Slow mumurs filled the court as Empress Lian entered. She had been particularly restless during the night and hadn't gotten much sleep. No word had been heard from her troops in days and she couldn't help but worry. The army would take a stock of doves with them when they marched so they could send messages to the heart of the Empire. A dove hadn't been sighted in three days. Even if communication through this route wasn't an option, she was sure a messenger on horseback would have been sent. Empress Lian lowered herself onto the throne. This could mean only one thing. The army was in trouble. And that concerned her deeply. Could she really afford to send another force after them? That would leave the Empire's defences extremely stretched.
She glanced up as an elderly man entered the hall, flanked by two guards. She sighed inwardly, knowing that this would be the start if a long line of appeals and pleas for her generosity or mercy. Several days out of a month, she would hear the words of the commoners. They would approach her and ask for whatever it is they wished. Sometimes it would be for more food, or to pardon a criminal family member. Most of the time, however, they came and begged her for riches. Hah! That was laughable. As if she could throw the Empire's valuables at every peasant that stepped into her court. She doubted any of them truely deserved it anyway.
The two guards pushed the elderly man forwards slightly and he fell forwards onto the floor. He looked up at Lian with panic in his eyes. He clumsily turned the fall into a bow and he lowered his head, as if hiding from her glare. She really did not have the patience for this right now.
"M-m-m-mighty and exhalted Empress." He stuttered. He pulled up his head slightly so she could see his face. She could see fear in his dark eyes.
"Go on." She simply said.
"I am here for my daughters life." His voice trembled as he spoke. "She is but a young girl and there has been some terrible mistake." He began to sob.
"There always is." Minister Fu spoke up from his place down the steps to her left.
The elderly man stopped speaking at Fu's words, thinking his time over. Something about the way the man spoke and acted intrigued the Empress, however. "Let him speak." Her voice echoed through the grand hall. Fu nodded and bowed to her.
"My daughter, Leng Yei, was arrested two weeks ago. I think it was a neighbour of ours who told the guard."He explained between sobs.
"Told the guards what?" She enquired, an eyebrow raised.
"It is... it is too hard to say, Highness." He almost whispered the words.
"Then we are finished here. Guards! Take him away." She swept her hand through the air, as if the motion would remove him from her sight.
The older man scrambled in panic to his feet. " No! Please! She doesn't deserve to die. Please!" The two guards grabbed his arms and began to haul him backwards.
Empress Lian the Heavenly Lily stood. When she rose, the entire court dipped, falling into simultaneous bows. "I have not heard a single thing that would make be believe that she doesn't." The guards continued to struggle with the man as they removed him from the court. As he was almost out of sight, she could hear him yelling.
"Please speak to her!" His voice floated towards her. "Please speak to her!"
After several minutes, the court fell into silence again. Not a single word was uttered as she sat once more. Her thoughts wandered back to her earlier worries. She sighed.
Minister Fu approached her and bowed. "Your highness, does something trouble you?"
Lian looked at him. Her features must have given her worry away. "Fu, whatever do you think I could be troubled about?"
The Minister almost flinched at her words. "I'm sorry Empress, I understand your concern about the army. Would you like me to arrange a group of men to look for them?"
Empress Lian thought the idea over for a while. Would it be wise? She would more than likely be dooming those men to the same fate as Wu and her troops. A small pang of fear tugged at her heart. What if they had been ambushed? Perhaps they were dead. She shook the thought from her mind. Wu would never allow that to happen. She had made Lian a promise, and she kept her promises. But she couldn't sit idly by while she merely hoped that they were safe.
"Yes, Minister. Send our best scouts. They must be found."
Minister Fu bowed once more and shuffled out of the hall.
General Hwong rode as swiftly as he could. His horse almost buckled from fatigue under him but, to its credit, it carried on. He glanced back through the trees behind him. Nothing moved. He pulled on the reins and the horse slowed to a canter. He circled the area a few times to ensure that it was safe. He slid off his horse and threw the reins over a branch. He fell back against the trunk of a particularly large tree and let himself slide to the ground. He drew in large gulps of air. He had never been this scared before.
Five days ago, the troops had crossed a river where the bridge had been out. He had given the order for his men to fall back when his scouts had told him the Empire's army was approaching. He had been told it was a huge force. He couldn't risk a frontal assault. They would be slaughtered. It wasn't too tricky to cross the river but he knew it would be for the Empire's troops as the weather was growing increasingly hostile. That would give him valuable time.
But it hadn't. The Empire had moved quickly. Far too quickly. He had to scatter his men, to avoid detection. One large group would be found too easily. He took his group of ten men and rode to the south, to try and circle the enemy. The torrential rain had made it even harder, their horses slipping often in the slush of the woodland. When it seemed as though they were almost at their foes' backs, they would turn, so it would take even longer. Both he and his men were tired, and if the chance came where they could lay an ambush, they wouldn't be at their best. But they were commited to the strategy, and they would continue.
Soon after, they succeeded in their efforts and silently followed the Empire's army. News from his other units of men told him they were also in position. The time was not right however. It would be another day until he was certain they could strike.
Then it all started to go wrong.
He sent his swiftest rider to give the order to ready for attack. He waited half a day but the messenger didn't return. He sent another of his men. Yet again, he didn't return. He was down to eight men and the Empire's forces were starting to increase their marching speed. The window of opportunity would soon be gone. There was only a few more miles of woodland left before they reached the open swamps. Their ambush would have to happen now. Anger rose up inside of him. He ordered his men to keep their distance from their enemy and he rode off in search of his other units.
He knew where his men should have been, he had given strict orders. He decided to travel to the nearest group. His horse, an offering of alliance from a war lord in the Gyang district, moved over the ground with excellent speed. The wet grass under his hooves hardly made a sound as it was trampled. The air was heavy with the previous days' rain. Beads of water stikk dripped from his scale armour, the metal hues of black and dark red.
He remembered slowing as he came across the spot where the first group should have been. He would have called out to them had the enemy not been so near. He searched the area for signs of their presence. He spotted flattened grass and knew they had been here. From the tracks, he suspected that they had fled the area. Cowards! All of them! He sniffed the air, something catching his attention. He couldn't recognise the scent but he certainly knew what it was now. Something he would carry with him for the rest of his life. However short that would be.
He quickly pressed onwards to where his next unit would be. He found the same scene here as with the previous area. No sign of his men, but tracks suggesting they had fled. Had his men betrayed him? Had they been attacked? There was no sign of any battle here. He frowned deeply. What seemed like an easy campaign had now turned into a disaster.
As he came across the areas for the last two groups, he only found the same. He grew increasingly frustrated and angered. He swiftly rode to his original group, to ponder over their next move. It would be futile to attack with just eight men. Even if they did a fair amount of damage, it would be unlikely there would be anyone remaining to tell their forces at the border. No, he would have to take his remaining men and return to their base camp.
A feeling of dread washed over him as he approached his original position. His men were gone. He spat at the tracks in the grass. These were is best and most trusted men. He was sure they would not abandon him also. A noise grabbed his attention and he glanced around trying to find its' origin. Another gurgling sound followed it. It seemed as though it came from all around it. Fear crept its way into his mind. He had the overwhelming compulsion to run.
Suddenly, something splashed onto his shoulder, and across his face. He peered down at the red substance. Blood. He slowly looked upwards. Amongst the trees, hanging there was one of his men. He stifled a scream as he saw the charred remains of the man's body. The black and red armour seemed intact, as though he had boiled inside it. His stomach threatened to throw up his last meal. Without a second thought, he yanked on the reins and fled.
And here he was, slumped against a tree, after running for almost half a day.
"By the ancestors! What could have done that!" He screamed to the heavens. He covered his face with his gloved hands.
Was it possible the Empire had come up with some sick way of disposing of their enemies. He put nothing past those people. With their twisted magics and barbaric traditions. He crushed his hands into tight fists. He would get his revenge against them, he swore it.
He pushed himself to his feet and walked over to his horse. Every muscle in his body screamed at him to rest, but he knew he could not. He untied the axe from the horse's saddle and gripped it. The solid weight in his hand was reassuring. He knew, with this weapon, he could overcome any enemy, no matter the odds. He had owned it since he had come of age. A warrior's weapon was earned in their initiation rites at puberty. He battled many other youths to win the honour of holding this axe. He smiled at the fond memory.
It was instantly replaced by a searing pain in his back. He screamed out in agony as he fell to the ground. He drew in a haggered breath as he tried to regain his focus. He grabbed his axe tighter and turned to look behind him. Standing there was a short man, with ragged clothes and a dirty face. His eyes were almost black and looked through him, not at him. A smirk was planted firmly on his grubby face.
"Well, well." A raspy voice emitted from those obnoxious lips.
Hwong could feel the pain dissipate slightly as he tried to push himself up.
The other man wagged a finger at him. "Now don't get up on my account... General." He laughed quietly to himself.
"Who the hell are you?" Hwong seethed.
"That would be telling." He knelt down in front of the General, still smirking away. "How would you like this done? Same as the others?"
Hwong's eyes widened. Was this the man that killed his men? How was it possible that he could overpower a group of ten skilled warriors?
"You monster!" Hwong spat.
He lunged at the other man, swinging his axe wildly. His foe dodged backwards and stood.
"Tsk, tsk. That wasn't very polite." He was taunting him now, and it just angered him further.
Hwong managed to get himself in a standing position. "What do you want from me?" He growled.
The other man laughed. "What makes you think you're important, General. You and your pathetic men were in my way. I have to remove all vermin, you know."
With those words he darted forwards, hand outstretched. Hwong tried to dodge but he was too fast. His hand met with the black and red armour. Red flashed before Hwong's vision and his nerves cried out, feeling as though they were on fire. He could vaguely hear himself screaming before his mind went completely numb and the world around him faded into nothingness.
Author's Note: I apologise for this chapter being slightly shorter than normal but I thought it'd be a good place to leave it. :) I'll have the next one up soon.