Chapter 29: Scouts
Wang Tian suffered a broken arm, but nothing more. They strapped the carcass of the Fei Beast onto the cart they had brought with them for that very purpose, and then headed back toward the cave of Ruan the Flamingo.
The return trip seemed to go by much faster than the journey to track down the Fei Beast.
Before long, the cave was in sight, and this time, Ruan the Flamingo was waiting outside for them. He and the disciple were outside sharing a meal when Bao and the others approached on horseback. When Ruan saw the body of the Fei Beast, he leaped to his feet in surprisingly nimble fashion.
“Incredible!” he exclaimed, placing his crutch underneath his armpit and hobbling over to examine the creature.
“It went surprisingly smoothly,” Bao said as Ruan poked and prodded the beast. “How is the work on the fallen star?”
“Oh, it’s finished.”
Bao was taken aback. “Finished? But I thought you needed the Fei Beast’s eye?”
“Hmm?” Ruan looked up. “Oh, no. I just said I was missing an ingredient. I never said the ingredient was for the work with your star.”
Bao gritted her teeth. “So we just risked our lives for nothing?”
“No, of course not. That was simply the price for my services. Would you like to see the result?”
Bao felt like smacking the man across the side of the face, but instead, she took a deep breath and hopped off her horse. “Yes, I would.”
Ruan had apparently become very comfortable with the disciple she had left behind, because he quickly ordered the young man to butcher the Fei Beast and store in the “prescribed method.” The young man immediately nodded, but a moment later, turned questioningly toward Bao. She, in turn, nodded, and then followed Ruan back into his cave.
He led her to the same room they had met in before. This time, there was a wooden box on the table, simple but elegant. After they sat, Ruan reached out and put his hand onto the lid.
“I have to be honest, Chieftess Bao,” he said. “Working with your fallen star was both easier than I had anticipated, and more difficult. Whatever demon or entity is inside of it is powerful indeed. However, the method you used to tame or seal it… is profound. I won’t ask the details, but suffice to say that you have my utter respect.
“As I worked with it, the materials began to take shape on their own. It was almost as if the item created itself. Considering that I didn’t touch it, I have no idea its properties or what it’s capable of, but my instincts tell me that they will be a lesser version of whatever it could do in its raw form. For example, if before it could shine with the light of a hundred stars, now it will probably shine with the light of twenty stars, or perhaps fifty.
“But again, I can’t be sure. If the item was dangerous to you before, I would suggest exercising caution in using it now.”
“I understand,” Bao said.
Without any further words, Ruan lifted the lid of the box.
Inside was the fallen star, but no longer was it an ugly rock. It was a crown, as blue as the sky on a summer day, decorated with intricate feather and floral patterns, as well as pearls, gemstones, and gold. Within the flowers, she could see three dragons and five phoenixes. Strangely, the dragons were gold, and the phoenixes were bright red.
“This looks like… a wedding crown?” she murmured.
“Yes, I was surprised as well. Like I said, it took shape on its own. It was almost as if I weren’t even doing the work myself. See the gold and pearls, and the gemstones? They came out from within the starstone. I didn’t add them. I’m not sure if there were actually such items hidden within, or whether they were somehow transformed as if by alchemy.” He shrugged. “I’ve worked with many strange objects and powers before, but this was one of the strangest experiences. Most strange of all was… the screaming.”
Bao looked up. “What do you mean?”
“Several times during the process, I heard screaming, faint, but powerful. Whatever was locked inside of that star, and now the crown, was not happy.”
Bao didn’t respond. Instead, she reached out slowly toward the crown. As her hand neared, she half expected something to happen, but nothing did. When her fingers touched the crown itself, she felt as if a burning, freezing wind were blasting her mind.
The sensation quickly passed. She picked up the crown and put it onto her head. Somehow, she could tell that the phoenix was still in the crown, restless, angry, but unable to do anything to her. Having best it in a battle of will, it would now be forever subservient to her.
“Well?” Ruan asked.
“It fits perfectly,” Bao replied.
“And the… effects?”
“You don’t want to know what it does,” she said.
He instantly nodded. “That’s true, I don’t want to know.”
She smiled. So, it does work as I expected it would….
With that, she took off the crown and placed it back into the box. Then she clasped hands and bowed her head toward Ruan. “Many thanks.”
He grinned. “It was nothing.”
It would have been difficult for the trip back to the stronghold to go any worse without it turning into a complete disaster. They got lost three times. They got caught in a torrential downpour twice. One of them lasted for three straight days. One of the horses broke a leg and had to be put down. Two disciples came down ill.
Bao almost wondered if it had something to do with the crown.
It got worse when they entered the forest, which was about the time that the final bout of rainfall set in. Because of the dark clouds, the choking rivers of mud, the fallen trees, and other such things, their path was almost determined for them.
It was one of the most miserable things Bao had ever experienced, and that included being kidnapped and locked in a cage.
Eventually they actually emerged from the forest itself, and found themselves on a hilly part of the mostly flat lands between Tung-on and Fan. For the time being they were content to be out of the forest, and simply set up camp and waited for the rain to pass.
When the rain clouds finally belched out the last raindrops, it was late in the evening. The stars came out, and the wind blew. The entire party breathed a sigh of relief, and Bao issued orders that everyone rest for the morning. They would set out at noon for the stronghold.
The following morning after breakfast, a scout was sent out as usual. When he came galloping back into camp less than ten minutes later, Bao’s heart started to pound.
“Chieftess,” the scout said, “there’s a large force on horseback, just to the east. Only a few hills that way.” He pointed in the general direction. “They’re definitely Demon Emperor soldiers.”
“What were they doing?”
“Nothing at the moment, just sitting there. Looks like they were doing the same thing we were, camping out the rain.”
Bao bit her lip. It could be nothing, just a patrol or something. But he said a large force. “How many were in this large force?”
“About fifty, Chieftess.”
That’s no patrol, it’s more like an army.
“I want to take a closer look. Mao Yun, you stay here, get the men ready to move. I’ll be back shortly.” Looking at the scout, she said, “You lead the way.”
It was a short ride over a couple hills. Eventually, Bao dismounted, leaving her horse with the scout while she crawled to the top of the hill overlooking the camp. Just as the scout had said, the soldiers weren’t doing anything at the moment.
However, it only took a moment before Bao’s heart began to pound. In the center of the camp was one particularly large tent, outside of which stood two men wearing very distinctive armor. Armor made of bone.
The Bone General!?
Moments later, someone rode into the camp from the north, a soldier who was clearly a scout. After dismounting, he hurried over to the tent in the center of the camp, and was admitted by the bone-armored soldiers.
From the direction he was riding, it’s not likely he came from Tung-on. Which leaves only… the Little Demon Forest. The Bone General has finally come back for us!
There was no more time for contemplation. Bao scurried back down the hill and then used a bit of the energy in her body to propel her through the air as she literally jumped up into the saddle.
She and the horse hurried back to camp. When she arrived she was pleased to see that everyone was already prepared to move.
Not bothering to mince words, she said in loud voice, “It’s the Bone General. And he’s likely going to be heading to our stronghold. We need to get back and warn everyone right away!”
Eyes went wide, and faces drained of blood. Bao didn’t give them any more time to think. “Let’s go!”
Back in the very camp Bao had just been observing, in the central tent, the Bone General sat with his top lieutenants, listening to the report of the scout.
The scout described Bao’s stronghold in detail, including how many people were there, the defensive capabilities, the surrounding terrain, the path leading to the stronghold, and numerous other details.
When he was finished, the Bone General said, “What about the girl? This ‘Chieftess Bao?’”
“I didn’t see her. I suspect she might not be there.”
“Hmm. I see. I think the best move would be to take action immediately. If the girl is there, we take her. If not, we extract her location from the people she left behind. We’ll get to her eventually. Any other opinions?”
One of his lieutenants took a deep breath and said, “Perhaps we should send a squads around to the north and west. If she is in the stronghold, she’ll likely flee either to the river or into the mountains.”
“Agreed,” said the Bone General. “Make the preparations. We leave within the hour.”