“Well… very impressive,” General Gao said. “Major Cho, you know where White Wood Fortress is?”
Iron Belly cleared his throat. “Yes, sir.”
“The bandits have been allowed to dwell there too long. Colonel Ba, take Major Cho and fifty men and destroy them,” Gao commanded.
Ba’s eyes gleamed at the thought of laying waste to criminal scum. He bowed his head. “Yes, sir. The worms and crows shall feast upon them.” He glanced at Iron Belly, but his face was full of troubles.
“Off you go,” Gao said. “Don’t come back until they’re dead.”
Ba and Iron Belly marched from the hall, leaving Gao alone with Ho.
“Are you sure this is going to work, sir?” Colonel Ho asked.
Gao nodded. “I sent word ahead to warn the bandits. They’ll be waiting for him, and our enthusiastic dung-shoveller will be no more. Once Lord Ximen receives word the exile is dead, a small mountain of silver will come our way.” He sipped his wine. “Maybe I’ll have a second crack at doing away with that wrinkle-faced Rong. This province needs a real man in charge, not some has-been.”
Ho laughed, and the pair clinked cups.
Outside the hall, the fifty soldiers were scrambling to get ready. Ba and Iron Belly waited in the shade.
“I’m astounded the general didn’t stick you on latrine duty for cleaning the stables,” Iron Belly said.
Ba scratched the port wine stain on his cheek. “Me too. Tell me about the road to the fort.”
Iron Belly described the route, and realisation dawned on the Purple Demon.
“I see. What we’ll do is this…”
Soon the soldiers were marching down the road, heading for White Wood Fortress. It was a picturesque route, with cherry blossoms and hanging plants clinging to stony cliffs that rose either side of the road. As the soldiers drew nearer the fort, dozens of archers on the cliffs stood up, a bandit banner fluttering on each summit.
“Foolish imperial dogs!” the bandit leader shouted. “The Thirsting Blade will slaughter you all! Where is Ba Renzhong, the Purple Demon?”
The soldiers down below burst out laughing.
The Thirsting Blade’s eyes widened, his eyebrows twisted in anger. “Where is he?!”
“Behind you!” the soldiers cried.
Thirsting Blade turned around and the Purple Demon’s sword cut him in half. Ba charged the rest of the archers, whilst Iron Belly attacked those on the other cliff. Each officer had five elite troops with him. Half the archers fled to safety, half found themselves running into the afterlife. Those who tried clambering down the cliffs were skewered by the soldiers waiting in the road, positioned to cut off their retreat so the ambushers couldn’t warn the fort’s defenders.
The bandits were massacred, the soldiers cheered, and Ba had the criminals’ heads severed to present in Ganyang.
Once Ba had heard that the only road to the fortress was hemmed in by cliffs, an ambush seemed almost certain, given General Gao’s disreputable character. But the ambushers became the ambushed!
“Leave the severed heads here,” the Purple Demon commanded. “We’ll collect them on the way back. Gather those banners – we’ll march behind them.”
Iron Belly grinned. “Great idea, sir. No wonder people say you were the chief warrior of Tiangjin.”
The mention of Tiangjin made Ba’s lip curl, and he gripped his sword more tightly.
The soldiers wandered down the road in loose order, because Ba realised marching in neat ranks might arouse suspicion from the fort’s defenders. False banners flying, the soldiers chattered confidently. When White Wood Fortress came into view, Ba had them halt.
“The first part of this mission went well, but just because breakfast was delicious, it doesn’t mean dinner will be. Keep an eye on the pot or we’ll singe the chicken. I expect you all to pay close attention. The most important thing is getting through the gates. If they close them on us it’ll be difficult to get in. Nobody runs for the gate without my command,” the Purple Demon stated. “Any man who disobeys will be executed. Do you all understand?”
“Yes, sir!” the soldiers said together.
“Bit harsh, don’t you think?” Iron Belly muttered.
Ba grunted. “If someone runs for the gates they’ll close them and we may fail. I dislike failure.”
The Purple Demon led his small force towards White Wood Fortress. The gates were wide open, and, after a first glance to check the banners, the look-outs were too busy drinking to notice that the men strolling down the road were strangers.
When he got within dashing distance, Ba pointed his sword at the gates. “Charge!” he cried, running at the fort.
Before the bandits knew what was happening they were overrun. The Purple Demon thrust here and cut there, cleaving men in two like a butcher chopping veal. Whenever a soldier was hard-pressed, Ba’s blade would cut down his enemy. Any bandit who tried to flee, the Purple Demon chased down. Once the last brigand was dead, the soldiers gathered around Ba and cheered, raising their spears to the sky.
“Incredible, colonel! No wonder they call you the Purple Demon!”
Ba scowled. “Less talking, more decapitating. I want at least two sackfuls of heads.”
On the road back, twilight was falling. Ba and Iron Belly ate in the saddle, wolfing down vegetable stew and drinking white wine. The men sang songs of their triumph under Ba’s command. He had them pause to collect the heads between the cliffs, and then they resumed their journey back to Ganyang.
It was pitch dark by the time they returned. Ba dismissed the men, and he and Iron Belly entered the Hall of Righteous Bloodshed. Gao and Ho were drinking and laughing, but they fell silent when the Purple Demon approached and tipped out two sackfuls of severed heads.
“General Gao, the bandits of White Wood Fortress will not be committing any further crimes. I eagerly await new orders.”
The bandits dead, the mission complete, but will General Gao be appreciative or angry? Read on, to find out.