The soldiers stared dispassionately down at their foes. They howled and raged, clumping together, and gathering courage. Their black armour was tarnished, and their lances crooked and broken. With a roar, they suddenly surged forward, slamming into the ranks of the soldiers.
Blades flashed. Armour held firm. For the third time, the enemy assaulted the gleaming, near iridescent phalanx. For the third time they were repelled, bodies falling to earth, and laying unmoving.
Desperation and blood tinged the air.
The soldiers advanced, closing the entrapment. Each movement was perfect and drilled relentlessly. There could be no mistakes, as they felt the weight of their commander’s stare upon them.
The auxiliaries, smaller, weaker, and less armoured, milled about in holding patterns, their formations imperfect, hemming the last of these rebels in.
This last band was all that was left of the raiders who had once seemed without number. The grasslands had been scoured. The forests, purged. The duels among the reeds ended. Corpses littered the countryside, as far as the eye could see.
Though they would return next year, in greater numbers, this was their duty.
For the enemy had committed the ultimate sin, in raising their lances against the Emperor.
The largest of the rebels roared a challenge. Her black armor gleamed, her lance was still sharp. She raged, waving her weapon about, as her body swirled with Qi.
A command was given.
Blades keen edges shone. The loyal soldiers’ eyes gleamed with heavy intent.
The soldiers descended upon the enemy, power rising about them.
Their charge was met by the greatest rebel. Her speed was beyond the soldiers.
For the first time, a warrior fell as she shot past and to the side, lancing straight through the armoured form of the soldier.
There was little reaction to their comrade falling. No thought, just the simple calculation of war.
For the rebel “queen” fought alone. As the auxiliaries, and the rest of the cohort butchered the disorganized, and fleeing creatures, these warriors closed in. Their formations and tactics were unstoppable, commanded as they were by one who had fought a thousand battles.
The rebel’s spear slashed and lanced, it struck and it battered. Legs flew off. Heads were severed. Blood sprayed in the air, yet the relentless attack continued.
A nick to the leg. A strike to her midsection. Her speed and agility were superlative.
But she was slowing. She was tiring.
One of her limbs sailed through the air, her black armour cracking. One soldier rammed bodily into her, slamming her into the earth. Armour splintered, and black lance erupted from flesh.
The soldiers thanked their comrade’s sacrifice.
The rebel screamed, as she was pierced through. Her entrails spilled onto the ground. Her eyes were filled with hate, as a second blade rose high, and stabbed down, ending her life, and removing her head. Her face was fixed into a rictus of hate.
The cohort rose again, their numbers reduced, and turned their eyes to the still ongoing battle. To call it a battle was giving the rebels too much credit.
It was simply butchery.
No quarter was given to the enemy.
The Great Queen Vajra reclined upon her throne, gazing contemptuously upon the broken forms of her enemies. These damnable blood suckers, who dared attempt to sully the Emperor’s flesh with their proboscises. Death was too good for them!
She waved her abdomen, and her soldiers obeyed, carrying the bodies of the wretched creatures off to the river. How apt. Those that dared attempt to sup upon the Emperor would now be eaten in turn.
She rose from her seat to tour her fortress. The golden walls of honey stretched high and heavy. The pollen stores were packed full.
And in each and every comb, in every cell, she felt the slight charge of the Emperor’s power. Nourishing them. Empowering them.
Mayhaps in a few years she would be more powerful than any queen before her. It was a heady thought. To go from a half dead wretch, to a queen, an empress in truth.
For that to happen, however, a sacrifice had to be made.
She carefully eyed her brood, looking for ones that fit her needs. She directed the caretakers to lead her to the fattest, and plumpest specimens.
She nodded her head. These would make a fine tribute for her Emperor. Though it was always painful to sacrifice brood this way, she had declared no expense would be spared. The Emperor would receive only their finest, when he came to collect his due. None of her brood would dare raise their stingers to him.
And... it seemed that that day was today. A warning spread into her mind, that the Emperor was approaching, with the valiant and beautiful Bi De, as well as the glorious and powerful Chun Ke.
There was another human with him, a servant, but Vajra disregarded him, instead focusing upon the Emperor.
He approached one of Vajra’s servant hives, the lesser bees, and with a mental command, she quelled their burgeoning nervousness. With a slow movement he opened it to the elements. He gazed upon the lesser creatures’ work, and nodded his head.
He carefully removed three of the frames, all filed with only honey… and then closed the box again.
No brood was taken. Not a single larva. Just the honey, the frames replaced by new ones.
She was stunned. Dumbfounded even. How little tribute the Emperor took! How benevolent was his hand?!
She was so stunned she barely noticed his approach, as he opened her own hive, gaining access to her fortress.
“Yeah, definitely a different kind of bee. Look, they arranged the honey by what they harvested it from, I think. That’s pine, that one looks like peach blossom…” The Emperor’s voice was booming, both he and Bi De gazed upon her work.
“Good work, Vajra,” he praised, as he collected his meagre tribute from her.
“Definitely going to need to expand this, though. They grew way faster than I was expecting. I’ll need ten, no, twenty more hive boxes if they continue like this,” He said, and it was all Vajra could do to remain conscious. More fortresses?
How powerful was the Emperor to grant them such a bounty?!
The Queen bowed her head then danced her supplication. Her mind whirling with desire.
From the fortresses, she would not just have a new kingdom. She would have an unstoppable empire. An Empire that would spread across the whole of the Azure Hills!
Two forms slunk through the shadows, moving from rock to rock. There was little cover in the Gutter, save for the stones. They moved with purpose, slinking toward the flocks of sheep, with the shadowed moon providing them cover.
“Are you sure this place is a good mark?” one of the men asked. He was lanky and twitchy, clad in rough, ill fitting clothes. His voice was nervous, as his eyes leapt around. “Don’t they have some guardian Spirit Beast here?”
There was a snort of derision as the men continued on their path.
“Don’t tell me you actually believe that story,” the other man said, his voice mocking. “A Spirit Beast? Some tall tale to ward off any foolish enough to believe them. Like a Spirit Beast is going to guard sheep.”
The twitchy man nodded hesitantly. It did sound like some manner of a fool’s tale. Beware of Chicken. They could at least make it believable.
“Look at ‘em,” the more rotund of the two muttered, as they peeked over a rock, gazing down at the balls of fluff. “They barely have any dogs. Simple in and out. We grab one of the sheep, and eat well for a couple of days. They probably won’t even notice one is missing.”
Two sets of eyes glanced around, noting the lack of shepherds or other visible defenders. A few of the sheep had wandered this way, separating themselves from the flock. The men looked at each other and grinned.
It was rather easy to skirt the rock to head directly for the animals. They were fat and dopey looking. Their dumb eyes glancing at the humans before dismissing them as not anything to worry about. One of the beasts even approached, looking like it was going to attempt to beg them for food.
Talk about easy. But... the twitchy man still felt like something was amiss. They wouldn’t be that lax, would they?
But it seemed they were. A pair of hands grasped the sheep firmly, and started coaxing it away from the herd. The surprisingly docile beast accepted this treatment. They had gotten perhaps a quarter of a li up the hill when the relative silence of the night was shattered.
There was a yip. It was angry and aggressive sounding, but tiny.
Both men nearly jumped out of their skins, their heads whipping around, as they beheld what had caught them.
A small white furred puppy glared at them. Its entire chest expanded, as it sucked in another breath, and put its whole body behind a yip that couldn’t carry far.
The rotund man snorted at the little yips. He shook his head and attempted to coax the sheep further away but nearly ran into his partner. The twitchy man was still staring at the dog, his face pale. His lip was trembling.
“What are you—” the man asked, as he turned back around, looking to where his partner was staring, which wasn’t at the dog, but at the rock.
Or more accurately, at the shadow on the rock.
A slightly hunched, inhuman figure, a long spear held upright.
A cloud moved from the moon, revealing the shadow into sharp relief.
The slightly too long arms. The grey fur running over its back.
And the rooster’s head, that glared balefully down at them.
The rotund man did not freeze like his companion.
He dropped the sheep and turned, sprinting up the hill as fast as his legs could carry him.
There was a viscous sounding smack of flesh on flesh, and a gurgle from his friend, but the man kept running, his eyes wild, scrambling up the Gutter.
It was all for naught.
The shadowy, demonic rooster-beast cut in front of him, skidding to a stop. The man tried to change direction, and instead landed on his ass.
The hunched creature cocked its head to the side at him, slowly rising up to its full height. Its baleful red eyes reflected the light of the moon.
Beware of Chicken the sign had said.
That was no chicken, it was some manner of horrid beast! Did they sacrifice travellers to it?
Something wet the grass between his legs. His heart was thundering in his ears.
The demonic rooster beast stalked forward. The last thing the man saw was a foot hammering into his face. His head spun, as he hit the grass.
The great rooster stood atop a house, as he watched the Magistrate’s men recede into the distance. He balanced on the edge of the roof, his eyes taking in and surveying his whole domain. It was protected, as it would be. Interlopers in the night were unwelcome.
The great defender soared through the air, as he began his training, leaping and flipping through the air, as only such a creature that commanded the sky could. His spear struck in expert pattern, his form was impeccable, his balance sublime—
“Zhang Fei! Your father is asking for you!” his mother shouted. The great rooster staggered, and fell off the roof.
He managed a landing in the hay. With a groan, Zhang Fei pushed up his rooster mask.
There was a happy yip, as a small white puppy landed on his chest, licking excitedly at him.
He sighed, and gently pushed the puppy away, and it hopped down to his feet. The puppy’s tail began to wag so hard it was having trouble standing.
The boy chuckled, as he set his spear and his mask against the wall. He smiled fondly at the thing, wondering how his Master was doing.
A smaller part asked when he would return, or when Zhang Fei would go and visit this Fa Ram. it wasn’t too far away. And people were already saying that the Lord Magistrate was building more roads.
“Come on, Shaggy Two. Let's go see what dad wants,” he said.
The dog yipped happily, and pranced after him, as Zhang Fei wondered what sort of land Master Bi De’s home was.