A clash in the woods.
Written July 2020
In a large artificial clearing in the woods, a small gathering of buildings stood. There was a cookhouse, a meeting hall, storehouses, and several communal houses – two of them being dragon-sized. Yet, this cluster of buildings couldn’t be called much more than that. It was not even close to a village. The buildings themselves were shoddily constructed, with wooden boards and beams having been cut and assembled by amateurs. Despite this, there was life here. People went about their days around and inside these buildings.
Shun smirked as he crept up on the sunbathing dragon, doing his best to hide his mental presence and keep the item he was carrying balanced at the same time. The sun was rising in the west, but was high enough for the centre of the clearing, in which the dragon lay, to be free from the shadows of the trees.
An unnatural effect he’d seen many times before was visible around the dragon. It was like the opposite of a candle in a dark room emitting an aura of light. Everything near the dragon darkened, with even its gold and white colours seeming less lustrous. However, the darkness was not total – and the dragon could still be clearly seen.
As he snuck closer, Shun heard giggling behind him. He cast a resentful glance towards its source, and it ceased. Turning back to his quarry, he snuck closer – treading as lightly as he could on the dirt.
The dragon stirred, gouging grooves into the dirt as it flexed its clawed fingers. Shun froze in place.
“You are about as stealthy as a hatchling, Shun.” The dark aura disappeared as the dragon opened its eyes to look at Shun.
“At least I got close to you this time, Zhi!”
“I noticed you even before Guating giggled.”
“But you didn’t notice me right from when I left the cookhouse?”
“No, I did not.”
Shun puffed up his chest and continued his approach. “Not bad for a mind-blind human like me!”
“No, you’re still pretty bad. Hiding one’s presence is in an entirely different league to basic mental blocking. Since it seems Cande’s people are gone for good, I guess Jin and I will need to keep training you and the others. Though, I never liked teaching. Maybe you can do it instead, since you were doing the best.” He raised his head and repositioned his forelegs as Shun reached him, allowing Shun to sit down carefully and lean against his chest.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for the blind to lead the blind,” mumbled Shun as he ate from the bowl he’d been carrying. “Anyways, thanks for catching that deer. You sure you don’t want some of the soup?”
“Jin or I shall go hunting again later. You humans need to eat more urgently.”
Shun expressed his appreciation again and continued eating.
“I sense something is on your mind, Shun?”
He opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated. He thought for a while longer on what he wanted to ask before putting it to words. “Why are we staying here?”
“Cande’s people are involved in something much bigger. Didn’t you hear Wei saying something about the emperor’s shadow hunting them? I don’t know what that is supposed to be a metaphor for, but we don’t want to be a part of that.”
“You mean Jin doesn’t want to be a part of that.”
“We make our decisions together, just as we lead the group together. You were given an opportunity to leave with Cande, but you stayed.”
“Come on, Zhi… You’ve known me for my whole life. I’ve always wanted adventure. That’s why you convinced me to leave home with you. I enjoyed being with Cande’s people. The training, the intel about targets to hit, the spoils we got, and so on. I felt like I was contributing to something, even if I knew nothing about it. I would gladly have joined them, but I didn’t want to leave you behind. Just as you don’t want to leave Jin behind. You two may be mates, but you, Quing, Gauting, and I are village-family. We’ve already left too much family behind.”
Zhi did not speak, not even when Shun looked at him for a response. Yet, his expression told Shun that he was thinking about what he’d said.
“We three’ve been talking,” Shun continued. “Since we’re not going with Cande after a mere whiff of the imperial force scared him off, we don’t know when or where to attack the rich imperials and merchants after Cande left, and we don’t even have their guns anymore, why don’t we just go home? What we’ve got here is only a mockery of a town, and a mockery of a free life. We’re still under the empire’s yoke, hoping they don’t find us and take their due.”
“You want to go back to Saitai while the imperial force is posted there specifically to prevent us from resupplying there? Old Fenlan has probably told them all about us.”
“Why not? We can leave our weapons here and pretend we’re travellers returning home after a long time. Or we could try to sneak back in. Or just hide at my father’s barn until the army is gone. Please come with us. Jin can come too. Perhaps she can settle for once. I guess the others can go back to their home villages too, if they want. Or stay here if it suits them. They’ll have more than enough people to rob merchants if they can find them without first getting found by the law-keepers.”
Zhi was silent for some time before saying, with much uncertainty, “I’ll think about it. And I’ll talk to Jin.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it.” Gently placing his bowl on the ground, Shun turned around and hugged Zhi’s neck, although his arms did not go far. While he was doing this, the dragon suddenly jerked and stiffened. “Zhi? Are you ok?”
The response was croaky and strained, “We’re… under… attack…”
It took Shun a moment to process this, but as soon as he had, he shouted what his friend had said for all to hear. “We’re under attack! Grab your weapons!” He dashed to his house to grab his sword and spear.
A wave of panic spread across the camp as everyone dropped what they were doing, grabbing their tools of violence, and then… wondered where the enemies were.
“I hope this isn’t a prank, Shun,” called someone, as the alarmist exited his ramshackle home – still fastening his sword belt with one hand as he carried the spear in the other.
“No,” he pointed to the dragon who still lay on the dirt, stiff and straining against something invisible. “Zhi is being mentally attacked. Huan, check on Jin!”
Huan ran to Jin and Zhi’s shelter, looking inside for a moment before shouting, “She is too! Everyone group up! Protect your minds!”
Almost two dozen men and women edged their way towards the centre of their encampment, eyes darting around the forest edge, searching for whatever threat approached. Zhi, no longer even able to hold his head up, was now quivering on the ground in some desperate unseen struggle.
Shun turned to his sense of hearing, hoping to find something the others could not. Gentle breaths of wind passed through the area, causing foliage to rustle at random. His comrades’ heavy breathing revealed their fear. Birds in all directions had gone silent. Cracking of sticks, movement through the bushes. The sounds seemed to be coming from multiple directions. “I think we’re surrounded.”
Suddenly, three men burst out into cries of terror and sprinted madly eastward.
“Xinbi!” yelled one.
“There’s too many!” cried another.
A couple people followed them, while the rest of the group immediately turned to face westward. Shun saw movement. White, gold, and the gleam of metal. “It’s just dragons,” he tried to reassure his comrades. “Xinbi don’t hunt in packs. This must be some kind of trick.” The dragons continued a steady approach through the trees, becoming visible enough to distinguish that there were in fact three of them. Two scrivens clad in light armour, and an orange dragon the likes of which Shun had never seen before.
“What kind of dragon is that?!” asked Huan.
While the armour-clad scrivens were noticeably larger than Zhi and Jin, the orange one was far shorter – with a stocky build and legs that looked too short for its body. As Shun and his friends lowered their pikes and spears, the dragon spread its wings – revealing a disproportionately large wingspan. Two of three crystals which had been floating behind the orange one’s head rapidly flew to the left and right before coming to rest midair on opposite sides of the group.
A handful more bandits broke ranks, sprinting eastward while screaming nonsense in their terror. “Hold your ground!” shouted Shun, but he realised that simply holding ground would not work if people kept fleeing. He was certain the orange dragon was the one scaring off his friends, as it seemed to be making an attempt at looking intimidating. Though it looked less so to him than the scrivens.
He realised the only way they’d stand a chance against the dragons was if they stuck together. They needed to attack before more people ran. The dragons had passed the edge of the clearing, and would soon be between the widely spaced ramshackle houses. Maybe if the men used the houses cleverly, they could win this? Or distract the dragons long enough for Zhi or Jin to break free and help. Yes, surely the dragons couldn’t fight both mentally and physically at the same time. He’d been told that mental battles take great concentration.
Yet, just as he opened his mouth to speak, the clash of metal against metal sounded behind him. Turning around, he was horrified to see dozens of imperial soldiers emerging from the forest in the east. Ming, who was last standing amongst those who’d fled, was desperately blocking the blows from two soldiers in front of him, before a third came behind him and dealt a heavy blow to his head with the pommel of their sword. He crumpled into the long grass like a child’s doll.
The blast of gunpowder sounded, accompanied by a puff of smoke from further within the trees. Men and women around Shun yelped in fright.
“Surrender now, outlaws,” one of the armoured dragons declared loudly, “and we will not have to harm you. Do not attempt to flee, or you will be shot.” The armoured dragons had quickened their approach, while the orange one remained further back.
“We’ve heard what the empire does to its prisoners!” Gauting yelled. “I’d rather die than surrender!”
Agreeing with her sentiment, and not wanting to allow the time for the soldiers to get closer nor the dragons to scare off anyone else, Shun shouted, “Harden your minds! Charge the dragons!” Firmly gripping his spear in both hands, he charged for the dragon who’d not spoken. He did not care how many of his friends had followed, but focused on identifying the gaps in the dragon’s armour and protecting his mind.
He did as he had been taught. He focused on his body, and on keeping it moving exactly how he wanted it to. Unseen forces did push him this way and that, but they were not powerful enough to take him from his feet. From the shouts behind him, Shun understood that not everyone had managed to resist.
As he reached the line of houses, the crystal that remained behind the orange dragon flashed almost as bright as the sun, making Shun instinctively shield his eyes and leaving the dragon’s silhouette burnt into his retinas. When he looked again, there were now a dozen armoured dragons before him, all standing and imperiously waiting for him to charge them. It took him several paces to come to a halt, just beyond reach of the nearest dragon.
He took a couple steps backwards, still holding his spear ready, and the dragons simultaneously stepped forward. He saw an arrow, likely from Gauting, fly right through one dragon without causing the slightest harm. “Which one of you is real?! Cease this trickery!”
Just then, an unarmoured dragon tackled one of the clones. “Run!” It was Zhi.
Shun saw a couple of others making a break for the forest, but he set his sights on the pair of dragons that tussled furiously on the grass. Zhi, being smaller, unarmoured, and probably less trained, was at a clear disadvantage. He squirmed and thrashed about, but was soon pinned.
This was when Shun resumed his charge, blasts from muskets sounding behind him. He did not shout as others might have, giving him a vital few more moments before the dragon noticed him. They shifted and swung their tail, but it was low enough for Shun to leap over the armoured appendage and its metal-cased blade.
Stabbing his spear into the gap in the chain mail at the wing base, Shun was rewarded with a roar of pain. He released the spear, sunk as it was into the dragon’s side, and reached for his sword.
Yet, he failed to get a hold of it before the dragon had turned its attention to him. It took a vicious swipe at him, forcing him to jump backwards. Then a second swipe came before he had regained his footing, which would surely had meant the death of him if something had not knocked him over. He had just enough time to notice a crystal above him, before he heard a frustrated growl and felt himself being jerked backwards. He raised his head and saw another swipe from the dragon slashing the dirt where he had just been.
“Leave him alone!” Came a cry from Zhi, who again jumped upon the dragon. Shun tried to get up, but found the force keeping him down too stubborn to overcome. All he could do now was watch.
Zhi was on the dragon’s uninjured side and tried desperately to reach over. To the spear. Instead, his opponent managed to sink their teeth into his wing base and drag him away. He responded by sinking his teeth into their good wing arm. A brief painful tug of war ensued, blood trickling from both dragons’ mouths. Zhi was quickly thrown back to the ground, claws firmly gripping his throat. As soldiers closed in around them, he didn’t even try squirming anymore.
A calm returned to the glade. They had lost the battle.
Shun and his friends’ hands were bound behind their backs. The bindings were joined together evenly by one very long rope that connected everyone. This spacing was not very wide, and they sat shoulder to shoulder in the centre of their mock-village while their homes were upturned. Any findings were reported to a man who stood at the centre of the clearing, flanked by two guards and staring intently at the prisoners.
Zhi and Jin were kept on opposite sides of the clearing, each guarded by one of the armoured dragons – one of whom was being ministered to by medics. Shun wasn’t able to get a good look at everyone bound with him, but knew there were people missing. Whether dead or escaped, he did not know.
While looking around, he again spotted that orange dragon. The crystals had returned to floating behind its head. Wherever it went, two people – who wore more comfortable-looking travel clothes instead of soldiers’ armour – followed. One of the people looked like he couldn’t be much older than his teens. The three had been talking to the uninjured scriven, who held Jin, but now approached the centre.
The officer saw their approach and, when they were near enough, spoke. “I assume you wish to return to Saitai?” This perked Shun’s interest. There was no way that these three were from his hometown. Could they have moved there in the years he’d been gone? Why would a dragon like that want to move to an insignificant town in the middle of nowhere? Far more likely that they came with the army, but then why did they want to leave before the soldiers?
“Yes, after one final matter.”
“Ah, of course. Your payment.” Mercenaries, then. “When you return to the camp, speak to my quartermaster and repeat the phrase ‘orange flames burn upon green leaves’.”
“I didn’t do this for payment, nor did I do it for free. I was asked to save lives, and I saw the opportunity to further my goals. You know that I came to your empire to learn about its lands and its peoples. This includes recording the stories of individuals I deem interesting enough to record. I ask that you let me speak to two prisoners. One dragon, and one human. I do not aim to interfere with your interrogations, but rather to learn about their life. Is this acceptable?”
“I am afraid not. Once we finish here, we will take these prisoners to the Guigong imperial prison. It’s south. Near the borders to the Lao Thinh province.” There were some stifled gasps from behind Shun, but his friends were too scared to react louder. The soldiers had already dished out some beatings to those who spoke out of turn. “If you wish to speak to them, you can travel with us to ask the warden for visitation permission. Though the likelihood of that being granted is low enough that I’d say it’s a waste of your time.”
“I find this disappointing.”
“I am afraid that is how it is. But I’m sure the villagers will have just as interesting stories for you, minus the robbing and murdering of innocent travellers and merchants. You met Fenlan already. You are still welcome to collect your payment on your way through my camp.”
“Very well. We shall depart shortly.”
“Thank you for your aid, Kennissoeker. You certainly saved many lives today.”
The dragon nodded, then walked off with its two companions. They stopped walking and started talking some distance off – just far enough that Shun could not make out what they were saying.
“I commend you for standing with your friend instead of fleeing. Although, the latter would have been wiser.” A thought that was clearly not his came into Shun’s mind. He was startled by this, but quickly calmed himself so he wouldn’t draw attention. He’d experienced this sensation before, when Zhi spoke into his mind.
“Are you the orange one?” he thought, knowing whoever it was would be able to ‘hear’ the thoughts he put into words.
“Yes. I am Irikshan Kennissoeker.”
“How do I know?”
“I will stretch my wings now.” Sure enough, the dragon did so. Shun noticed that the dragon still seemed to partake in the conversation with the people in front of it. He then turned his gaze away from the dragon so that the soldiers would not catch him staring.
“Did your crystal save my life during the fight?”
“It did, at my command.”
“What do you want?”
“To ask questions.”
“Why should I answer?”
“I am not with the empire. I am from Tumenzar – one of the dragon enclaves in Vrakura. Human kingdoms conquered by the empire nearly entirely surround us. As I said to the major, I have come to the empire to learn more about its culture and people. What I did not say is that I wish for some… alternate perspectives too. Not everything I have seen sits right with me. Especially considering I am required to have two imperial mages following me everywhere, and that no one has any serious complaints about the empire to tell me with them around. Even though I have never seen them threaten anyone.” The dragon presented memories, far clearer and sharper than any of Shun’s, of distant places and lands he’d never seen. The dragon tried to impress its honesty upon Shun. While he was not fully convinced this was not a trick, what he and the soldier had said to one another seemed to support this. He decided he’d take the risk of continuing to speak to the dragon.
“Can’t the mages hear you speaking to me now?”
“They know I am talking to you. I told them I would ask you some quick questions before we departed. But I do not sense them listening in. So, what can you tell me?”
“I don’t really know what to say. I’m from Saitai, but left because I wanted to be more than just be another imperial farmer. If you are indeed returning to my hometown, see if you can talk to Fen without the mages. Tell her I sent you. She’ll be able to tell you a more honest version of her tapestries’ tales if she doesn’t have to worry about being reported. And she’ll be able to tell you about our lives before we left. Please tell her that Zhi, Quing, Guanting, and I – Shun – are all still alive. For now, at least. Knowing her, she’ll still be worried about us.”
“Can you tell me why she addresses herself in plural? I sensed her mind was abnormal. What happened to her?”
“We used to have two guardians. Mates, as is tradition. Fen and Lan. I am not sure if this is common for your kind, but mates who care greatly for each other will sometimes wish to be together in mind, not only body. Fen and Lan were joined for many centuries and lost the distinction between one another. The villagers sometimes called them Fenlan and Lanfen. I never saw them together, however. Lan died three decades ago, not long before I was born. Yet, for as long as I can remember, Fen has acted as if Lan were still part of her.”
“I understand. Thank you, I shall speak to her.”
“The soldiers seem to think there were more bandits than just you. They want to find the other group. Can you tell me anything about them?”
“Not really. They weren’t really with us. They told us when and where to strike, but didn’t share anything they didn’t need to. They were part of something bigger. A resistance of some sort. Maybe Jin will be able to tell you more.”
“I cannot speak to her with that Captain Zhu guarding her.”
“Then I’m afraid you will need to learn about them some other way.”
“I doubt I will find one. But I thank you. Sadly, I cannot do much except wish you luck.”
“Wait! Before you go, there is one thing you can do.”
“What is that?”
“It can be something subtle. Slow enough for you to leave before I die. Please. I don’t want to end up in Guigong. We’ve all heard the horror stories of what they do to those who resist, and those who associate with resistance.”
There was a long silence. “I am no killer. Farewell.”
“So instead you sentence me to a worse fate.” But there was no response. The dragon and its mages walked away, into the forest.