Chapter 30: Tree Protectors
“Ride like your lives depend on it!” Bao said. And that is exactly what they did. The pounding of the horses hooves were like war drums that filled their ears as they raced north.
There was no talk or conversation. Everyone was focused on one thing: escaping.
They veered northeast as the hills began to fill with more trees, allowing them to travel faster than if they entered the thickest parts of the forest itself.
The horses were soon sweating profusely, but it almost seemed as if they could sense the danger the group was in, and focused completely on the rhythm of galloping.
When it came time, they entered the forest itself, using their knowledge of the area to pick the route most likely to be free from problems because of the recent rains.
They drew ever closer to the stronghold.
Meanwhile, the Bone General was not in such a hurry.
Despite his previous order to leave within the hour, a message arrived shortly after that from the south, something that required immediate attention. There had been an assassination attempt on a magistrate in the southern city of Hui Sheng, an incident which the Demon King took extremely seriously. The council meeting which the Bone General had just adjourned was reconvened. Deliberations with his lieutenants stretched into the hours, and soon the sky was growing dark.
The soldiers waited the entire time, ready to gallop off at a moment’s notice. In the end, though, the Bone General called for another night of rest.
The following day, the Bone General’s men set out early. They had only been riding for a short time before they came across the tracks left by the frantic flight of Bao’s group.
However, considering that the tracks headed to the northeast, and that there was little information to indicate who the group was, the Bone General simply passed them by.
Soon they were in the forest, and the luck which had befallen Bao seemed to be transferred over to them almost immediately.
A horse broke a leg and had to be put down. They got lost. Every form of misfortune seemed to hit them simultaneously.
As a result, their progress was excruciatingly slow, and the Bone General’s fury began to mount. And yet, they drew inexorably closer to the stronghold.
As soon as Bao arrived back, she issued orders to evacuate the stronghold.
Unfortunately, she quickly came to realize that it was no small task to uproot the lives of enough people to form a large town. Bags had to be packed. Wagons had to be loaded. Even the name of the Demon Emperor didn’t seem to speed them along any faster. Perhaps things might have moved more quickly if the stronghold had been engulfed with flames. In fact, Bao couldn’t help but think back to the incident at Tung-on, and seriously considered tossing oil lamps into some of the empty rooms to spur things along.
Scouts were sent out to the north and to the south. Although they were relatively familiar with the area, considering the recent storms, Bao wanted to make sure that the way north to the Chezhou River was clear. Word soon came back that the path north was without obstacle.
As for the scouts who headed south, thanks to a particularly odd way way that the path wound through a gorge, they ended up running right into two scouts that the Bone General had sent north. The two parties clashed, and Bao’s men managed to kill one of the Bone General’s scouts. The other escaped.
Based on the distances and times involved, it seemed likely that the Bone General was about one day of travel away from the stronghold at that point.
There was no time to waste. The final preparations were made, and the stronghold was emptied. They fled north at the fastest pace possible.
The entire time, Bao felt as if the Bone General were breathing down her neck. Originally she wanted to lead the group personally, but Mao Yun convinced her that it was too dangerous, and that she should ride further back in the middle.
As she rode along, Bao kept a wooden box close at hand. If necessary, she could open that wooden box at a moment’s notice, and don her Phoenix Crown. An idea had taken root in her heart, a possibility that seemed preposterously dangerous. And yet, if worse came to worst, and they ended up being cornered or trapped by the Bone General, she wouldn’t hesitate to use the crown.
When night fell, they lit torches and lamps and proceeded through the forest despite the darkness. Bao didn’t push them through the entire night, though. A few hours after nightfall they set up camp to rest.
The following morning they woke with the sun and continued north. Before long, the trees began to thin out, and they could tell that they had reached the border of the forest.
At a certain point only about an hour after they began moving, Mao Yun fell back to ride next to Bao and said, “We’re being followed.”
She looked over at him and cocked an eyebrow.
“Not the Bone General,” he added.
He shrugged. “Three men and two women wearing plain clothing. They’re spread out about ten meters apart from each other. Shadowing us about thirty meters to the east. No weapons visible. Quite odd if you ask me.”
Bao frowned. “Keep an eye on them.”
He nodded and rode back toward the front of the procession.
An hour later, Mao Yun fell back again. “More people, this time to the west.”
“What about the group to the east?”
“They’re still there, just walking along at the same pace.”
Over the course of the following hours, the number of people flanking them grew. There were men and women, young and old, all of them dressed in plain greenish clothing, without a weapon to be seen on any of them. More people were visible further off in the distance. Eventually it reached the point that Mao Yun and Bao were convinced that they were outnumbered.
Some time in the hours before evening,they reached a part of the forest that looked different than the others. The forest in general was filled with a wild assortment of trees and vegetation, but this area had only small maple trees, and virtually no other vegetation. It almost seemed like a grove.
At that point Mao Yun called a halt and then rode back yet again to confer with Bao.
“There’s a group of people up ahead led by a woman. She demands to speak to the leader.”
Bao looked down at the wooden case she held in her hands and gritted her teeth. Well aware that the Bone General could be arriving at any moment, she decided that now wasn’t the time to worry about ethics. Without any further hesitation, she opened the box and put the Phoenix Crown on her head, then rode forward.
Up ahead was a group of about twenty people, led by a beautiful woman. Oddly, the group stood between two large maple trees that had carvings of faces on their trunks. The faces’ eyes were closed, but their expressions seemed to be twisted in pain. It was a very disconcerting sight.
As for the beautiful woman, she wore a fine green gown, and was festooned with jewelry made from blue pearls. There was something strange about the way she carried herself, almost as if she looked down upon all other living things. Although Bao was certain that she had never seen this woman before, there was something about her that seemed strangely familiar. After a moment, she realized that the way the woman carried herself reminded her of the Phoenix Demon in the falling star.
Is she an Immortal? Bao thought. A Goddess? A Demon?
The woman smile as Bao approached.
“Greetings, young woman,” she said. “Are you the leader of this… group?”
Bao nodded. “Yes, my Lady. We’re traveling north. Urgently.”
“I see. May I ask where you’re traveling from? Do you, by any chance, come from the stronghold to the south?”
Bao’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps….”
“The stronghold to the south is built out of trees harvested from this forest, correct?” The woman’s eyes glittered in a way that caused Bao’s heart to tremble.
“I didn’t build the stronghold,” Bao said. “My Lady, we just want to leave this forest and cross the river to the north. If you have no pressing business, may I request that we be allowed to pass?”
This is ridiculous. We could crush these people like dried twigs if they tried to fight us.
“So you do come from the stronghold,” the woman said, her expression turning grim. “That’s quite sad. For you, at least. This forest has a new ruler. Me.”
Bao was slightly taken aback. “Ruler of the forest? My Lady, I don’t care at all about this forest. You can have it. We just want to leave.”
Shockingly, the woman’s face twisted into a furious scowl. “You don’t care about the forest? My forest? You chop down the trees here, torture them into your foul furniture? Burn it to cook your disgusting meat? Murderers! Barbarians! ANIMALS!” By this point she was screeching at the top of her lungs. “Disciples, kill them! I want a chair made from human flesh and bone!”
At this point, the eyes of the faces on the trees opened up, and their mouths gaped wide as they let out bellows of fury. At the same time, crackling sounds could be heard as arm-like branches stretched out from the trunks of the trees toward Bao.
Faces twisting with rage, the disciples surrounding the woman reached into their garments to produce blue pearls. Most shocking of all was that the countless maple trees which surrounded them began to twist and distort as they transformed into people.
Despite the fact that it was like a scene from a nightmare, Bao kept her cool. The fighters among her group all began to draw their weapons, but the last thing she wanted was a fight.
Before anything else could happen, she raised her voice and said, “If any of you move a muscle, you’ll die instantly!”
The bizarre trees stopped moving, as did most of the men and women in green robes. The transformed trees looked around in confusion, but still seemed capable of movement.
As for the woman, her face twitched, and she slowly shook her head.
“Who are you? That aura… it’s so familiar. It’s the aura of… no, impossible! How dare you try to compel me against my will! HOW DARE YOU!!!” With an ear-piercing scream, the woman threw her hands out to her sides and suddenly began to change shape. Her skin turned dark and brown, and she began to grow taller. Her hair transformed into leaves, and her feet became roots that sank down into the ground. In the space of a few breaths of time, she had transformed into a towering maple tree.
Her face was still visible though, and it was distorted with rage. “I am Shu Shu, and I am the ruler of this forest. I don’t care what your relationship is with Mistress Phoenix, you will die this day!”
Bao’s scalp tingled with fear. This has got to work! Come on, Bao, you can do it!
“Lady Shu Shu, hear my words!” she said. “We are not your enemies. We are lovers of the forest, protectors of the trees! We simply wish to pass by!”
Shu Shu’s lips twitched, but after a moment, her face went calm. “You are lovers of the forest….”
“Yes. We are tree protectors. You want to let us pass!”
Shu Shu blinked. “Of course. Disciples, let these tree protectors pass!”
The transformed trees seemed confused, as did the other disciples, but they didn’t argue. The disciples put their blue pearls back into their robes, and the transformed trees returned to their tree form.
The gigantic trees flanking Shu Shu closed their eyes.
Heart pounding, Bao looked back at Mao Yun. “Let’s go. Now.”
A few hours later, the Bone General was conferring with a scout, some distance to the south.
“Sir, there is an odd maple grove up ahead. Their tracks lead right through it.”
“A maple grove? Are there people present?”
“Yes, none of them armed. Perhaps a village of timbermen.”
The Bone General frowned. “Very well. If they resist, we’ll tie them to their own trees and burn them alive.”