Chapter 491. Panic
In the encampment of the Luohai army not far away from Youzhou Pass.
The officer sent by Xue Chi requested an audience with Nian Feng the Luohai General-in-chief, but after being ushered into the encampment, he found that the whole place was suspiciously quiet, and there was no sign of any pre-war preparatory activities whatsoever, which both astonished and startled him. On top of that, he was stationed in a tent and waited for quite some time, but Nian Feng still hadn’t summoned him. He became vigilant and attempted to leave the tent but was stopped by the guards on duty outside the door.
“What’s this supposed to mean? I’m here to seek an audience with your General-in-chief under orders from Prince Yi and General Xue. Are you sure you want to stop me? Our countries are allies, in case you forgot!”
“No offense, but we cannot let you leave this tent unless the general summons you. This is an encampment of a Luohai army, where unauthorized individuals are not allowed to walk around freely. Please forgive us.”
The officer had no alternative but to exercise all his self-restraint and keep waiting. After another long while, there was still no sign of an audience with Nian Feng. The officer got anxious. “Exactly when can I have an audience with your general? The situation in Shengzhou is dire and we can’t afford to waste any time. Why the hell are you keeping me trapped in this place?!”
The guards outside the door seemed to know nothing about what the officer asked them. When the officer rebuked them, they always said “Please be patient” and refused to let him leave.
The Wan officer was consumed with anger. The more he thought about it, the more suspicious he found the circumstances to be. He was trying to figure out a way to flee the tent when finally a soldier showed up in the doorway and offered to lead him to the General-in-chief’s tent.
Smoldering, the officer followed the soldier to the doorway of the General-in-chief’s tent, where he, surprisingly, was told that he was not allowed to enter.
“What do you mean?”
“Our general caught a cold a couple of days ago. The physician said that he must not be exposed to cold wind and should avoid meeting visitors until he makes a full recovery, lest he suffer an exacerbation of his symptoms which might have a negative influence on his ability to direct operations.”
What? A cold? What kind of cold could be so severe as to make it necessary for the patient to avoid meeting people?
“You may state your business right here.”
“I’m not allowed to breathe a word of this information to anybody other than the general.”
“Everybody here is very much in the general’s confidence. You don’t have to have any misgivings.”
Resigned, the Wan officer had no choice but to fish out the secret letter.
The guard took the letter and delivered it into the main tent. After a while, a sonorous voice said inside the tent, “I’ve come to know the request from the Wan Kingdom. Please go back and tell Prince Yi and General Xue that my army will launch an offensive on Youzhou Pass in support of the Wan Kingdom’s plan of attack.”
The Wan officer didn’t find those words reassuring. He still hadn’t clapped eyes on Nian Feng hitherto, and the Luohai encampment was eerily quiet. Unable to have peace of mind, he said through gritted teeth, “May I have an audience with you, General Nian? If I leave like this, Prince Yi and General Xue might deem it irresponsible of me to go back without even seeing your face.”
“My illness makes it inconvenient for me to meet any visitors. You need to go back immediately. Every moment you spend lingering here could be an opportunity lost.” The sonorous voice instantly became commanding.
The Wan officer hesitated for quite a while, his eyes raking the guards on the two sides the gaze of whom was becoming unfriendly. Eventually, he had no choice but to reply with a bow, “Yes, General.”
A couple of soldiers walked the Wan officer out of the Luohai encampment. Meanwhile, in the General-in-chief’s tent, Nian Feng’s lieutenant gave a gasp of relief, resignedly tossing a backward glance at the empty from which the General-in-chief was absent. Before departure, they had received secret instructions from Mu Hengtian, which told them that this dispatch of troops was meant to be a mere act aimed at palming off the Wan monarch, that they didn’t really have to go to war with the Great Wen – in a word, after the army made camp outside Youzhou, they were allowed to make small-scale attacks on Youzhou Pass to hoodwink the Wan Kingdom but must not launch a real offensive. On receiving the secret instructions, Nian Feng the General-in-chief had stopped taking this operation seriously. After the army was encamped in the destination, he had actually returned to the capital covertly, for rumor had it that the monarch’s condition had worsened again. The General-in-chief, suspecting that the monarch had agreed to forge an alliance with the Wan Kingdom to have him leave the capital, that there might be upheavals in the capital, had actually deserted his post and returned to the capital.
It had never crossed the lieutenant’s mind that the Wan Kingdom would send someone over so soon, and it had come as an even greater surprise to him that an army led by Yuwen Tong had actually stormed into the Wan Kingdom and taken two south-western prefectures!
What should he do? The General-in-chief was absent, and the monarch had especially ordered them not to send any troops to the Wan Kingdom, but Yuwen Tong’s army was now closing in on the Wan capital. If he really managed to take the Wan Kingdom, wouldn’t the Luohai Kingdom be in grave danger? When the lips are lost, the teeth will be exposed to the cold.
“General, since His Majesty gave us the permission to make small-scale attacks on them, we might as well send some men out there. Though we’re not allowed to do anything big, we may harass them from time to time. As long as our main force stays here, the Youzhou garrison won’t dare go anywhere else, and our task of holding up Shao Feng and his men will be considered fulfilled. As regards the Wan Kingdom, their cavalry are not ornamental. Let them sort that mess out by themselves. I mean, they are continuing with their offensive against the Shengzhou garrison. If even they themselves are not worried about it, why should we bother?” suggested one of the general’s trusted men.
Nian Feng’s lieutenant pondered over it for quite some time. Believing that his trusted man had a point, he agreed, “All right. The day after tomorrow, we’ll gather a team of two thousand men and go to Youzhou Pass to challenge them to a fight.”
Outside Shengzhou Pass, the Wan officer returned to the Wan encampment in a great hurry with the intention to report the weird situation in the Luohai encampment to Xue Chi only to find that the atmosphere in the encampment had become rather odd. Everybody in sight was trotting hastily, face etched with panic.
“Stop. What’s going on? Did something happen here?” he asked after stopping a team of soldiers.
The man leading the team recognized the officer and replied with an anxious face, “This morning, General Xue led the main force out to attack Shengzhou. At first we could hear thunderous pounding of war drums and battle cry, but afterward all sounds suddenly disappeared for no reason. Our sentries climbed up the watchtowers and discovered that fog had closed in on the battlefield without warning. The whole battlefield was shrouded in mist. Even Shengzhou Pass was nowhere to be seen. We couldn’t see anything on the battlefield, and neither could we hear any sounds from there. Some men were sent into the thick fog to check out the lay of the land, but none of them came back. It’s almost dusk, and the army should have stopped attacking and come back by now, but there’s still no sign of activity whatsoever on the battlefield. Nobody knows what happened in the fog. The assistant commander is worried that some other weird things might happen, so he’s making arrangements for the rest of us to tighten the security of the encampment, and he’s also sending more men into the dense fog to do recon.”
The situation was so weird. They had been serving in the army for many years, but none of them had ever seen anything like this before. All those who had entered that thick fog seemed to have disappeared out of thin air and were still unaccounted for, as though the fog were some kind of monster that had devoured them all. This day the Wan Kingdom had launched an all-out attack. Xue Chi had decided to take Shengzhou Pass or die trying. Even Shan Congyi, who had never been to the battlefield since the start of this war, had gone with the army. However, nobody could have foreseen that things would turn out this way. The rest of the men in the Wan encampment were all panic-stricken. Rumors about supernatural forces being at work began to circulate. Though the assistant commander ruled such subjects off-limits, his men were still in fear.
The fog was so dense people standing in it couldn’t even see their own hands in front of their eyes. A twenty-li (li is a Chinese unit of length, equal to 500 meters) radius around Shengzhou Pass was cloaked in it. The Wan army sent out one search party after another, but none of them returned. It was getting dark. Lighted torches, after being carried into the fog, could be faintly seen for only a few moments before their dim light was swallowed by darkness. At night, the thick mist was like a giant black monster, more terrifying than it looked during daytime.
The assistant commander of the Wan Kingdom, after losing contact with several search parties, finally came to realize that such action was a meaningless waste of manpower. He stopped sending men to the soundless and lightless battlefield and summoned the officers assigned to stay in the encampment, intending to confer with them to figure out a solution.
At this time, the officer who had returned from the Luohai encampment finally had an opportunity to relate to the others what he had seen in the Luohai encampment. “I’m afraid something unexpected has happened in the Luohai army. There’s no telling whether Nian Feng is really too sick to meet any visitors or some accident has happened to him, or maybe he’s simply not in the encampment. There’s a high chance the Luohai army wouldn’t be able to act in support of our plan the way we want them to.”
Someone smacked his fist on to the table.
“Mu Hengtian is such a dishonest bastard!”
“What kind of con game is Mu Hengtian running exactly? Why the hell did he encamp his army outside Youzhou Pass when he had no intention to attack?!”
While the Wan army were in panic and at the end of their rope, Ling Zhang and some of his men had just reached the border between Shengzhou and Youzhou. Distantly, he sensed something and then glanced in the direction of Shengzhou, speculating that the large-scale Formation had been activated. If that was the case, at least during the next three days the Wan army would be trapped in there, unable to do anything, so there was no hurry.
As things stood, the most decisive part was whether or not Yuwen Tong would be able to fight off the other Wan army led south by the Chen family and force them into retreating to the areas north of the Wan River which ran through the middle of the Wan Kingdom.
Seeing that Ling Zhang halted at the border, one of his men mistakenly believed that Ling Zhang was hesitating about paying a visit to Youzhou, so he asked, “Should we go to Youzhou, Young Master?”
Ling Zhang shook his head. “Nothing can go seriously wrong in Youzhou. We’re going to Shengzhou.”
After saying this, he spurred Snowflake the horse and galloped forward with the intention to enter Shengzhou under the cover of night. The line of lighted torches carried by the team of men, like a dragon, was proceeding towards Shengzhou along the national road.
The reason why Ling Zhang was not worried about the situation in Youzhou was because he had received a message saying that Nian Feng the Luohai General-in-chief was not in the encampment outside Youzhou Pass, that he had actually gone back to the Luohai capital, for Mu Hengtian’s health problems had worsened suddenly and was confined to bed. Naturally, Nian Feng wouldn’t sit back and watch the throne fall into someone else’s hands. After returning to the capital, he had immediately helped the prince he was in support of launch a brutal offensive against the faction headed by Mu Rongfeng the crown prince, slaughtering them. Right now in the Luohai capital, blood was flowing over the ground like water. The rivalry for the throne had reached the most crucial juncture. Neither Nian Feng nor Mu Rongfeng nor Dugu Shan nor Mu Hengtian could spare a thought for the war between the other two countries.
Ling Zhang traveled with all haste and reached Shengzhou the next noon.
The garrison had taken over Shengzhou, guarding it heavily. Ling Zhang, after entering the city, directly went to the Abode of Governor to see Ling Zhaowen but was told that his uncle had gone to the gate tower.
Ling Zhang was astonished for a moment, then hurried to the gate tower with his men and, after climbing up to the tower, found that his uncle was looking into the distance, lost in thought.
Ling Zhang’s voice brought Ling Zhaowen back to his senses. At the sight of Ling Zhang, his eyes instantly widened with amazement. “What are you doing here?!”
“I’m going to Shengzhou Pass. All necessary arrangements have been made in the capital city, so you don’t have to concern yourself with it. Actually I want to ask you the same question – what are you doing here?” said Ling Zhang.
“Who said anything about the capital city? You are the consort. What business could you possibly have in Shengzhou Pass? Have you any idea how dangerous that place is?” said Ling Zhaowen.
Ling Zhang hastened to calm Ling Zhaowen down, promising his uncle that he would keep himself safe. “His Majesty and I agreed to meet in the Wan capital.”