Chapter Two: Judgement
"Behold!" declared the Water Dragon, sweeping a misty arm towards her corporeal form. "Words would not have sufficed. Look at the evil that has been done here."
Death's Hand, through his own lack of lack of independent emotion, could feel the pressure of his Master's anger and indignation as she soaked in the image of the Water Dragon's gutted body, preserved in a state of near-death. The heart bled eternally to feed the nation.
"How could they do this?" she breathed. "How could they ever believe this was acceptable?"
"It was necessary," Death's Hand replied. His new Master seemed more inclined to listen to his thoughts, such as they were. At the moment, he voiced an echo of her thoughts – those which were similar to Hai and Li's, and therefore easy to identify. "It was a grave evil committed for the greatest good. These waters feed the empire. Without them, the people would have died and the Jade Empire would be swept away."
His Master rounded on him, in the absence of Hai and Li. "Maybe that's what should have happened, if that was the natural order! It isn't up to us to play god! The Emperor might have saved the people from a drought, but he unleashed far worse – ghosts, Assassins, you, the massacre at Dirge."
Death's Hand fell silent. He was supposed to reflect the will of his master, but his new controller did not make her orders clear. So far, they had been no more specific than 'protect me and my followers'. He was automatically obligated to protect his master, and the other servants were absent – meaning that this order was void. That left him with... no instruction. It felt odd, to be given some semblance of independence, and yet still be a tool. Death's Hand was uneasy. Her lax attitude would give Sun Kin an opportunity to claw his way back in.
...Lax attitude? Blasphemy. The very fact that he was questioning his Master's ability to rule was a sign that Sun Kin's mind must be affecting him. In lieu of true direction, he would adhere to those set by Li and Hai: Strength and power by any means, forced conversion to the cause, death to dissenters.
His Master's other servants entered now, their horror and outrage mirroring hers. It seemed to be their own emotion however.
"I'll end your suffering," his Master said, her voice sharp with sincerity. "I'll restore the balance and kill Sun Li for his crimes."
The Water Dragon – whom only he and his Master could see – drifted up towards her mortal body. The waters gushing from it were beautiful. His Master lifted a spear from a slain Imperial guard, and flung it towards a mechanism that was draining the water from the Dragon's heart. As the cogs of the machine caught on the spear, it shuddered, the wooden mechanisms fracturing and setting off a chain reaction that caused the other machines to break. The power sustaining the Water Dragon in her state of almost-death was destroyed, and within moments it was done.
The other servants seemed exultant, almost forgetting their fury at his Master for binding them. Death's Hand felt a fraction of this joy himself, an extension of his Master's, presumably.
"It won't take long for Li to realise what we've done," she addressed them. "I'll take Death's Hand and face Li, the rest of you can hold off any pursuers."
"Are you are you want to take that with you?" This protest was from the unbound servant that his Master had chosen for pleasure. "What if Sun Li tries to take Death's Hand back and it turns on you?"
"It won't," she said, with more conviction than she seemed to feel. "His abilities were stolen, and mine were inherited. With the Water Dragon dead, his power is even more diminished. What matters is whether I can beat him in a fight. Death's Hand can't die, it should give me an advantage."
"If you've finished, Master, guards are coming." This was from Princess Lian, another Sun to be bound. She seemed both similar and different Hai. The one known as 'Dawn Star' was nothing like Li.
His Master glanced towards the exit and the approaching Imperial guards. No Lotus Assassins yet. She motioned for him to follow, and they made their way to the throne room, where his brother waited.
Former master Li was proving his weakness and cowardice. Or rather, he was pretending to. It was another test of his student's skill. Li would be the Strategist until he gasped his last breath. He fled to the inner sanctum, leaving Death's Hand and his new master to face the stone demons.
Blades had little effect on stone flesh – they were as resilient as Death's Hand – but enough force would shatter them like glass. His Master fought off an elephant and bull demon with a strength that was reflected in him. He was only as powerful as his masters. This one didn't possess the stolen power of the Water Dragon, but her strength was still formidable, and somehow cleaner.
Death's Hand swung his Fallen Blade into the torso of the bull demon, breaking it. He turned sharply to see his Master's sword flying towards him. Rolling out of the way, Death's Hand watched as the blade smashed into an elephant which had been poised to decapitate him.
His Master, having dealt with her own foes, retrieved her blade and made to follow Li. Death's Hand was surprised that his Master had 'saved' him. It would have been just as easy for her to let the blow connect and then revive him. It was painful for him, but little effort for her. Likely, she was too used to protecting her weak servants from harm.
"That was the final test of your ability," he warned his Master. "Brother Li is ever the Glorious Strategist."
"I'm ready for him. Soon, he'll be feeding the worms."
They marched up towards the throne room, where the would-be god was waiting, his face etched with arrogance.
Death's Hand's Master intuited silently for him to wait close at hand. She wanted to settle this matter herself, but if the fight grew dire, he was to step in and exterminate Li. It was the first direct order that she had given.
"You would challenge me, student? Ah, the impetuousness of youth. You might think yourself powerful, but I have abilities you do not."
"Won't you stop this, even for your daughter?" she spat.
"Dawn Star? She means nothing to me."
His Master grasped the hilt of her sword, pointing it in the direction of Li's throat. Death's Hand could feel her fury. "She deserves better than this. I deserved better than this, and I'll enjoy ripping you apart."
Li smirked, extending his hand towards his former student. The Master froze, as stone encased itself around her feet. The cage spread, imprisoning her within her own body. Not unlike Sun Kin's circumstances.
"You have skill, which I have taken for granted," Li informed the immobilised Spirit Monk. "But doubt can cripple any warrior. Trapped within your own mind, how do you hope to fight me?"
Death's Hand felt his connection to his Master weakening. The will which motivated and directed him was distant and without it he became only a whisper of a thought.
Li now turned his attention to his former brother. "Wu thought that you would be useful, but she should have known better. Without the body to direct it, a severed hand is useless carrion."
He closed his eyes, projecting his mind forth towards the imprisoned Spirit Monk.
Death's Hand was the only conscious being remaining in the room, but he couldn't free his Master. An opposing sensation was overwhelming him, dampening his need to help his Master. He recognised it from the recent battle at Dirge, and the early days if Emperor Hai's rule: Sun Kin.
A void was being left by his Master's absence and with every moment her influence diminished and was naturally filled by the consciousness of Kin.
Death's Hand's projection of a mind faded, and Kin regained primary control.
This heavy corpse felt unnatural in Kin's control. It had been so long since he had last used his body. He tried to drag the ungainly thing to its from the current slumped position. Kin's current captor, the Spirit Monk, was incapacitated, and Li was preoccupied. If she was killed while Kin was absent, perhaps no one could take control of him.
And what then? He didn't know. The Spirit Monk was the last of her kind – thanks in part to him – but there had to be other people out there with the ability to free him.