront."

All around them, the Yellow Turbans were breaking ranks. The Han had taken this part of the field, and the way ahead was clear. In the distance, smoke could be seen curling into the air like a flock of moths.

His men were breathing heavily, their bodies sagging with the weight of the exertion, but Sun Jian paid them no heed. With a shout, he spurred on his horse and galloped off towards the gray wisps.

Sun Ce was the first to notice what his father was up to. His voice rang out over the breathless groans of the injured and the tired: "C'mon guys! My father's already set out for their camp; are you going to let an old man like him take all the glory? Get on your feet and charge, and we'll have this wrapped up in no time!"

Something about the eldest Sun child was like flint and steel; he could relight the kindling in any man's soul. Where once there was exhaustion, there now brimmed vigor, and a battle cry stoked by blood arose from the throats of the Sun clan's noble warriors.

Ce let out a whoop and ran after his father at a rapid clip. His sister and Applejack were right behind him, with Applejack barely finding enough time to scoop up her lasso. Sun Quan gathered up the stragglers and sprinted to catch up with his family, his face reddening as the effort took its toll.

He didn't have to go far. The vanguard had all stopped in the same spot. They were halted in front of the source of the smoke, a towering cauldron that belched forth an obscene green fire. Before it knelt a figure in mud-smeared yellow robes, his head bowed.

Applejack's eyes were wide open. She sniffed cautiously and caught a faint odor that reminded her of moldy vegetables. Whatever was in that cauldron, it sure wasn't home cooking.

Sun Jian was frowning as his youngest son ran up to him. "Father!" Sun Quan cried, "what's wrong?"

Jian made no movement but remained as rigid as a statue. Finally, he spoke. "I took these Yellow Turbans for simple bandits, but it seems they know darker arts than murder and robbery," the patriarch muttered.

The man genuflecting before the cauldron spoke softly. "It is the way of the Han's treachery to take the dark of night for the brightness of morning and the blazing sun for the sickly moon."

"Enough of your blasphemy!" Jian shot back. "You will not profane the land of the Son of Heaven any longer. You are alone and outnumbered. Now surrender yourself to me and face the justice of the Imperial Han before I make you surrender your head to my sword!"

The wizened man hobbled to his feet, picking up a staff and leaning on it. With surprising rapidity he wheeled around, and his eyes blazed with the same unquenchable fire as the roaring green flame behind him.

"I will not bow to the whims of an infidel!" his voice rumbled like an avalanche. "The sins of the Han are ripe for the harvest…and I shall be their reaper."

He raised his staff. "O Heavens! I, Zhang Bao, the General of the Land, call upon your strength to strike down these despoilers of your chosen kingdom!"

The green flame exploded into a flash of brilliant white. Applejack was dazzled for a moment, but when she saw what stood before her, her mouth dropped open.

Zhang Bao was gone, and a thick, shimmering fog now occupied his place before the altar. A crystalline sparkle seemed to pulse deep inside of it, and the scent of rain filled the air.

"Now," boomed the wizard's voice, as if from the very clouds themselves, "you will feel the power of my magic! Go forth, O phantom army, and cut down these servants of evil!"

All at once, the fog seemed to break apart into innumerable mists of flickering, but definite, human form. The phantom army rushed straight into the heart of Sun Jian's troop with preternatural speed, and before anyone had time to react, ten men lay on the ground choking on their own blood.

Applejack pushed her way into the melee immediately and soon one of the strange conjurations was locked in her sights. She whipped her lasso back and let it whiz out ahead of her. Bullseye. She yanked back on the rope to tighten it around the phantasm…but the loop passed through the figure as if it were nothing but air. Applejack raised an eyebrow. Cautiously, she walked up to her chosen prey. Standing on her hind legs she took an exploratory jab at the figure's face. Nothing there. She waved her hoof around inside its head for a few seconds. It was definitely empty.

The phantom soldier lashed out suddenly at Applejack with its sword , and she only just ducked in time. She could feel the whoosh of the weapon as it nearly knocked her hat off. Applejack scrambled away from the monster as fast as she could. Something told her that its blade was a little more substantial than the rest of it was.

She looked hopelessly around the battlefield. Ce was launching off an ineffectual flurry of blows at one of the creatures; it didn't even flinch as his tonfa glided through it. Shangxiang already had a painful-looking cut across her belly; she was desperately cartwheeling around, remaining just out of reach of the wicked swipes of the spectral swords and spears. Quan was methodically regrouping the forces; it looked like he was clinging desperately to the hope of a counterattack. And Sun Jian, the father of them all, was looking grim in the center of an enemy circle, frantically parrying the carnival of blows that spun around him from all directions like a demented merry-go-round.

Applejack swallowed hard. This was a problem she didn't know how to handle. And it looked like the Sun family didn't have a clue either.

"His troop's just up ahead, cousin."

The hooves of Xiahou Dun's steed thundered on the rocky pass. The warrior had just returned from his reconnaissance mission, and he quickly steered his horse to his lord's side. Yuan clapped his brother on the back and chuckled.

"Nice work, Brother Dun!"

Dun didn't even look at Yuan; all his attention was focused on Cao Cao. He waited for his next order with an absolute hunger.

Cao Cao was unperturbed. "So, He Jin," he intoned, his eyes gazing off into the soft blue of the sky above, "you thought that you could take the glory for yourself, regardless of the danger you put your men in. As I suspected you would, you have proven to be a fool."

He quickly turned to Xiahou Dun. "We must make haste and reinforce the commander immediately. Be sure that our unit keeps up."

A snap of the reins and Cao Cao was off. Xiahou Dun turned back and made a beckoning gesture to the mounted batallion behind him, where Li Dian lazily lifted a hand in recognition. With that, Dun took off after his cousin, with Yuan following close behind.

As Li Dian charged forth with the rest of the soldiers, he could feel a chill growing at the base of his spine. For a moment, he let the tension overtake him, and he shuddered in the grip of a phantom cold that somehow lurked ahead of them beneath the noonday sun. The chill soon passed and, exhaling loudly LI Dian focused his attention on the path before him.

"That He Jin is going to lead us all in way too deep. I can feel it."," he muttered under his breath.

***
He Jin's advance had been perfectly silent. Nary a stone had been displaced by the careful march of the soldiers under his banner, nor a single order given in anything but a strangled whisper. So it was a jolt when, just as they were nearing the end of the pass through the mountains, one alarmed voice burbled out "Hooves! I hear hooves!" and the panicked cry of "Cavalry attack from the rear!" broke out amongst the infantry. As his army scrambled to get itself at the ready, He Jin clumsily maneuvered his horse through the tumult, his right hand gripped firmly on the sword in his jeweled scabbard. When at last he reached the back ranks and found himself face to face with Cao Cao, his grip only got tighter.

"You flaming idiot!" he sputtered, his voice cracking with a rage that echoed throughout the cavernous pass. "My whole troop's in disarray now because they thought you were an enemy ambush!"

"Then it's fortunate that we came when we did," Cao Cao replied cooly. "You were obviously unprepared for an attack from behind."

He Jin scowled. "Your orders were to shadow Sun Jian's flank and take the center with him. For all you know, he's been overrun by now!"

Cao Cao shook his head. "Sun Jian and his clan are warriors both able and honorable. Moreover, they are favored with the aid of a miraculous creature that is surely no less stalwart than they on the field of battle. I do not think they will be routed so easily."

In the depths of He Jin's bulky helmet, his face was turning crimson. "So," he growled, "you mean to say that I am less able and honorable a warrior than that upstart prefect and his worthless spawn?"

Cao Cao didn't have time to antagonize He Jin further. His gaze had already darted to the figure in flowing yellow silk that stood on the ridge overlooking the pass, staring down at them. His face was youthful, his stance sturdy, and he pointed his staff impetuously at the two generals.

"This is hallowed ground!" he shrieked. "As General of the People, I command you to take your iniquity hence or else…"

Pure instinct had already drawn Xiahou Yuan's bow and notched an arrow in it. "Or else what, kid?" Yuan hissed menacingly.

The General of the People seemed genuinely taken aback. "Such impudence from the servants of that Great Devil, the Imperial Han! I will not let this insult to the Way of Peace stand unanswered!"

He swung his staff, as if he could sweep away all that he saw before him with that single blow, and his men marched into place at the head of the pass, their bows at the ready. He Jin frowned. Their numbers were rather pitiful, but with the advantage in terrain they held at the moment, it was clear his own unit would have had to take many casualties before finding a chance to break through…but with the addition of Cao Cao's men, what would have been a problem was now simply a bump in the road. With these accursed reinforcements…how was he supposed to lead a heroic and desperate charge all by himself if his unit wasn't in any danger?

Xiahou Yuan remained unmoved. "For a guy calling himself the General of the People, you sure don't seem to have a lot of friends," he said, eyeing the scraggly line of archers.

"A man has no greater friend than the Heavens, for the Heavens provide all a man needs. I shall prove this to you." The general lifted both his eyes and his staff towards the sky.

"O Heavens! Grant your servant, Zhang Liang, the power to wash away the corruption of the Han with the blood of its tyrants! Let them find purity in death!"

"I've heard about enough of this." Xiahou Yuan pulled back his arrow, and was ready to fire it…when the ground beneath him began to shake, nearly tossing him from his horse.

Zhang Bao was gripped by a furious ecstasy. "I can feel it!" he screamed "I can feel the power!"

He pounded the ground with his staff, and for one breathless moment, all was still. Then the boulders began to roll by him.

One smashed down in front of the army, one behind. There was no way forward or back. The whistling of arrows filled the air as the first volley came over the sealed pass and tilted towards the throng.

Li Dian looked up and sighed.

"Sometimes I really hate being right."